My first memory of the ACC goes back so far that South Carolina was still a member of the conference. That was the January 1971 night when upstart Maryland, coached by the brash Lefty Driesell, stunned No. 2 South Carolina 31-30 after playing keepaway for virtually the entire first half.
From then on, I was hooked on the Terps and the ACC even though Maryland would always come up as short in the conference tournament as Charlie Brown trying to kick that football before Lucy snatched it away.
But then in 1979, former Providence coach Dave Gavitt hatched the brilliant idea of organizing some of the top schools which belonged to the loosely structured ECAC into a true Eastern basketball conference.
The Big East was born and I was on hand as a young Syracuse beat writer as it bloomed gloriously in the era of Patrick and Pearl, Looie and Rollie. In just its sixth season, the Big East had three of the Final Four teams: Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s. Before the league was a decade old, Syracuse, Providence and Seton Hall were also Final Four-bound. And then Jim Calhoun turned Connecticut from chump to champ.
Amidst all of that success, one rivalry stood out: Syracuse vs. Georgetown. The up-tempo Orange and the more deliberate Hoyas have dueled in five Big East Tournament finals. Coaches Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and John Thompson of Georgetown came to define the Big East with their clashing styles while players such as Pearl Washington, Gerry McNamara and Billy Owens of the Orange and Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Austin Freeman of the Hoyas also left indelible memories.
But this fierce rivalry appears to be soon going the way of the long-gone Capital Centre where the teams squared off 15 times. That’s because Syracuse and Pitt announced in September – ironically on the day after Gavitt’s death at 73 — that they’ll abandon their longtime compatriots and follow Miami and Virginia Tech (2004) and Big East original member Boston College (2005) to join the ACC in 2013-14 because of the perpetual weakness of Big East football. The move comes with the expectations of expanded revenues after they make the switch to a league where all the schools belong to the FBS (formerly Division I).
Georgetown’s football team, a Division III member from 1973-92 and now an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) program, has never been part of the Big East. The same holds for Villanova’s FCS program. Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Marquette and DePaul – which replaced Miami and Virginia Tech — don’t even play football. Notre Dame joined the Big East in 1995 but not for football since its legendary program is an FBS independent.
Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist will replace Syracuse, Pitt and Big 12-bound West Virginia (Boise State and San Diego State will join the Big East for football), but I can’t imagine Hoyas fans getting nearly as pumped for games against SMU, which is in Dallas, as they have for those against SU.
It’s sad that the nation’s top basketball conference, one in which a record 11 schools competed in last season’s NCAA Tournament, will fall victim to college football’s greed and national dominance and its ridiculous bowl-driven lack of a playoff system.
The recent expansion of the Big East to 16 teams means that the 9th-ranked Hoyas (13-1), who opened Big East play by winning at No. 4 Louisville and stayed hot by edging No. 20 Marquette last night, and the top-ranked Orange (15-0) will only meet once this regular season. That battle will be waged in the Carrier Dome on Feb. 8. So plan on attending the 2012-13 Georgetown-Syracuse showdown at Verizon Center. It might well be the last one you’ll ever see in person.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.