Mark Blaudschun covered Boston College basketball for the Boston Globe for 25 years. As you will read, Mark had a great vantage point and speaks on why the iconic conference is no longer as it was. We talk dramatic games, historic players, legendary coaches and their legendary personalities , innovative organizers and what the stand alone Big East Conference meant to college basketball and sports in general. Check Mark's work over at his site, A Jersey Guy
Compare the Big East Conference from a basketball standpoint and the Southwest Conference from a football view.
In a lot of ways it’s similar. The common thread was passion for the sport. Not only the sport but the whole atmosphere of it. Southwest Conference football -- I was there 30 years ago -- was an event on Saturday. Whether it was Baylor vs. Texas, TCU vs. SMU...it was something people gravitated around and made events.
Big East basketball at its height -- especially in the early ‘80’s and in the ‘90’s for some time -- was something people embraced and more than a game.
We get to an arena and do our thing in the press room -- get stat sheets and do whatever we need to do to prepare for the game. College sports is different to cover but what was the atmosphere walking into an arena and sitting down in press row?
Not all the time, but a Georgetown vs. Syracuse or St. Johns vs. Connecticut...those are different. What’s unique about the Big East is the atmosphere conditions. What makes the Big East different was New York City. There’s nothing like Friday night in Madison Square Garden. The semi-finals. You come out of the subway, get out of a taxi, or whatever it is and you come into the Garden and it’s almost like a heavyweight fight or a Broadway opening. It’s an air of electricity building on the outside. You see it on the billboard. “Big East semi-finals: Syracuse vs. Georgetown and St. Johns vs. Connecticut.” That just sends a chill down your spine. You walk into the building and it’s not a gym. You feel the buzz in the crowd and you can somewhat smell it. The lights go down and the buzzer goes off. John Condon, the public address announcer would say “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the magical world of Madison Square Garden.” Like a heavyweight fight, ring the bell and let’s begin. That’s what made the Big East and always has made the Big East different.
Speaking to Billy Owens, he talked about the pressure. Talking to the coaches post game, did you sense any relief? It’s pressure.
Jim Calhoun treats the Big East Tournament like it’s the NCAA Final Four. Intensity. Jim Boeheim is like that too. It was exhaustion. Something to have survived just to go on to the next round. It’s not just a game. Their ties came all undone. They’d sit there and just had this look. It’s different. The intensity of it all was different than most other places. The intensity of the event. It’s just a different feeling.
How was John Thompson when you spoke to him? Was he as hardcore in his pride or whatever you want to call it as much as people say he was?
(Pauses). Nooo. I’ll tell you a story about John Thompson. I think it was the Final Four in Seattle a few years ago. Georgetown wasn’t in it but John Thompson did a TV thing with Spike Lee where Spike Lee went inside the ropes so to speak. The John Thompson you saw in the video was wise cracking, smart and funny. No, none of the outer fringes that most of us had seen where he’s very curt sometimes, domineering -- Hoya Paranoia -- and all that mentality. He and I talked about the Spike Lee thing. I said "John, that’s the side that no one sees. You can be really funny. Why don’t you let other people see that?" He looked at me all smart and said “That’s my point.” He didn’t want people to see that side of him. He had that side of him that very few people saw and it worked for him. That’s the way he did things. That was John Thompson.
Rollie Massimino is someone we revere here in Philly as much as any governor. Can you talk about his approach to the press?
Rollie would be the guy you go out and have pizza with. He would be wise crackin’. He was the little guy high school basketball coach from Jersey who won the championship. He was the let’s have a beer type of person. He coached that way and he dealt with us that way. He always has a story to tell. He has a full personality and that’s the way his teams played.
Covering the conference from Boston. Could you talk about the cultural impact the Big East had from working the beat at BC?
BC to this day is fighting an uphill battle. It’s a pro town and BC has to fight for every bit of publicity. Years in the ACC and back in the Big East. BC gets ignored a lot of times and was actually good. The people come out. They had football and basketball. BC had some moments. One of my favorite moments of all was Jimmy O’Brien’s next to last year at BC when BC won the Big East tournament. The joy of that moment when they beat West Virginia in the championship,. After the game they had the ceremony but it all just started. Jim O’Brien was a New York City kid from BC who won the Big East tournament. We celebrated after the game and were up to 5 in the morning. We closed every bar and restaurant in the city down. He was just going from place to place. We were in Runyon’s from 2 to 2:30 then went down to the East Village to some place and came out and it was dawn. Then we went to a place that served pancakes somewhere on Broadway. Seeing Jimmy O’Brien walk off to his hotel with this smile on his face accomplishing something people didn’t think was possible. It’s just something you don’t find in other venues.
Was the Big East almost a pro league in a sense because of all the pageantry?
I don’t know about pro league. It was Northeast. It was big city. It wasn’t a college atmosphere because the games were at pro arenas a lot. Then say if you went to Rupp Arena it was in a college town. The Big East had that corridor link. New York to Boston. You know. Washington to Philadelphia. It was the city game played in a public arena atmosphere.
Dave Gavitt’s and Mike Tranghese’s super great vision. Do you think they had any clue what prowess the conference would have initially or did they pretty much just luck up?
They couldn’t have. No one could have envisioned that. Eastern basketball was a lot of these little entities. You had Providence and UConn playing. Everybody was playing in their own little package. Dave was watching and put all these schools together. Catholic St. Johns, Seton Hall, Providence, Boston College then Villanova and Georgetown. So the idea was to get all these schools in the east to make a statement and it worked. I don’t think anyone could have imagined 6 years after you started having 3 teams in the Final Four from the same conference. That was mind-boggling to everyone including Dave and Mike.
Are your memories so encapsulated to where you think Big East and a particular player or players, game or coach comes immediately to mind?
Sure. Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin right off the bat. Pearl Washington and you can just go down the line. Ray Allen. Every school seemed to have that signature player for the program. In the early days it was Ewing and Chris Mullin. They not only identified with their schools but Big East basketball in general. Then you go and think the league not only had stars but had moments. I was there for the six OT game between Syracuse and UConn in the quarterfinals. That was one of the more amazing performances I’ve ever seen in my life. You had to be kidding me. Even the refs were affected. They would come over to us during the breaks and say “Can you believe this?” They were apart of it and amazed they were a part of it.
Was that one of those games where us in the media are standing up in the waning moments? Obviously it was that dramatic, but what were some of the memories specifically about that game besides the McNamara shot and his subsequent jumping on the table?
It was amazing both teams could sustain it for that long. Usually one team forges ahead after one overtime and the other team runs out of gas. In that game, neither team ran out of gas. I also remember -- and this is typical of Jim Calhoun -- that this was an epic game but not the end of the world. His team would go on and the season would continue. Calhoun was absolutely irate. They lost the game. Calhoun was treating the game like it was January in Storrs. That’s how mad he was. Jim Calhoun couldn’t accept a loss.
Boeheim comes in and says win or loss, this was one of the most amazing games I’ve ever been a part of. It was something you’d expect from a winning coach, but the intensity of both coaches was amazing. Then you talk about Jerry McNamara going crazy in the Big East Tournament playing with basically a broken back. Three game winning shots in three consecutive nights? How did he do that? It was like can you top this and you say he can’t top that and he topped it!
I never moved during that crazy day. So envious of anyone covering that game. It was so great. Did coaches in the conference protect their players more than other conferences you have been involved in?
No, I don’t think so. Thompson was always protective of his players. In the end, it was just Thompson. It wasn’t a league thing. UConn players...everything was out there. Jim (Calhoun) let his players talk and you had access to coaches and players. That’s the way it was. Each coach was different.
Do you see the coaches in the same pot? Does any one coach stick out? Also can you speak on Lou Carnesecca just so the kids don’t lose his name in history.
Little Louie was something. I covered him when he was coaching the Nets (New York Nets of the ABA from ‘70 - ’73. That’s how far we go back. He had those sweaters. He was great how he interacted with the other coaches. His nickname for Calhoun (Jim) was “Irish”. “Hey Irish, How you doing?” Louie, Boeheim, Thompson, Calhoun and then Rollie. That group of five were bigger than the game. Today the players are bigger but in those days it was all about the coach. The players filled the roles. You went to see St. Johns vs. UConn to see Carnesecca vs. Calhoun. Syracuse vs. Georgetown to see Thompson vs. Boeheim. The coaches were the story. They were the personalities. You watched them as much as you watched the game. You wanted to see what particular sweater Louie was going to wear that day or how Calhoun handled things. Like how many timeouts he would call. How John Thompson would stand up and stare people down sometimes with the towel on his shoulder. There were all kinds of little side shows that was a big part of Big East basketball.
I guess the point I was trying to make earlier about the pro league/Big East comparison was the six fouls.
You’re right. Here’s the thing, the officials. The Big East officials recognized the tenor of the game and would let more stuff go. Those games were wars. Games sometimes would be 27-25 at with 10 minutes to go in the game. Wars. Guys would battle and nothing was even called. Then the players would play the same and the officials would be different and you’d have 3 players on the bench with 3 fouls in the first 15 minutes. The Big East officials would do SEC games or Pac-12 games and people would ask what is this about because the refs would let ‘em play. It became a style of basketball. So you’re right, it was like the pros, but the six fouls was more about the Big East. Definitely stuff went on that would be called in other leagues.
I saw some stuff that you wrote recently about financial happenings in the Big East. The new contract. Can you touch on the past as it relates to the money of now?
Well it’s sad. The Big East as it existed is in the past. It’s not the Big East. It has the name and some teams but Syracuse is gone. Louisville is gone. West Virginia is gone. BC is gone. It’s not the same thing. They’ll change a lot of the teams but it will never be what it once was. As early as a couple of years ago, they had 11 out of 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Think about that. Eleven out of sixteen teams from one league. It wasn’t like that was a stretch. Those teams were strong and not bubble teams. Solid outfits.
What happened? How did it fall apart?
No football. In the last ten years football has definitely run the show. Big East football was never what Big East basketball was. The casualty of Big East basketball has been the football. The one mistake was not taking Penn State. If they took Penn State everything would have changed. That changed the entire landscape. If Penn State was a part of the Big East, the Big East of today would have included Boston College and Miami and Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Rutgers. It would have been a solid conference. A solid competitive league. Once that didn’t happen in the last 15 years, gradually teams were taken away. The ACC took Miami and Boston College. The basketball schools were getting more frustrated by the way the football was running the show. With the latest demise with Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Louisville, the Catholic schools are like enough is enough. That’s the cause of the fracture of the relationship.
Because of the convo I had with Billy Owens -- when you mentioned Pittsburgh -- something struck me what he said. He mentioned that if he had a shooter alongside him, Syracuse would have had more team success. They couldn't get over the hump. He also said he had a conversation with Carmelo Anthony and Melo said that if he didn’t have McNamara, Syracuse would have most likely not won the National Title during his freshman year. Was it as simple as that?
That is a legitimate point. The questions were absolutely asked. They were one player away. They could have easily won. One player could have changed things but then again, something else might have happened.
Last question. Where would you place the Big East Conference in the annals of college sports? Where does the Big East fit?
You’re talking about basketball obviously. In football, the conference would be nothing more than a footnote. It never established its own pattern. It was almost an afterthought. It had some good years, but never really had a presence. It was either under attack or subject to change.
In terms of basketball, I can argue and say the Big East Conference in its heyday was probably one of the best basketball conference that was ever created. Without a doubt. It was as good a league as any time ever.