1979, SUs new athletic director, Jake Crouthamel, got
together with his counterparts from Georgetown, St. Johns,
Seton Hall, Connecticut, Providence, and Boston College and
put pen to ink to form the Big East Conference. It would prove
to be a smart move for Syracuse, which had one of the few
nationally competitive, full-scale sports programs in the
Northeast, but was at the mercy of the Eastern Collegiate
Athletic Conference (ECAC). At that time, the ECAC controlled
television rights and post-season opportunities for independents,
and we were not getting our fair share, Crouthamel says.
There were about 150 colleges in the ECAC and a tiny
school with a limited program was getting the same representation
as Syracuse or St. Johns.
formation of the Big East, Crouthamel saw an opportunity to
build on SUs storied tradition and keep the University
a force to be reckoned with in intercollegiate athletics.
We were already playing most of the schools with whom
we formed the Big East, he says. But we did more
than just make it official. With our own basketball conference,
we controlled our own television package, staged our own post-season
tournament, and were assured of our own qualifier for the
NCAA basketball tournament. This was clearly the best way
to bring the most benefit to our athletes, our schools, and
our fans, and the whole thing came together quite nicely.
predicted, Big East competition ushered in a renaissance of
Northeastern college basketball. The conferences innovative
TV contracts with established broadcast networks as well as
emerging cable channels played a major part in this. ESPN,
the nations first all-sports satellite cable
service, came online in September 1979, and grew up with the
Big East. During the 80s, a 7 p.m. tip-off at the Carrier
Dome or Madison Square Garden soon became a familiar after-school
TV attraction for high school athletes and for sports fans
across the continent. We were the originators of Monday
night basketball on ESPN, Crouthamel says. The
Big East Conference really helped to highlight the potential
of cable TV for college sports, especially basketball.
the Big East took on an even more difficult joba revival
of Eastern college football. Since most of the founding schools
did not compete in the sport, the conference expanded in stages
to create an eight-team football league. Here too, the Big
East met with success, regularly sending as many as half of
its teams to post-season bowl games.
the conferences overall record, including its participation
in more than 20 intercollegiate sports, speaks of vitality.
During a 25-year history, Big East mens and womens
sports teams have won nearly two dozen national championships
in six different sports and more than 100 of its student-athletes
have won individual national titles. Moreover, some 300 Big
East student-athletes have earned Academic All-America honors.
successes of the Big Eastnot the least of which was
Syracuses 2003 national basketball titleleft many
SU alumni and fans baffled by the conferences susceptibility
to the raid perpetrated on it last year by the
Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). According to Crouthamel,
its a tale of football, television, and greed.
its move into football in the early 90s, the Big East
expanded from its Northeastern base across the Mason-Dixon
line to recruit the University of Miami, one of the last nationally
powerful independents, and Virginia Tech, a program on the
rise. At one point, Miami and the Southeastern Conference
had eyed each other, but never struck a deal. You might
say we got Miami on the rebound, Crouthamel says. In
a sense, its membership was on the table from the day it was
courted Miami through much of the 90s, Crouthamel says,
but the Hurricanes stayed put until a string of developments
changed the situation. In 1998, the Bowl Championship Series
(BCS) was instituted to replace the traditional agreements
and scattershot invitations that had previously determined
bowl opponents. The BCS created an alignment among the Orange,
Sugar, Rose, and Fiesta bowls and the nations top conferences,
including the Big East and the ACC. Along with automatic bowl
invitations for each conferences championship team,
the agreement created a revenue-sharing plan worth millions
of dollars. In addition, the NCAA created an opportunity for
schools to gain even more revenue by allowing 12-team conferences
to hold post-season championship games before the bowls. Big
East football was in no position to expand to 12 teams for
several reasons, especially opposition from the conferences
non-football schools. However, if the ACC could go to 12,
it would be prepared to make Miami a lucrative offer.
East Comings and Goings
1979-80: Conference play begins
in basketball and other sports
with seven teams: SU, Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown,
Providence College, St. Johns, and Seton Hall.
Villanova is added.
Pittsburgh is added.
Football becomes a conference sport. Miami is added.
Virginia Tech, and West Virginia are
added for football only.
West Virginia and Rutgers upgrade affiliation to all
sports. Notre Dame is added in all sports except football.
Virginia Tech upgrades
affiliation to all sports. Temple says it will end its
football affiliation after 2004.
Connecticut says it will
play conference football in 2005-06.
Miami and Virginia Tech announce they will leave the
conference at the end of the academic year. Boston College
announces its departure, most likely following 2004-05.
Connecticut moves its football entry to 2004-05.
new members join for 2005-06: Cincinnati, Louisville,
and South Florida in all sports, and DePaul and Marquette
in all sports except football.
says the presidents of the ACC schools initially balked at
such a huge expansion. Here was a conservative-minded
conference that had gone from eight to nine members in 1991
and had been discussing going to 10, mainly with Miami, ever
since, he says. Then, all of a sudden, theyre
looking at 12. Economic reality, which of course means television
money, wasnt just a factor in the ACCs sudden
change of heartit drove the decision, pure and simple.
Miami, the ACC needed two additional members. As a Southern
school, Virginia Tech was a logical choice, and the Hokies
followed Miamis lead. Many predicted that Syracuse would
round out the ACCs new dozen. But SU held fast to its
Big East roots and obligations, and so, it seemed, did other
conference members. However, last October, Boston College,
an original member of the Big East, announced it too would
bolt to the ACC.
development left the Big East with just five football-playing
members, creating a major quandary. A rule scheduled to take
effect in 2005 requires Division 1-A conferences to have at
least eight members to be eligible for the BCS. This gave
the Big East no choice but to expand.
the presidents of the Big East schools announced the admission
of five new members. The universities of Cincinnati, Louisville,
and South Florida are set to join in the 2005-06 academic
year in all sports, giving the conference a viable eight-team
football league. DePaul and Marquette universities, which
dont field football teams, will compete in all other
is realistic about the effects of the ACC raid on Big East
football. We no longer have the instant credibility
in football that Miami and Virginia Tech gave us, he
says. But Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida
all have successful programs, and we have to get more television
exposure to make that better known. New media opportunities,
such as the College Sports Television [CSTV] cable network,
may help us that way. Keeping the Big East in the BCS [the
current arrangement expires at the end of the 2005 season]
is extremely important to us, but I dont see us expanding
the football conference to 12 members. There simply arent
four appropriate schools available.
subject of basketball, the normally reserved athletic director
is downright effusive. I think its fair to say
that the Big East will be the strongest basketball conference
in the country, says Crouthamel. Of course, that
can be a mixed blessing. After all, were going to have
to play these teams, and the new Big East will be tougher
than ever to win. Well be up against six or seven of
the best teams in the country, not just three or four. Our
hope is that this will raise the national profile for Big
East football as well.