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MERNAGH: THIS BIG EAST MEANT A LOT…SO DON’T SAY IT DIDN’T
by Ray Mernagh
I’m not sure what to make of this feeling that’s come over me after allowing all this conference realignment mess to sink in. After all, my initial reaction (Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes) was so mature, so enlightened, that it made me feel what’s best described as false pride about how adult my response was. Then a funny thing happened on my journey to accepting this with a rational level of, dare I say, Bilas-like comportment — I got stuck.
I couldn’t write a damn thing about the upcoming season, completely paralyzed regarding any news coming out of the entire world of college basketball. In fact I think I conned myself into thinking it was just my extraordinary amount of work on other sports the last few weeks (freelance variety) that had kept me from my usual barrage of words this time of year.
But that was just me kidding myself.
Then Thursday night, while watching college football of all things, it hit me.
I mean, it’s ridiculous to blow up this conference.
Nobody really knows what the end game will be here but one thing is obvious — the Big East that we’ve known for the last several years is soon to be no longer.
Then I hear all the old heads who say “it hasn’t really been the Big East since” and I understand what they’re saying to a degree.
They’re all talking about the magical years, dare I say lucky to some extent, when no other conference was smart or ballsy enough to align itself with the new cable entity that would become the be all and end all (ESPN). They’re talking about the 3 Final 4 participants in one year. Any of you reading me over the last several years know that I not only appreciate the Ewing/Mullin/Berry/Pearl Washington Era’s, but I also recall them with a fondness that only a pre-teen who’s appetite for basketball couldn’t be satiated– and bordered on obsessive– could.
Many nights my father would yell at me to go to bed as I watched the West Coast games that featured one scintillating 5’9″ water-bug guard or another long past midnight. So I hear the wise old sages when they talk about how great it was back then. I understand the place some writers/TV stars are coming from, having been fortunate enough to cover the original John Thompson at Georgetown. I hear Jim Boeheim’s resigned acceptance when he says the league, in its current form, hasn’t been the Big East he knew for quite some time.
On a side note, isn’t it hilarious to hear some at the Mothership get up on their bully pulpit and denounce the moves, while at the same time refusing to connect their place in the process? I mean somebody gave Texas all that cash for the Longhorn Network fellas and it’s the same somebody that pays you, so you might want to turn those fingers you’re pointing around. Or better yet — when you’re screaming about a lack of loyalty and trust in college athletics and you know that your network was cutting a deal with one University that basically allowed them to become the new-age Notre Dame and set all this realignment off — maybe you should just be quiet. Same goes for Mike Tranghese. You ruined Conference USA to make the Big East. You have no credibility when talking about these moves. None.
But back to the point of this.
All the folks saying the Big East hasn’t been the Big East since whenever need to realize something as well — they sound old, selfish and elitist. Just because it hasn’t been your Big East doesn’t make it so for others. An awful lot of us have really enjoyed watching what Dominic James and Dominique Jones brought to the table. We’ve loved how Tom Crean’s maniacal behavior on the sideline could at times make the opposing coach stop and stare — if only for a second — as if he were wondering how does this guy do it? Crean’s replacement Buzz Williams charms every room he’s in, and continues to add excitement on the court in Milwaukee with a level of talent that continues to rise. Plus he goes on tangents that if you listen, gives you incredible insight into exactly what he wants out of his team (which is rare).
Rick Pitino returned and gave us endless hours of entertainment with his Louisville squads, the way he’d change defenses, sometimes in the same possession, was fascinating. As was the way he’d summon the media to his locker room after games on the road and we’d all gather around him in a huge circle as he held court and pontificated like no other. You had to be on your toes too, because he’d turn the tables on you quickly and repeat your question back to you — “Did you think it was an intentional foul?” he once asked a buddy of mine who finally managed to stammer back “I don’t have an opinion” which was funny. All that, and table service to boot!
We thought we lost Bob Huggins before we could have him, and then West Virginia and John Beilein made it possible for Huggs to come home.
Want to hear great stories? Hang out with Bob Huggins, or people that know him, for a few minutes and you will hear the best.
His sideline demeanor provides some gems as well.
One night I watched Huggins destroy Joe Alexander from my seat. Heard every word because I was maybe 50 feet from him. It started during a timeout. The timeout ended…and it continued for three-five more minutes of action. Just Huggins repeating the same message, loudly and inches from Alexander’s face — you’re soft (the verbiage was much more colorful). All of us thought Joe Alexander would never be the same, that he was done, sure to transfer or suffer on the end of the bench for the rest of his playing days. Here was a kid who’d been severely undervalued coming out of high school. Some of us wondered if he’d be able to get out of bed the next day, and if he did, would he slip out of Morgantown quietly before anyone could see him and ask about the incident. It was truly that bad and uncomfortable to witness.
And then the craziest thing happened.
Joe Alexander, from that point on, balled out of his freaking mind. Kid became a damn lottery pick. I’m convinced those excruciating few minutes in Pittsburgh were some kind of turning point for him — a moment of clarity if you will — and played a huge part in his future financial windfall.
Huggins’ eventual successor at Cincinnati, his former assistant Mick Cronin, gave an impassioned press conference following a loss at Pittsburgh (Cronin’s Presser Steals the Show). He spoke about Yancy Gates, without speaking about Yancy Gates, for a full 20-30 minutes. Talked about hard work and responsibility and how it was a privilege and not a right to wear a Big East jersey. I smiled as I listened, knowing that Cronin needed Gates desperately, as Mick tried his best to convince the room that he really didn’t care if Gates came back, that he was only concerned with the guys he had in his locker room. As I walked out of the media room, following the easiest blog post ever written, one of the local Scout writers looked at me and said “now that’s the way it’s supposed to be, that guy (meaning Cronin) gets it!” I just smiled.
Cincinnati played a few days later… and Gates was in the lineup.
This past March at the Big East tournament I marveled at UConn’s effectiveness on offense during the first two days of action (before a lot of folks got there and I was placed in the ramp seating). I saw how much better their young players had gotten, how loose they looked. And I also saw the focus on Young Kemba’s face. It was a prelude to the most fascinating title run in college hoops history IMHO and it was special to witness it inside the Garden. To see Jim Calhoun starting to look like the cat that ate the canary (for a variety of reasons), like he knew this squad had a chance.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to some of these programs. Some will be fine I think (Marquette, Louisville, and West Virginia all have major programs run in a major fashion) but you never ever know for sure. The other schools will either struggle or rise with the loss of the programs that have already left or the one’s looking to leave in the near future (again, nobody knows).
It’s just difficult to think that this hoops oasis I’ve lived inside for the last several years is now going to be entirely different. It’s going to change and force us to change with it.
So for those saying it doesn’t matter, for whatever reason, have some respect please.
Maybe it wasn’t your Big East but it most definitely was our Big East…and it meant a helluva lot to a helluva lot of people.