The Big East question revisited ... 25 years later
Share with others:
Twenty five years ago, the University of Pittsburgh had to make a decision that would shape its future in intercollegiate athletics. School administrators had to decide whether to join the Big East Conference, a young league known for its basketball prowess, or Joe Paterno's proposed all-sports Eastern Conference, a league that, first and foremost, promised strong football.
Dean Billick was second in command in the Pitt athletic department in the early 1980s and was asked to provide points for and against joining both leagues. In the end, Billick recommended Pitt join the Big East. Billick's superiors agreed with his recommendation.
- Joe Paterno's role in Pitt's decision to join the Big East has long been a hot topic for debate.
- "I searched my own mind and soul and recommend-ed a decision I thought was best ..." -- Dean Billick, Pitt associate AD"
- What Pitt has done in basketball has been remarkable." -- Mike Tranghese, Big East commissioner
- "Lower expectations probably have made the subsequent successes all the sweeter ..." -- Mark Nordenberg, Pitt chancellor
A quarter-century later, it is a decision that has been praised and criticized.
"The advantages to joining the Big East were that we were joining a dynamic conference for basketball and our Olympic sports and were able to remain independent in football," Billick said recently when asked to recall the monumental decision that he, former athletic director Cas Myslinski and former chancellor Wesley Posvar made for the university. "I did a lot of thinking about it. I searched my own mind and soul and recommended a decision that I thought was the best for Pitt at the time. Was it the right long-term decision? I'll let others debate that issue."
Pitt is celebrating 25 years of being a member of the Big East this year. There is no debating Pitt has prospered in many areas as a result of the move, most notably in men's basketball. There is also no debating that the once powerful Pitt football team that ruled over college football for much of the decade before the decision has never been the same.
A history lesson
Pitt had joined the Eastern 8 basketball league in 1976-77, but the Panthers and the league never flourished in the six seasons spent together. Pitt had some good teams -- making the NCAA tournament twice in 1981 and '82 -- but basketball was not making money for the Pitt athletic department, and the league was not making an impression nationally.
The Eastern 8 did not have a competitive television contract and suffered from low visibility. The Big East had come onto the scene a few years earlier with seven charter members -- Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Syracuse.
In 1980, it snatched up Villanova from the Eastern 8 and eyed Pitt next. Not because of a burning desire to make Pitt a member but more out of self-preservation.
Former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt knew that if Pitt aligned with Penn State then Syracuse and Boston College would follow the Panthers to the new conference.
Pitt did not immediately sign on with the Big East. Paterno's conference, which would have consisted of Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse, Rutgers, Temple and Boston College offered conference affiliation in all sports and the draw of a possible super conference in football.
The idea came about, at least in part, because Penn State was denied membership to the Big East as a basketball-playing school. Gavitt and the football schools supported Penn State membership in internal discussions according to current Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, but the basketball schools voted against the Nittany Lions because of their poor basketball tradition and geography. Paterno, also the Penn State athletic director at the time, has denied that Penn State formally applied to the Big East for basketball.
Pitt ultimately decided to join the Big East because it could remain independent in football and pocket the large sums of money it was making in that sport. If it had joined the Eastern Conference, Pitt would have had to split that money through revenue sharing. With Pitt out of the mix, the all-sports conference never materialized, much to the chagrin of Paterno.
"I'm not interested in being critical of anyone or another school, but there were some behind-the-scenes actions that we thought were selfish and troubling," said Billick, who is an athletics chief of staff at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. "What some schools were seeing in conference fees and revenue sharing were not in Pitt's best interests."
25 YEARS AGO:
The Big East influence
Numbers for Pitt basketball and football over the past 25 years:
Big East titles
Elite Eight/BCS bowls
NCAA bids/bowl games
AP Top-10 finishes
Note: Football did not join Big East until 1993.
Critics argue that it was a shortsighted money grab by Pitt that ignored the long-term need for conference affiliation in football.
One thing is certain: The Panthers could not sustain the on-field success from the Johnny Majors-Jackie Sherrill era, and the big money generated by the football team began to grow smaller and smaller. In 1993, the Big East formed a football conference, one that Pitt entered with 12 wins over the prior three-year period.
While uncertainty reigned in the football realm, the other major Pitt sports team was enjoying unprecedented success. Pitt basketball had firmly tablished itself as a player in Big East, having made the NCAA tournament five times in seven years from 1986-93.
The rise of basketball
The Pitt sports program to benefit the most from the move to the Big East is the men's basketball team. In the 25 seasons Pitt has competed in the Big East, the Panthers are 467-304 (.606), with 17 winning seasons and 12 NCAA tournament appearances.
In the 25 years before Pitt joined the conference, the Panthers had only six NCAA appearances and a .515 winning percentage (333-313).
By that NCAA tournament standard, Pitt has been twice as successful on the court. The university has gained much more than that off the court.
Pitt basketball is now a huge moneymaker for the university. Before joining the conference, the Panthers were losing money on the basketball court.
In Pitt's final season in the Eastern 8 in 1981, the Panthers sold about 500 season tickets. For this coming season and the past few, just about every seat in the Petersen Events Center has been purchased by a season-ticket holder.
Pitt has 3,500 season-ticket holders. With 5,500 Panther Club members, that means 2,000 people who donate money to Pitt basketball are on a waiting list for season tickets. The basketball renaissance came as a result of two things, Tranghese said. New facilities were built to bolster the program and the Pitt administration hired coaches with a vision.
"What Pitt has done in basketball has been remarkable," Tranghese said.
Entering this season, Pitt has a string of 95 consecutive sellouts. And with the Big East's gigantic television contract with ESPN and CBS, the revenues are pouring in. The men's basketball team is generating roughly half the revenue of the football team. Those two sports fund every other sport at Pitt.
Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg was a season-ticket holder at old Fitzgerald Field House in 1982 and marvels at the changes he has witnessed -- financially and otherwise -- in the basketball program.
"When I look back at the decisions we made for sizing the Petersen Events Center, they were driven in large part by our desire to create what we hoped would be the finest place to watch college basketball in the country," Nordenberg said of the 12,508-seat on-campus arena that opened in 2002. "We were playing in Fitzgerald. Capacity was 6,000. We were not selling out for every game. You thought about doubling the capacity and wondered how we would fill those seats. Of course, we sold it out much faster than we believed would be the case.
"Supporting a multisport athletic program, which includes many sports that are not revenue generating, means that you do want to have success at the turnstile with the sports that can generate revenue for you. The men's basketball program has become that for Pitt. And looking out over the medium-range future, I see real potential for women's basketball as well. The teams we're putting on the court are exciting. I have been up in Hartford where the [Connecticut] women have played and filled the arena in the afternoon, and the men play in the evening and the place is filled again. I do think we're building toward that point in women's basketball."
Last season, the Pitt men set a school record for national television appearances. Playing on national TV means free advertising for the school, which leads to a rise in applications from high school students who yearn for a superior college sports team to cheer.
Before Pitt joined the Big East, the Panthers were lucky to be on national television once a season.
The Panthers made 23 national TV appearances last season. Of the 24 games played after Jan. 1, all but four were carried by national networks CBS, ESPN or ESPN2.
"Basketball has probably gone through its greatest period in the history of the program," Billick said. "Being in the Big East turned that sport around for Pitt. And Pitt rose to the challenge of being in the Big East."
While the basketball team is experiencing its greatest success, the football team has struggled to recapture its glory days.
The glory days of Pitt football came from 1976-81. In those years, Pitt was a perennial contender for the national championship.
The Panthers won the national title in '76 with a 12-0 record and finished second in the polls in 1980 and '81. In those six sensational seasons, the Panthers were 62-9-2.
Since 1982, the year Pitt agreed to join the Big East in basketball, Pitt has never seriously challenged again for a national championship in football. The Panthers were No. 1 for a time in '82, but lost three of their final five games and finished 9-3.
That was one of only 11 winning seasons out of 25. Only twice in that quarter century have the Panthers managed nine wins in a season, the one in '82 and another in 2002.
Even though the football team has been mostly mediocre for the past 25 years -- the Panthers were 142-149-6 going into yesterday's game against Syracuse -- the general consensus is that the affiliation with the Big East has little to do with the team's won-loss record.
"Joining the Big East was never a decision where we knew football was going to suffer. It was never a decision that was for basketball," Billick said. "It was an opportunity for us to have great basketball and for football to continue to be outstanding. If you look at the history of Pitt football, it's been a roller coaster. There have been some ups and downs. I think that has had more to do with leadership than any conference affiliation."
Even though the football team is the top revenue producer, the Panthers have been a disappointment at the gate in recent years. They struggle to draw respectable crowds in 65,000-seat Heinz Field. For this season, the Pitt athletic department tried to entice fans by offering a buy one season ticket, get the second one for $10 promotion.
The Big East football conference is only 15 years old and has already gone through one major reconstruction. Nordenberg was instrumental in putting the Big East back together earlier this decade when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left for the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East added five new members, including Louisville and South Florida, which have quickly become football powers.
Tranghese credits Nordenberg and West Virginia president David Hardesty for saving the league.
"Chancellor Nordenberg's role in the restructuring cannot be underestimated," Tranghese said.
The only thing that remains is for Pitt to establish itself as a football power in the conference. Nordenberg is confident Pitt will assume that role in the future.
"We did see a marked improvement in our football fortunes during the course of the last 10 years where we did become a program that was regularly recording winning seasons and going to bowl games and representing the university and the conference well," Nordenberg said. "We are going through a period of rebuilding, and I am confident that we will emerge at the other end with the type of team that will be a consistent performer. That will show on the field and that will show in terms of attendance."
Nordenberg said it is unfair to compare the basketball team's successes against the struggles of the football program. He said their divergent paths have little to do with the fact that Pitt decided to join a basketball conference 25 years ago.
"This may well have more to do with the differing perspectives in assessing the two programs," he said. "If you go back 25 years in football, you're going back to years of glory. As a starting point, people had high expectations, and we have not lived up to those expectations. In basketball, on the other hand, if you went back to that same period of time, you had teams competing in a conference that was not among the major conferences in the country, teams that were not successful in the same way that the football teams had been. The lower expectations probably have made the subsequent successes all the sweeter for fans. I don't think the conference, in terms of its traditions or its current reality, plays a very significant role in that."
First Published November 4, 2007 12:00 am