This week I read the exchanges on the Villanova Rivals board to catch up on the rumors that the Big East will split & that the football schools will take a few basketball schools with them. In the course of the exchanges, opinions were offered: first, that Villanova must upgrade football in order to stay with the football schools & thereby keep their rising basketball program competitive or fall to a mid-major along with the other basketball-only schools and second, that it was the fault of the basketball-only schools that an Eastern powerhouse all-sports conference wasn't formed in the early '80s when Joe Pa floated the idea.
Why do either of these myths persist in the face of facts to the contrary?
The idea that college basketball is now in the hands of BCS football conferences is unsupported by the facts. Plenty of Non-BCS schools have flourished in recent years; in fact they've been experiencing a resurgence within the past decade alone. UConn built the foundations of its present program in the '90s & won a national championship in '99 without a IA football program. They then won a second championship in 2003 still without a BCS program even though by that time football had been upgraded to IA.
Who among the recent national champions has a dominant football program even it they are in a BCS conference? North Carolina? Syracuse? Maryland? Duke? Who among the traditional powers that still dominate the sport has ever excelled in football? Kentucky? Indiana? Kansas? As always, it still seems to be a rarity to excel in both major sports.
Louisville, Marquette, Utah, & UMass have all gone to the Final Four in the past decade in addition to UConn without the benefit of BCS football or without any football at all. Look just beyond the Final four to the Elite Eight & you'll find numerous non-BCS programs competing annually at this level. In the past decade there have been: Gonzaga, Tulsa, Kent State, Xavier, St. Joe's, Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, & UConn twice more in addition to their NC seasons. In addition, Temple went twice from a non-BCS basketball league & with a football program that was BCS in name only.
Excluding Temple, 20% of the Elite Eight spots have gone to non-BCS & basketball-only schools in the past 10 years. So why are Villanova fans worried that a Big East split will leave the basketball-only schools unable to compete & doomed to "mid-major" status? The evidence clearly shows that such schools can build successful program even today & that the ideas that drove Big East of the '80s to success can still be viable today.
The other myth is that the basketball schools ruined things for Eastern football. How did this idea ever get legs? Penn State was a founding member of the basketball-only Eastern Eight in 1976 & kept their football independence when they could have opted to do the work that would have led to an all-sports conference at that time. This was 3 years before the Big East even existed.
In the late '70s ADs from Providence, St. John's, & Georgetown began conversations about forming a premier Eastern basketball league. These were basketball-only schools & basketball was their agenda. Syracuse quickly agreed to join them. They then looked for 4 other schools to join them in the formation of a league. UConn, Villanova, Holy Cross, & Rutgers were approached. UConn & Villanova agreed (although Villanova needed an extra year to get out of its commitment to the Eastern Eight) while Holy Cross & Rutgers declined. BC & Seton Hall were approached as alternatives & accepted.
Within a year or two after the formation of the Big East, Joe Pa was putting out feelers for his all-sports league. Was he just being a good AD & trying to use football to leverage an invitation to Big East Basketball after it had quickly surpassed the Eastern Eight? Or was he serious about an all-sports league? No one will ever know, but the fact is that he didn't need the Big East to form an all-sports league. Even after Pitt had joined the Big East in 1982, he could still have proceeded with his proposal with West Virginia, Rutgers, & UMass, thereby pulling together the 4 major large state flagships in the region, all of whom were already affiliated in the Eastern Eight. Available to add to this core were Temple, Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State, Army, Navy, Holy Cross, etc.
Joe Pa was a day late & a dollar short with his idea. He waited until after both the Eastern Eight & the Big East had been formed instead of pursuing an all-sports concept from the beginning when the momentum had developed for Eastern schools to form conferences from schools that had previously been independent. He acted as if such a conference depended on including Syracuse & BC.
The Big East had taken risks. They saw a rising power at UConn, a school that had not previously been an elite program, & grabbed them. When they were turned down by Rutgers, they forged ahead & substituted Seton Hall, which was at the time a mediocre program at best. When they were turned down by Holy Cross, they turned to BC despite rumors of betting scadals that were beginning to surface. BC won the conference regular season in its second year, Seton Hall became a Final Four team within a decade, & UConn has dominated the conference since 1990. Their risks paid off. Joe Pa was not a visionary, was not a good salesman, & was not a risk taker.
Despite their clear mission as a basketball league, the Big East basketball schools did everything they could to accomodate their football members - first, by adding Pitt & Miami to insure prime football independent opponents for the Syracuse & BC football schedules and then by sponsoring Big East Football. Those who signed on for Big East Football in 1991 knew what they were getting into - a basketball first league. If the hybrid was a bad idea, it was a bad idea for the football schools to seek membership in such a confederation. If the basketball schools later got in their way with a different agenda, then it was a bad idea to affiliate with them in the first place.
The Big East was started by a group of baskeball-only schools as a basketball league. It amazes me that people then blame the league's founding members for getting in the way of the johhny-come-latelies who begged for admission to this basketball league in the first place. The schools that killed an Eastern football conference were the football schools themselves. Syracuse & Bc could have left at any time to join Penn State & others in such an endeavor. Even without BC & Syracuse, the others could have formed such a conference at any time in the next decade prior to Penn State's admission to the Big Ten. Even without Penn State, the others could have split at any time in the following decade before Miami, BC, & VPI left for the ACC rather than trying to function in the hybrid.
How is any of this the fault of basketball-only schools who formed a vision & successfully pursued it? I guess that there are always people who need someone else to blame. Without the football schools if a split occurs in the future, the basketball-only schools will go back to their roots, rebuild, & will remain a basketball powerhouse as they have been for the past quarter century.