When I first heard that ESPN was releasing a new documentary on the Big East from their ’30 for 30′ series, I was both excited and worried at the same time. I was excited because, well, I love the Big East and the ’30 for 30′ series has produced some awesome documentaries. I was worried, though, because I wondered what angle ESPN, a sports Goliath that some have called “The World Wide Meddler”, would take in discussing the history and recent undoing of a conference it no longer had a TV deal with. One friend asked me if I thought they would treat it as a eulogy to a dead conference – a requiem. I truly wasn’t sure what approach they would take.
I had the opportunity to watch ESPN’s latest production in their ’30 for 30′ documentary series, “Requiem for the Big East”, which will air on Sunday, March 16th on ESPN at 9pm. The film was directed by Ezra Edelman and while there is certainly a eulogistic vibe to the story as it’s being told, it’s more of eulogy of the way greed and money ruined a conference that came together with similar values and ideals, a conference that had formed for the mutual benefit of all members, a conference that had a visionary at it’s helm in Dave Gavitt. This is the requiem for the Big East. The requiem is about how this once great conference was doomed once it began expanding and placating “football schools”. It’s about how these schools all came together and made sacrifices to be together. It’s how their colorful coaches and physical style of play allowed a league to grow from nothing to greatness within 10 years. There is mention of ESPN starting around the same time and how ESPN helped the Big East establish a national audience but it’s more of a mention than anything resembling a focus. That’s as it should be.
Some newer Providence fans who have heard Dave Gavitt’s name but maybe didn’t fully understand his brilliance and importance for PC’s place in college athletics will get to see just how critical Gavitt was in putting this conference together and how beloved he was and continues to be for the people who were around at the beginning. At one point early in the film, the narrator refers to Gavitt as “a one man basketball movement.” People may not have a sense of the landscape of NCAA basketball and Northeast basketball in the 1970’s but the film does a good job of giving some perspective and background as to why Gavitt thought it was so important to form this league in 1979. You also get to hear from some of the original coaches discuss why Gavitt was so critical and how he had an innate ability to bring people together for their common benefit. One of my favorite stories was told by Lou Carnesseca when he told the story of how Gavitt convinced him that joining this new league was the thing to do.
In the end, “Requiem for the Big East” is much more like an Irish wake. There is some story telling from the past, a little bit of familial drama, but in the end, it’s a celebration of the life of the Big East, not the sadness about it’s death. Jim Boeheim summed it up well: “We’re not leaving (the Big East.) We’re leaving a whole different animal. I’m nostalgic for what we had, but that’s gone. That is long gone.”
It appears that the conference’s legacy lives on and has seemingly gone back to it’s roots as a group of schools with shared interests and ideals. My hope is that this film, which shows the way the previous Big East rose and fell, serves as a warning for the current Big East Presidents and Athletic Directors – don’t let history repeat itself – don’t allow expansion solely in the service of greed and money to occur because it will not serve this league well in the long term.