Let us say a mass for the Big East. In light of last Saturday's news that the league's seven Catholic schools intend to bolt, let us celebrate a basketball conference that lashed a sport to a faith. Yes, founder Dave Gavitt conceived the Big East as a business proposition, a strategic collection of major media markets and big arenas, perfectly timed to launch with ESPN in 1979. But the Catholic tradition of so many of its early members gave the new conference a rich patina: Providence, St. John's, Georgetown and Villanova had already reached Final Fours; Seton Hall would do so in the league's 11th year; and upon their admission in 2005, DePaul and Marquette had Final Four pedigrees too.
Why, now, are they leaving? Well, perhaps administrators at the Catholic Seven have come to think of conference headquarters in Providence as "the office of the dead." Weary of football considerations driving league decisions (i.e., the choice to admit such hoops pretenders as Central Florida and Tulane), the apostates are seeking five like-minded partners without big-time football—perhaps Dayton, St. Louis, Xavier and (non-Catholic) Butler of the Atlantic 10, as well as Creighton of the Missouri Valley—to form a 12-team league that would put basketball first. Such a conference would still feature tradition and major metro media markets, but it wouldn't be at risk of disfigurement by schools' jockeying for the football money that has sowed so much recent chaos in college sports.
Lawyers will settle the divorce details, from exit fees to whether uncollected NCAA tournament revenue can follow the schools to their new conference. But of greater concern to the average fan are the atmospheric implications. Catholic college basketball has its own texture. It's the priest on the bench, the flash of CYO in a player's game, the big-city ethnic gene pool evident in the cheerleaders. And it's the intermittent, Jesuitical hand-wringing over whether the money and glory of big-time sports are compatible with church teaching. Catholic schools dedicated to hoops are good for catholic basketball, and the sport will be well-served if this strain of Big East--style play continues under some identifiable label. The only shame is that BIG EAST will no longer be the name on the tag.