I would love to see Joe Paterno give his account of the formation of the Eastern 8 (Eastern Collegiate Basketball League -- ECBL, to correct an earlier post).
But here's what I can piece together about that period.
In the mid-1970's, the five Division I football-playing members of the original ECBL could be seen as the future core of a northeastern all-sports conference. Penn State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Rutgers were all committed to major-college football. And remember that Villanova, with Jim Weaver as AD (he's a football guy and now AD at Va. Tech), was upgrading its football schedule and had ambitious plans at the time.
UMass was in the Division II Yankee Conference, but it was, like PSU, Rutgers and WVU, an original Land Grant institution (Paterno places great stock in the links among the original Land Grant schools -- PSU and Michigan State play a season-ending game for the Land Grant Trophy), and the flagship public university of the the most populous state in New England. It had (and still has) potential for an upgrade.
I can only see Duquesne and GW as makeweights -- the schools that would give the fastest "yes" while others were holding out to see what other conferences might form -- to get the ECBL's number up to eight.
It seems clear to me that Paterno believed that Syracuse, BC, Temple, Holy Cross (then a competitive Division I program), Army, Navy and others would be attracted into associating with the E8's core members. All of the aforementioned schools stood to improve their football programs through a conference affiliation with eastern powers Penn State and Pitt.
But Syracuse (and later Pitt) did not see the need for any kind of football conference, and the big-market approach was obviously the better and more profitable approach for a basketball conference.
In an interview with the American Enterprise Institute (a politically conservative think tank), Paterno was asked "Doesn't Penn State belong in an Eastern league with Pitt and West Virginia and Syracuse?"
His answer: "I tried to do that years ago but Pitt wanted to go with Big East basketball. If you had asked me that question seven years ago, I would have said you're absolutely right." He went on to say that Penn State is "at home" now in the Big 10 with nine other flagship state universities and Land Grant institutions.
Here is Joe's son, Scott Paterno, writing in PSU Playbook, a Penn State fanzine:
"In the early 1980s, Joe and Jim Tarman started discussions about the formation of an all-sports Eastern conference. At the time, Pitt still had a national football presence on a regular basis, and the Big East was far from an established basketball only conference. Joe’s vision was a conference in which Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers, and Temple would form the founding membership of an Eastern conference. From there, it is easy to see the addition of Maryland and Va. Tech, with UConn’s current foray into D-1A football making them a natural addition. It could have developed into a great conference."
Here's the link to the rest of the excerpt:
My recollection is, of course, a little different. Paterno was Tarman's predecessor as Penn State's AD, during the founding of the ECBL (E8). The E8, including as it did four of the six schools Scott names as would-be founding members of an Eastern conference, seems to me to be a clear attempt to begin grouping together those schools. This all happens before the 80s, when Scott's recollection picks up.
At any rate, the critical schools were Penn State, Pitt (the two leading national football powers in the East) and Syracuse (which had recently been a national football power in the 50s and 60s).
To summarize, PSU and Syracuse had radically differing visions of organizing college athletics. Pitt had the deciding vote, if you will, and chose the basketball-driven model. This may have been the right decision in the short run, but in the long run it sowed the seeds for the BE's current difficulties.