Bob Ford: Big East playing the money game

Posted: March 11, 2012

The Big East conference honored the memory of Dave Gavitt at its basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden by placing his initials prominently on opposite corners of the court. It was a nice, almost poignant touch.

The Providence coach and athletic director who basically thought up the league in 1979 died in September, but even before his passing, the ambitious basketball conference that sought to compete with the big boys had changed beyond recognition.

This is the way of things in collegiate sports now. Basketball is great and basketball makes money, but football prints it. The six BCS conferences found the keys to the mint, and the game for the last dozen years or so has been all about those conferences holding on tight and the rest of the world trying to pry the treasure from their hands.

On it goes. Being in a conference that has an automatic spot in one of the BCS bowl games is akin to being inside the vault. The Big East, which has been hearing pounding on the door for a while, saw Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia slip out the back, and that started full-scale panic. It was no sure thing the Big East would keep its automatic qualification.

Maybe what the conference did is the same thing Dave Gavitt would have done faced with the same circumstances 30 years ago. He was a hoops guy, though - a player on the last Dartmouth team to win the Ivy League - so he probably wouldn't have liked it.

Those are some of the circumstances that led the Big East to invite Temple to join its football league this fall, and to add the Owls for all sports the following year. The Big East needed football teams and the Owls were not only handy but also enjoying a rare uptick in their football history.

If the addition doesn't make total sense, particularly given the presence of Villanova in the Philadelphia market, it at least makes a lot more sense than adding San Diego State and Boise State for football, and Memphis, Southern Methodist, Houston, and Central Florida for all sports. The Big East is doing all that, with the various schools arriving gradually as their commitments allow.

Whatever the circumstances, the announcement last week appears to be an enormous, game-changing victory for Temple. Not only have the football Owls escaped the Mid-American Conference for something better and much more lucrative, but the basketball team will now be able to recruit at the highest level. If Fran Dunphy can win in the Ivy League and win in the Atlantic Ten, wait and see how he does with some McDonald's all-Americans on the roster.

The clear loser, although its administrators were predictably gracious about the whole thing, was Villanova. Its football program, which was invited and then uninvited to join the Big East in April, was kicked aside again. The Big East tossed the Wildcats $1 million to put into that program, but it smelled like guilt money.

And now the basketball program will have to recruit on an equal footing with Temple. It starts off with the advantage of having a better history and a nicer campus and exclusive rights to use the Wells Fargo Center, but that won't last forever. Temple has a better on-campus arena, will be recruiting the current class of high school juniors after an NCAA tournament appearance, and, anyway, kids don't remember what Villanova and the Big East used to be. They might think Rollie Massimino is a character on Jersey Shore.

What the Big East used to be was pretty remarkable, and you wonder what will become of the schools that don't seem to fit any longer in a world ruled by football - originals like Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, and additions in that mold like Villanova, DePaul, and Marquette.

It is possible they will have to make their own decisions and go their own way at some point. That is speculation best saved for the next canvas on which the landscape of college sports will be painted. The paint is barely dry on the current one.

Moving up is what this thing is all about. Things get easier and more lucrative at every rung up the ladder. Temple was able to do so last week, and to understand the importance of that, just look at the NCAA tournament field that will be announced Sunday.

As many as 10 Big East teams will be included, while Drexel, which was 25-2 since Dec. 3, is still hoping that two Colonial Athletic Association teams are invited. The Dragons might be knocked out by Seton Hall, which lost in the Big East second round on Wednesday and has an 8-10 conference record.

It isn't fair, but looking for fair in college athletics is like looking for ice cream in the hardware store. There is no fair, there is only the scramble for position, boxing out the other guy, and waiting for the next capricious bounce of the ball.

Contact Bob Ford

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