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Big East needs hoops-first commish or it accepts second-rate status

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Blogger
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Once synonymous with the Big East, Syracuse recently ends its alliance with the conference. (Getty Images)  
Once synonymous with the Big East, Syracuse recently ends its alliance with the conference. (Getty Images)  

Conference unrest continues.

We got the latest evidence of that Monday morning, when CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy reported Big East commissioner John Marinatto was no longer holding his post. He resigned. Well, he was forced to resign.

Because, despite the lipstick on this swine, the Big East, its reputation and its standing among the collegiate athletic elite has decayed rapidly. That erosion all came under Marinatto (though it wasn't all necessarily his fault). The man had quickly become bad for the Big East brand. During Marinatto's reign, Syracuse, West Virginia and Pittsburgh -- three schools who end their alliance with a combined 88 years of membership -- decided the Big East just wasn't for them. Who came aboard? You might be able to name some of the teams, but it's like trying to remember everything you bought at the grocery store last week.

The conference is frayed on the football side, to say the least, and completely alienated on the basketball end. Boise State, Navy and San Diego State were duped to join as football-only rent-payers in an effort to keep the league's BCS automatic qualifier status -- which evaporates once the football playoff model goes into effect in 2014. So much for that scramble. Was it worth it?

Honestly, I know we've long moved past the jokes and mere discussion of how geography is irrelevant when it comes to realignment, but when you see Boise State and San Diego State as part of a conference with headquarters that are in Providence, how can you help but laugh? The moves were ludicrous then, are ridiculous now and will be indefensible for as long as those schools are affiliated with the same conference as John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Madison Square Garden.

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To his credit, Marinatto brought in Memphis and Temple, both great basketball coups. But he and league brass chased down Central Florida, SMU and Houston for hoops, too. Not as good. The very definition of filler, in fact. Central Florida adds to the Big East what "Revolution 9" adds to the White Album. It's all a farrago, this new Big East, and the league is the only one refusing to accept that the surgery won't work.

But its image can be fixed. And if the league wants to be relevant, viable, and seen as something that stands for something, it needs to own its history and identity. The Big East likely will ignore the advice, but Marinatto's replacement has to be a basketball-first guy. The Big East is never going to be a premier football player. It can be an echelon above a Conference USA, sure, but it's never going to come close to the Big Ten, SEC, even the ACC, which has its own internal identity conflicts. The Big East was borne out of and earned its bread on basketball for decades. It was -- and still is, of course -- a league known for its toughness on the court, not the field.

All you need to know about Marinatto's impact and legacy with the Big East lies with this fact: he didn't even last three years. His predecessor, Mike Tranghese, was as much a champion for the league and its basketball as Tranghese's mentor, Dave Gavitt, who founded the Big East in 1979. Those two are the only other commissioners in Big East history, and they both backed and defended basketball until their retirements (and long after them, too). Gavitt did it for 11 years; Tranghese 19. Marinatto: not even three -- and out. It's because he couldn't lead. Nice man, but it could be argued he was the opposite of the ideal chieftain during college athletics' most volatile continental shifting. Now the Big East needs a critical commissioner as a huge TV deal negotiation looms later this fall. It seems to be a watershed moment for the league going forward. The league wants to lead with the nose of a football, and if it does the basketball gets worse. The threat of losing a Louisville or UConn – the two best schools left -- becomes more likely.

The league is already at a point where the Big East tournament is beyond its glory years. We'll always care about the Big East tournament, but we probably won't love it any time soon the way we did from the mid-80s on.

Had realignment not poisoned the Big East, that wouldn't be the case. The good news: the belief, and all those anonymous sources talking to reporters today, is that Marinatto is gone in part because the basketball-affiliated brass with the Big East was ticked, that they were treated like second-rate citizens within their league. It's a good sign because it shows basketball still has a voice inside that league, which has gone out of its way to unthread its roots with the sport in the past two years.

But here's the bad news: The interim commish? Guy by the name of Joseph A. Bailey III. He has a background in -- you guessed it, baby -- football. He's worked with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys. Now, just because Bailey's name is on the placard right now doesn't mean it will be going forward. But it's an early indication that the league could still be football-minded, further bastardizing the product it spent more than three decades building.

So it's vital that the league put in a basketball-first guy. Instead of following the big boys and looking like the wannabe on the outside of the crowd, why not be the major conference with a basketball identity. Embrace it, Big East. You’ll be better for it.

McMurphy has tossed out possible candidates. Among them: recently ousted NCAA director of championships Greg Shaheen, AKA the man who negotiated the largest TV deal in NCAA history and brought the NCAA tournament to its greatest prominence. There would be no better hire for the future of the league than Shaheen. Best of all: he loves basketball.

The man in charge of picking the next Poobah is Gregory H. Williams. He's the president at Cincinnati and sits on the executive committee for the league. Mr. Williams, you work at a school with tremendous basketball history, and one that's relatively new to big-time football. In that way, your school mimics what the Big East is all about. You should know where the league's history, character, fortune and future reside.

It's basketball or bust.

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