Cover Image: The Big East

The Big East

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Member Reviews

Subtitled: Inside the Most Entertaining and Influential Conference in College Basketball History

I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

The Big East conference was formed in 1979, just as I was graduating from high school and starting college. The conference quickly became the focus of the college basketball world, featuring the best talent and the most competitive teams, based in many of the biggest markets in the U.S. This book follows the conference from the time Dave Gavitt founded it to fill the void he perceived for a power conference based in the northeast until the point where several original members left due to the football-driven conference realignments of the previous decade.

There are a couple of chapters devoted to the Georgetown Hoyas of Patrick Ewing and coach John Thompson. For many basketball fans of that time, that was the definitive team of the Big East. Playing their intense and aggressive brand of defense, the Hoyas played in three NCAA tournament championship games over a four year period. Syracuse and St. Johns were also very successful during the early years of the conference. However, the conference was incredibly deep, and nearly every one of the original conference members made tournament runs over the next 10-15 years. Reading this book reminded me of many of the players, games, and controversies that made college basketball so great in the 1980s.

I gave The Big East five stars on Goodreads. It took me back to a time I remember fondly of watching basketball and drinking beer through most of the weekend with my friends.
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This books covers the forming and history of the Big East. It covers the rivalries that developed (i.e. – Syracuse vs. Georgetown), the teams that either won the national championship or played in the final game and concludes with its reformation after most of the major colleges left for other conferences. This is a must read for anybody interested in the history of the Big East or college basketball.

I received a free Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook and my nonfiction book review blog.
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College basketball is a sport like no other. The crowds, the venues, the players and traditions. It all comes together to become sports perfection. Amid this perfect storm, seemingly out of nowhere, a group of school formed together to put basketball first. In today's football-first collegiate platform, this seems backwards, and would ultimately be the undoing of the original Big East. But when the conference was in its prime, there was no match nor comparison.

O'Neill has hit on a brilliant concept here and writes it perfectly. From its humble beginnings to its multiple National Championships, O'Neill really showcases the highs, lows, struggles, and successes of the league. This is an absolute must-read for any college basketball fan.
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No matter what loyalties a college basketball fan may have to a school or conference, chances are that the fan will have at least a few great memories of watching Big East basketball.  It might be the thrilling six-overtime game between Syracuse and Connecticut in 2009, the 1985 NCAA championship game in which Villanova shocked favored Georgetown or when Providence made an improbable run to the Final Four in 1987 under Rick Pitino. These are just a few of the highlights of the conference’s many accomplishments in this excellent book about the Big East by Dana O’Neil.

The book isn’t all about the action on the court.  No book on the Big East would be complete without the story of how the conference’s first commissioner, Dave Gavitt, took an idea to bring eastern schools together to form a conference to make east coast basketball improve on its dismal record of only producing three NCAA championships in 40 years.  But thanks to some shrewd talking, handshake deals and a new all-sports network called ESPN that was looking for programming to fill its airwaves, Gavitt brought together seven schools to form the Big East conference and from there, it almost immediately became a basketball powerhouse.

O’Neil brings some great storytelling to chronicle not only Gavitt’s wheeling and dealing to get the conference together, but she also describes his insistence that all schools not only share the wealth that would be generated but also should share in the glory and build up a program worthy of championship contention. While even the most casual fan will remember some of the greatest Big East teams of the 1980’s such as Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown teams, nearly every school who was a member of the conference between its inception in 1979 and its near collapse when Syracuse and Pittsburgh left in 2013. 

The influence of football schools joining, which started in 1993 with the addition of Miami among others, is when O’Neil argues the conference really started to lose its luster that Gavitt and company worked so hard to gain. It seemed almost painful to read about the conference succumbing to football interests after the story of Gavitt convincing everyone who would listen that the conference tourney should be held in Madison Square Garden.  

The Big East conference changed the college basketball landscape forever and this book is a very worthy telling of that story. O’Neil has written about the conference for ESPN and her knowledge and connections to the most important people in Big East lore shows.  Any fan of college basketball from the 1980’s and 1990’s should read this book. 

I wish to thank Ballentine Books for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Talk to any basketball fan who was around in the 1980s, and they'll immediately become nostalgic when the Big East Conference is brought up. The league was formed in 1979, and had a magnificent run where almost every game between the best teams was a main event. The players were terrific, and the coaches were fascinating. 

While the conference still exists in a different form today, a look back at those crazy first 10 years is always appropriate. Dana O'Neil, now with The Athletic, covered some of those games. She's taken a fun look back in "The Big East" - a celebration of that era.

A little history lesson might be in order before we get going. The universities in the Northeast had some history when it came to college basketball. The problem was that there were so many schools playing. The state schools tended to dominate the sport in other parts of the country. That made groupings like the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference a natural. Most of the schools in the East were independents, and were only loosely associated in the 1970s. 

Then the NCAA started to insist on teams playing in a conference in order to gain admission into its lucrative tournament. Dave Gavitt of Providence had the idea of picking off the biggest schools and forming a conference in the late 1970s. The idea was to select universities that played in major markets. There were a lot of eyeballs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. That in turn would draw television dollars. So on May 31, 1979, the Big East was born. Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Syracuse were the charter members, with Villanova joining the party a year later.

It took a little time, but soon the top players started to stay close to home to play college ball. The location was attractive, as was the fact that cable television was emerging as a power player in the sports business at that time. Then the Big East moved its conference tournament to Madison Square Garden to New York City. And everything sort of exploded. In tournament week, the Garden had almost as many stars as there were on Broadway. Names like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington turned up. Just as importantly, there was a fascinating cast of coaches that were constants, year after year. John Thompson intimidated, Lou Carnesecca charmed, Rollie Massimino laughed, Jim Boeheim whined, and Jim Calhoun competed. They were all great in their own way.

O'Neil talked to about 60 people and it shows. It seems that all of them have a bundle of stories about the Big East, and are happy to tell them - even if they've made the rounds before. It was obviously a magical time in all of their lives, and they have no problem with reliving it. The pages go by quite quickly in an entertaining manner. The author gives almost all of the original teams a moment in the sunshine in the form of a chapter, more or less. The seven squads eventually made it to the Final Four in the decade covered. 

If there are nits to be picked, this isn't a particularly analytic look at those days. It must have been rather frustrating for teams like Boston College, Providence and Seton Hall to do the equivalent of banging their heads against a wall in going against the big powers. It might have been nice to read what that was like. There were also about three too many shots taken at Syracuse about its weather there, but as a graduate I'm a little sensitive about that. 

The Big East Conference essentially blew up once football came into the equation in the 1990s, and conference realignment has changed everything - and maybe not for the better. Still, the Big East has changed in order to survive, mostly with schools that don't play football. There's something nice about that. The tradition continues, and if someone wants to know why that matters, "The Big East" fills in many of the details nicely. A lot of people are going to love this book.
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College sports conferences fascinate me, and while that doesn't make me unique, I'd like to think that my fascination stems from a more unique place. Rather than be interested in college conferences for the standings at the end of the season, I'm intrigued by the power dynamics, the history, and the geography of a conference. Those three factors, amongst others, give each conference it's own unique DNA, and that builds into the reputation that it holds. In "The Big East" by Dana O'Neil, we get into some of the juicy aspects of what it means to build a conference from scratch. 

The book focuses on the sport that led to the conceiving of the Big East - basketball. Football is mentioned, as are a few other sports, but O'Neil gives a (mostly) season by season recap of the Big East's basketball successes. The book itself was pretty brief, and I often found myself wanting more details and more story. That isn't to say there isn't meat here, but it all feels brief, particularly at the end of the Big East's life. I wish there was more of the behind the scenes information about the rise and fall of the conference, but ultimately, "The Big East" provides an entertaining and engaging read about the conference.
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A nostalgic treat since I grew up watching Big East basketball. What a wild ride the league has had, from rogue upstart to national powerhouse, and then overreaching and eventually falling back on its roots. But its 80s peak is something we won't see again and I'm glad there's now a detailed chronicle of it.
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The Big East was my favorite conference (because it was hoops-based) and this book relates its formative tales: Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and the amazing Villanova upset. The rise is also paralleled by ESPN, which isn't a focus here. Dana O'Neill wasn't my favorite basketball writer at ESPN because her features were generally soft focused, but her style of writing works very well in book form.
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