Big East's spectacular growth tied to basketball packaging

It has been called the ``made-for-television basketball conference'' since its creation in 1979, and only eight short years later that is exactly what the Big East has become. This weekend, the majority of CBS's college basketball coverage will be focused on the corner of 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue in New York, where Madison Square Garden plays host to the Big East Championship Tournament. Tickets for this event are scarce, if they can be found at all. But the real story lies in the amazing amount of media attention this conference and this tournament receive.

It is hard to believe that the Big East is the brainchild of a former coach and a handful of college athletic directors rather than Madison Avenue's marketing specialists. Dave Gavitt, who coached the Providence (R.I.) College Friars to eight consecutive 20-win seasons and was chosen as Olympic coach for the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games, dreamed up the idea. In 1979 he shared the inspiration with the athletic directors of Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, and Syracuse. From there, Connecticut, Seton Hall, and Boston College were asked to join and the Big East was born.

In 1981, Villanova took up the Big East banner, followed in 1983 by the youngest member, Pittsburgh.

Within four years of its formation, the fledgling conference put a stranglehold on college basketball across the Northeast United States and especially the massive television markets of Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, and Boston.

``[The rise] has happened more quickly than ever anticipated,'' Gavitt said. ``Our nine schools all had great traditions of outstanding athletic and academic success. The Big East banner simply put a spotlight on these quality institutions.''

But the current attention being paid the conference has its roots in several key events.

The first major step toward nationwide prominence came in 1981 when Patrick Ewing, a 7-foot star center from Cambridge, Mass., who was the most highly recruited high school player that year, decided to play at Georgetown. Two years later, two other eagerly sought high school stars, Reggie Williams, a versatile small forward from the Washington area, and Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, a flashy point guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., also decided to pass up offers from other parts of the country. Williams joined Ewing at Georgetown and Washington enrolled at Syracuse.

Gavitt also gives a lot of credit for the Big East's media attention to the building of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, which is the largest on-campus indoor athletic facility. He said that it provided a unique flair and special ``recognizability'' to the conference. Other conference teams also make use of major arenas such as the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., the Byrne Arena in Meadowlands, N.J., the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the Boston Garden, and Madison Square Garden.

Another principal drawing card for the Big East is the conference's instantly recognizable coaches. There is the gentle giant, John Thompson, of Georgetown; the Italian father figures, Lou Carnesecca of St. John's and Rollie Massimino of Villanova, and ``the Professor,'' as the bespectacled Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is known. All of the Big East coaches have proved to be formidable recruiters.

The conference's ultimate achievement so far came in March 1985, when the Big East placed three teams in the Final Four of the NCAA post-season tournament - Georgetown, St. John's, and Villanova joining Memphis State at Kentucky's Rupp Arena. That weekend, climaxed by Villanova's thrilling 66-64 upset over Georgetown in the championship game, propelled the Big East into the national spotlight - a location it obviously has no intention of giving up.

So far this season CBS has carried 12 games in which Big East teams were playing, with three more scheduled for this weekend, and ESPN has provided even more- extensive coverage.

The Big East is also the only conference with its own television network, which supplies coverage of away games to local stations in Big East markets. Gavitt enjoys his dual role as commissioner and a color commentator for the Big East network.

The result of the massive increase of media exposure has been an influx of recruits from such basketball hotbeds as Michigan, Indiana, and California. Better players naturally make the conference stronger, which in turn makes for more media coverage, and thus more exposure, which starts the cycle over again.

Many observers believe the Big East's national prominence will continue to grow, with Boston College and Connecticut building new arenas and Seton Hall agreeing to play all of its conference games in Byrne Arena.

Gavitt says he hopes all this success will spill over into other Big East sports, which include soccer, volleyball, track and field, swimming, and women's basketball (the conference does not operate in football, which only three of its members play at the big-time level).

The basketball story is the big one right now, though, and if present trends continue it should continue as such for many years to come.

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