Beasts of the East

Dave Gavitt had a plan, though he might have been the only one convinced it would work.  

In the late 1970s, Gavitt, Providence College’s basketball coach and athletic director, crafted a scheme to assemble the Northeast’s basketball-happy schools into a single conference. His fellow coaching colleagues and athletic directors responded with unease. They were, by and large, content with the status quo and their independence. 

But Gavitt sold the idea – and sold it hard. He spoke of the promise of television and noted the potential league’s foothold in major media markets like New York, DC, and Boston. It would provide the schools a higher profile, more revenue, and enhanced recruitment opportunities. He championed the idea of a rising tide lifting all boats. Whether by the power of Gavitt’s persuasion or his persistence, his hardwood companions relented.  

The Big East officially launched on May 31, 1979, with Boston College, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Syracuse, and UConn as its seven founding members. The following year, Villanova’s arrival pushed the Big East’s membership to eight.  

“People thought we were crazy. No one thought we could do it,” said Gavitt, a natural fit as the the upstart league’s first commissioner. 

The Big East wasted little time shaking the college basketball world. 

In its inaugural season, 1979-80, Syracuse and St. John’s spent the entire season ranked inside the Top 25, while Georgetown, then still an up-and-comer on the college basketball landscape, nearly cracked the top 10. 

By 1982, the conference had its first Final Four squad as Georgetown rushed into the national title game, only to fall to mighty North Carolina on freshman Michael Jordan’s late baseline jumper. Two years later, Georgetown captured the conference’s first national title, further legitimizing the Big East’s mighty brand of basketball.  

Then, came the upstart conference’s crowning glory: the 1984-85 season. Thanks to Georgetown and St. John’s, a Big East squad held the AP’s #1 spot all season. Those two powerhouse programs would reach the Final Four as would Villanova – the first time three teams from one conference had comprised the Final Four. 

“It was only our sixth year,” Gavitt said. “We were neophytes.” 

And over the last four decades, no basketball conference in America might be more colorful, intriguing, and influential than the Big East.  

The Big East gave us era-defining players. Ewing and Mullin. DC and Zo. AI and Rip. Melo and Dougie McBuckets. 

The Big East introduced us to coaches with outsized personalities like Big John, Louie, and Rollie, those with fiery streaks like Boeheim and Calhoun, and a few with impeccable suits like Pitino and Wright. 

The Big East gave us “Big Monday” on ESPN and an end-of-season league tournament that brought the pomp and circumstance, the rivalries, the fans, and the heat all to one marvelous central spot: Madison Square Garden, basketball’s mecca. 

Big East programs authored two of the greatest upsets in championship game history with Villanova’s 1985 upset over Georgetown as well as UConn’s 1999 triumph over Duke. Big East programs Syracuse (2003), UConn (2004, 2011), Louisville (2013), and Villanova (2016, 2018) also ended seasons cutting down the nets. 

The Big East’s 22 Final Four appearances since its founding are a dozen more than their Pac-10 peers on the opposite coast and only four fewer than the Big Ten.  

Though the intensifying push of big-time college football put the Big East on life support in the early 21st century, the conference endured, albeit in a modified format.  Today, the reconstituted Big East – legacy members Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanova joining with Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Marquette, and Xavier – remains relevant and rooted in a rich history unlike any other. 

It turns out Dave Gavitt’s plan wasn’t so crazy after all.