Monday, September 19, 2011

Death and Basketball in the Big Empty

At this point, I'm probably one of the few people in favor of conference realignment. I'll get to why in a second, but suffice it to say that I don't just stop at the "it's inevitable" stage, I actually believe it is a good thing in the long run.

First, why I don't think this sucks: Try as I might, I can't hold anything against Syracuse or Pitt for their decision to abandon the Big East and bounce on to the greener pastures of the ACC, which is emerging as probably the most surprising of the impending superconferences. Yes, I was at Pitt in 2003 when Miami, VaTech and Boston College all bailed on the Big East, and yes, we were all upset (though at some more than others. I actually thought the move was right for VT and Miami, but was dubious for the ACC and made no sense for BC). I don't think it makes Pitt hypocritical to do this nearly a decade later, when the landscape is so different.

At least we made the ACC landing page
It is worth remembering for a moment why the Big East even exists. It was because of one man, Providence Athletic Director and basketball coach Dave Gavitt. In 1981, Gavitt had some friends at a nascent cable network called ESPN, and they were showing Aussie Rules Football alarmingly often. He gathered some other ADs together with the expressed purpose of playing basketball on Tuesday nights to give his friends some programming. I do not know if he could have imagined what would happen to college athletics, that network, or the relationship between the two, but he was a very forward-thinking man, so it's not impossible. He believed that young men playing basketball was a potential draw for cable viewers, and he wanted the Big East to be an important part of intercollegiate athletics. For about 30 years, he was more right than anyone would have guessed.

It is sad, then, but maybe a little bit appropriate, that Dave Gavitt died this weekend at 73

I never got to speak to him (he refused interview requests during the 2003 shakeup, and I had stopped working at The Pitt News by the time he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2006), but in my many conversations with experts, coaches, ADs and everyone else, no one's name came up more than his. I always got the sense from those talks that, as pragmatic as his decisions were, he harbored an understandable love for the conference he formed.

If college sports shake out the way the commentators are predicting, than this weekend will also be looked back on as the one where the Big East died, since Syracuse (a founding member) and Pitt (which joined in the second year and has remained one of the dominant programs) both announced departure. I feel bad for the Big East, since it's not their fault that the big money sport is football, and Gavitt was a basketball coach. They just backed the wrong horse. But it's also not the end of, say, the SEC, which was founded in 1932. In the scheme of history, even an important 30 years just isn't that long.

Yes, I took this from Bigeast.org
As I said, I hope there is a massive shift in the way college sports work. I hope for four "superconferences" that can wield enough clout to secede from the NCAA and begin honestly calling college sports what they are: An insanely profitable system of entertainment that usually involves exploiting young athletes with no other career options. It's the only way we'll ever get a playoff system in football or start treating athletes like people. Neither are assured, of course, but without realignment meaningful progress appears to be inevitable, so I'm in favor.

And make no mistake, it is a good decision for the schools leaving. Aside from money (ha!), the ACC is a tough but winnable conference, devoid of the buzzsaw of the SEC or the topheaviness of the Big Whatever. The ACC may be the logical landing spot for Texas, and the future there seems bright.

Honestly, even the fact that my true love is college basketball (an increasingly irrelevant sidekick to football) is not what has me down about this march of progress. What I dislike about seeing Pitt and Syracuse leave (other than the loss of meaningful rivalries with UConn and WV and the like) is that I hate the way we are building yet another flawed system.

Some will say that this every-school-for-itself mentality is a "free market" solution, and so is ipso facto the best. But we've seen what happens when we rely on individuals to create alliances. They end up fleeting and fractious, with a constant shortsightedness keeping reason from ever taking meaningful hold. In short, I do not believe you build a lasting system from a decentralized scramble for cash today.

The phrase most often used these days about the NCAA is "the system is broken." There is now tons of evidence to suggest that that is, in fact, the case. And so what sucks the most about the Pitt/Syracuse decision is that it is just one more reminder of how inept the NCAA is.

Rather than seeing the depths of its dysfunction and modernizing to meet the needs of the new college football order, the NCAA dug in its heels and decided to hold on as hard as it could to obsolescence. For that sin ("free market" solutions are always brought on by failures to meed demand), we will not get the planned, thought-out system of college athletics that we want and that athletes deserve. We'll get NCAA 2.0: The wealthier, greedier puppet government. 

In time, it may be a good thing (perhaps more schools will revert from an ill-advised, aspiring professionalism to the good, entertaining amateurism we see in Division II and III and the so-called mid-majors), but for the immediate future, it seems we can expect more schools to perform acts of undignified evasion, each trying to have a seat when the music stops. It will be embarrassing and unseemly, but it is a growth industry in a recession and so it's worth whatever psychological cost we might pay. No one wants to see his alma mater running away from failure like a scared freshman quarterback behind a porous o-line, but the board of trustees all have health insurance, and as Pitt fans we're at least a little bit used to dealing with it these days. We've steeled ourselves for humiliation before, and we'll do it again. We lived through Walt and Wanny and the reanimated corpse of Johnny Majors; what's a little unadulterated greed when you haven't won a championship since 1976?

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