One of the great things about going to college in Philadelphia was the Big Five: the annual round-robin basketball games involving Penn, Temple, Villanova, St. Joe’s and LaSalle. Those typically sold-out “City Series” games at the Palestra meant almost as much as league contests to the players, coaches and fans. My senior year, the five schools all finished 2-2 in the Big Five, prompting The Bulletin to run the standings five different ways with a different school on top each time.
In contrast, when I came home to Washington, one of the most annoying situations in local sports was the refusal of the top men’s basketball programs, Georgetown and Maryland, to play each other after the 1979-80 season. The rift stemmed from a feud between Hoyas coach John Thompson and Lefty Driesell, the longtime Terps coach who had just resigned.
However, that didn’t change when Bob Wade — who had sent a couple of star players from his Dunbar (Baltimore) teams to play for Georgetown — replaced Driesell. And when Thompson was somehow talked into playing Maryland in November 1993 and the unranked Terps knocked off the mighty Hoyas, the schools returned to their respective ACC and Big East orbits, even though the campuses are all of 11 miles apart.
Over the last 32 years, Georgetown and Maryland have met as many times in the NCAA Tournament as they have locally, just twice each. That’s just wrong.
This hasn’t happened because the Big East got too big in recent years. As Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said in announcing his decision to stop playing Georgetown in all other sports until the Hoyas relent in men’s basketball, the ball is in the latter’s court on this.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III is his father’s son in many respects, but he also runs a much more open, media-friendly regime than did his truculent, intimidating dad. Area fans of other schools who rooted against the Hoyas back in the day find that more difficult these days.
Not to let Maryland totally off the hook on Washington’s shameful lack of a Big Five-like league, the Terps haven’t played Navy since January 1983 (other than an NCAA matchup two years later), Howard since November 1996, George Mason since December 2004 and American and George Washington since December 2008.
Georgetown played AU and Howard this season and Navy in December 2006, but hasn’t faced GW since the 1981-82 season and Mason since the 1985-86 campaign. But somehow the Hoyas found room for games against NJIT and IUPUI on their 2011-12 dance card while the Terps met Florida Gulf Coast and Samford.
Meanwhile, AU and Mason both faced Florida Atlantic this season while Quinnipiac was on the schedules of the Eagles and the Midshipmen. Howard played St. Francis (NY) and Rider, but not GW or Mason. GW, whose new coach, Mike Lonergan, is a born-and-bred Washingtonian, didn’t play any local schools but had room on its schedule for Bradley and Detroit.
I’m not talking about giving up televised games with powerhouses like Missouri or Memphis, in-state rivalries with Virginia or Mt. St. Mary’s, or guaranteed paydays at Kansas or Syracuse. But why in the world can’t the seven local Division I schools play each other at least once every couple of years? The players would love it, the fans would fill the seats (and athletic department coffers) and the coaches would come to understand that it’s part of the job in one of the nation’s hot spots for college hoops.
If it still works for Philadelphia in the 21st century, there’s no reason that it can’t work here, too. I’d love to hear JTIII et al tell me why it can’t.
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 the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.