You may have noticed all of the eulogies that have been delivered for the Big East recently were authored by the over-40 set, those of us who can relate to something that peaked in the 1980s falling apart physically in 2013.
Pronounced dead a little before midnight last night, Big East basketball went out with a bang, with its most enduring coach facing its most narcissistic coach for the final conference championship. It was a fitting conclusion, since between the two of them, Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino pretty much embodied Big East basketball and the Big East brand — crude, fierce, smart, a little slimy, self-important, impetuous and unforgettable.
The tournament reached its emotional climax Friday night, when two Big East cornerstones, Syracuse and Georgetown, battled into overtime for the right to be part of Saturday night's coup de grace. It was one last reminder of how compelling the league could be when it had an unparalleled combination of talent, personality and drama unfolding on basketball's biggest and brightest stage.
Let's be honest, though. Most of those mourning the death of the Big East today are thinking more about Lou Carnaseca's sweaters than Pitino's white suit. They're thinking about Patrick Ewing, hunched over with his hands on his knees, dripping sweat, upsetting old white folks for wearing a t-shirt under his jersey. They're thinking of Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson making behind-the-back passes to Walter Berry, Rollie Massimino's tie whipping about as he flies into a rage at a bad call, Pearl Washington's breaking someone's ankles with a crossover dribble, and Berry blocking Pearl's shot in 1986. They couldn't name two starters on Louisville or Syracuse, but they could wax for hours about obscure legends such as Harold Jensen, Michael Graham, Stu Primus and Marco Baldi.
The Big East produced numerous icons and iconic moments after that glorious first decade, but it was never the same once it sold its soul to football in the 1990s.
The quality of basketball declined quickly. No one other than Connecticut reached the Final Four in the 1990s and the league was a punch line by the new millenium. For the better part of two decades, very few people were writing tributes to Big East basketball, at least until the epic six-overtime game between Syracuse and Connecticut in 2009.
One of the cool things about Big East basketball, though, was that when it was at its best, it wasn't trying to be about anything but basketball (and money, but more on that in a second). It wasn't pompously fundamental like the ACC or elegantly up-tempo like the Pac-10. It had a definitive style that was rarely stylish, kind of like the Big 10. But unlike the Big 10, the players had personalities and were allowed to show them. It was East Coast basketball — brutal, cynical, crude, fierce, smart, bombastic and rarely dull.
So it isn't surprising how romantic some of us can get with our Big East tributes. It is somewhat amusing, however, especially the ones that have scolded the member schools for causing the conference's demise with their greed.
The Big East was created for the sole purpose of making money. Founder Dave Gavitt knew uniting schools from big Northeast cities would create unprecedented revenue streams. Making Madison Square Garden the permanent home of the conference tournament four years into its existence opened the flood gates. It was, for all intents and purposes, the first made-for-TV conference.
Now, that's all there is to college football and basketball. One has to sort through all the sludge they produce in pursuit of the almighty dollar to find something meaningful.
Right now, it's pretty easy for Mainers to grasp onto the usually polarizing Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, even with their hideous uniforms, because one of the best and most likeable basketball players this state has ever produced, Tom Knight, is playing a significant role in their Top-25 season. In the coming weeks, it will be a privilege to watch Knight during what is hopefully a long journey through the NCAA tournament.
Next year, when Knight is a fifth-year senior, he and the Irish will be playing in the ACC, along with Syracuse. The remaining non-FBS schools, known for now as the "Catholic 7," will continue competing against each other and take the Big East banner with them.
Maybe once they figure out how to start making money, they can recapture the basketball-first spirit of the original Big East. With all of the big conferences becoming a hodgepodge of geographically mismatched schools, maybe the new Big East can form and retain an actual identity beyond the size of its television contract.
Even if we peaked in the '80s, we can still dream, right?