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(Not) Gone, But Not Forgotten: A review of "Requiem for the Big East"

On Selection Sunday ESPN will air "Requiem for the Big East" a documentary examining the history of the Big East from it's inception to eventually crumbling. Despite some flaws the documentary is well produced and worth watching even if you're a casual college basketball fan.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

"We said we were goin’ do this together. We said we were goin’ to make sacrifices. We said we were goin come out of the gyms and go to the big arenas. We said we were going to show them all…and money is very important, but…that’s also the mentality of a hell of lot people who are in jail." - John Thompson Jr.

As I type this out I'm sitting in the living room of my apartment with the TV on. The Georgetown Hoyas are playing the DePaul Blue Demons in Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. It's something utterly familiar, yet entirely new. Might have to do with how close the game is (currently 17-16 Georgetown with 7:44 left in the first). Could have to do with the channel I found this game on - not the usual ESPN as it's been for the past 34 years, but Fox Sports 1, the new home of the Big East. Gun to my head though, I'd say the new feeling comes from who's at the tournament...and who isn't.

Nobody with a pulse is unfamiliar with the shakeup that sent tremors through the college basketball world over the past few years. Teams were trading the conference patches on their jerseys like a game of hot potato, and depending on which side you were on it could've felt like anything from an episode of Survivor to the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

It was a drama so bloody and twisted that anyone who was there to witness it had a version of what happened. One version will be aired this Sunday on the former Big East network, ESPN. After the Selection Sunday show ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series will "Requiem for the Big East", a two-hour look at the history of college basketball's greatest conference.

If you're a Big East fan you may have a knee-jerk reaction to that last bit. ESPN producing a documentary on the Big East? For most that might feel like a criminal breaking into your house, robbing you, and then filling out the police report about what happened. Fortunately the documentary delivered is that looks at the Big East for what it was, examining the intimate moments during the rise and fall of the conference and what made the "house that Gavitt built" so successful. Despite some shortcomings in focus, "Requiem for the Big East" is a film that fans college basketball in general can enjoy.

Cutting Through the Darkness

The documentary opens with John Thompson's quote from the beginning of this article, transitioning into shots of New York City in March 2013. It's the eve of the Georgetown-Syracuse semifinal matchup in the Big East Tournament, and already anticipation of March is felt. Scalpers are standing outside of Madison Square Garden selling tickets to the game for upwards of $1,000. Syracuse Orangemen (led by Jim Boeheim) and Georgetown Hoyas (led by John Thompson III) are shown walking off buses, into locker rooms, and getting ready for the night. Fans are interviewed about their excitement for the game in the outer bowls of Madison Square Garden, and clips of post game interviews with coaches are played. This is what college basketball is all about.

The film transitions to the pre-Big East days, talking about the landscape of college basketball in the northeast where college teams were independents. Getting to the NCAA tournament meant teams had to create their own schedules worthy of a bid, win, and then be one of the three out of 38 teams lucky enough for a bid.

Coach Dave Gavitt, the coach of the Providence Friars, reached the 1973 Final Four during this time, but the struggles were there. While Gavitt's Friars played in a 12,000 seat Providence Civic Center other northeast schools weren't as lucky to have the draw or appeal, and that made scheduling harder. Then, in 1977, when the NCAA announced that you had to be a part of a conference in order to get a bid to the Big Dance, this sent the northeast in a state of panic over what would happen to them.

Everyone, except Gavitt, who saw an opportunity. The film transitions to the inception of what became the Big East, and just how Gavitt engineered this conference. The idea was simple: focus on big markets that would give the conference more eyes than any other conference in the country. Boost exposure, get on TV, and build something that nobody could say no to. Ironic, considering that almost none of the founding members wanted in initially. Gavitt, ever the persuasive talker, was able to convince programs systematically to join. The key, according to the film, was that Gavitt was seen as a peer to these coaches and athletic directors, not an administrator or a bureaucrat.

Coaches like Jim Boeheim, John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino and others tell stories about the Big East's inception that make you feel like you're sitting at a family dinner. These early moments were a highlight for the personal look at the founding of the conference, and the passion these coaches display bleed off the TV and hits close to home. Sharing good times and bad, the film makes a point not only of telling the importance of the personalities of these coaches, but making the viewer feel like they've reunited with old friends they haven't seen in years.

"We were good teams with colorful coaches."

From there the philosophy of the Big East and the goals the Big East had are broken down one quality at a time. The film goes on to talk about how they reached out and found a TV deal with a new, small station called ESPN. The marriage, the film says, was a match made in heaven: ESPN needed programming, the Big East needed a station. With a station secure "Requiem" focuses on how recruiting was impacted, and the characters that came about from the ability to keep local talent from leaving the northeast.

We're given some great insight on how the Big East recruited and what appealed to these players, as well as the importance these players had on the league. Players like Pearl Washington, Patrick Ewing and Harold Pressley are interviewed and the same "behind the scenes" feeling received from the coaches are given by the players when talking about their conference.

The first mention of college football comes in, talking specifically about the Penn State invite that was ultimately voted down in a 5-3 decision. The threat about football was dismissed, moving on instead to the decision to invite Pitt, but this was the first real "missed opportunity" to educate people about what caused the fall of the Big East. This was a big moment and it's given very little screen time, and only briefly revisited later.

The film continues forward but the first real road bump is felt. The film talks about the rivalry between Syracuse and Georgetown and for the majority of the film from here on out, the film alternates between Syracuse and Georgetown experiences. There were creative takes on both sides (players bringing personalities and styles of play, how the rivalry was formed, the importance of success in these programs) but the film goes from "insightful" to "dragged out" fairly quickly.

At points you think you'll finally be moving on from Syracuse or Georgetown, another school will be introduced, and then you'll be taken right back to Syracuse and Georgetown. For Orange and Hoya fans this will be a delight from a program perspective. For college basketball fans this will be a nice look into two prominent programs. This problem persists through a decent bulk of the film, and quickly the film turns from "close insights on the Big East" to "What was Georgetown doing in the 80s and how did other teams and cultures factor into it?" Even during talk about St. John's and Villanova in the mid 80s (one made the final four, the other one the championship) both teams feel like they're taking a back seat to the Hoyas.

"We had two choices - expand or this league is breaking up."

An hour and a half after the start the film moves into the 90s and starts to talk about expansion. Unfortunately, after dragging out the Syracuse and Georgetown storylines from the 80s the film realizes it still has almost two and a half decades to cover in half an hour and goes from "slow and detailed" to "fast and broad stroked."

"Requiem" revisits Penn State by mentioning it's decision to join the Big 10 left other football independents scrambling to find conferences, and that meant the Big East was ripe for the picking. In order to protect their product the new commissioner at the time, Mike Tranghese, talks about the difficult decision to add football schools to the Big East.

The feelings on Tranghese will vary from fanbase to fanbase, but "Requiem" does a good job of illustrating the struggle that he faced as commissioner trying to appease two different mindsets in one conference setting. The decision Tranghese made to expand did a lot of things for the conference, and the opinion that "Requiem" takes is one that's put point-blank on film: the league lost it's gritty attitude with expansion. The league had too many mouths to feed. The football schools felt they were producing more money than basketball schools and therefore deserved money.

A lot of the negatives about expansion are focused here, and in doing so the film loses a lot of focus. Expansion may have taken some things away at the time and it certainly changed the culture, but expansion also added a lot to the Big East as well, both for football and basketball.

Either way there's not much time given to expansion or departure as the documentary continues to shoot forward like a bullet, talking so quickly about teams coming and going that if you weren't familiar with what the Big East was and was not the only perspective you'd walk away from in this film was "the 80s were great, the 90s were the downfall, the 2000's were ???"

"E tu, Brute? Just that simple."

"Requiem" tries to get back on track in the last 15 minutes by talking about the addition of five teams after the departure of Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech but at that point the viewer is left playing catch up and is left entangled. The film mentions the addition of DePaul, Marquette, Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati before going back to talk about departure.

The film becomes brutally honest with coaches, former commissioner Mike Tranghese and players calling out the defections for what they were: moves for money. Rick Pitino said it best when he talked about ADs going into a room, saying they're all going to remain loyal and stick together, and then leaving the room and immediately getting on the phone with ACC schools trying to get into the rival conference: it was no longer all for one. Everyone had their own agenda. The room changed.

"It isn’t the Big East," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said, "we’re not leaving that, we’re leaving a whole different animal. I’m disappointed and nostalgic for what we had. But that is gone. That is long gone."

The film starts to wind down rather quickly. "Requiem" mentions the deal that was offered to the Big East that was worth $1.5 billion that was turned down by them because they felt they could get more money, and then takes a perspective of "they thought they were worth more and they weren't." This is a weak point in the documentary because, if you know your Big East history, you know there's much more to this story, but whether it's because it was elected to leave parts of the story out because of time or because of what that history tells remains a mystery. Regardless, it's well known that the University of Pittsburgh was advising the turn down of that offer, so for a documentary to spend so much time on 80s Georgetown teams it's a glaring oversight to leave out a piece of information like that. And let's not get started on what Boston College former Athletic Director Gene Defilippo said to the Boston Globe about all this...

The film wraps up rather depressingly, making the case that the Big East is "done" and "over", feeling like the end of an obituary with coaches and players reminiscing about their memories of what the conference was. The last scene before the credits is a block of text talking about the departure of seven schools to start their own basketball-only conference, and by forfeiting $70 million they got to keep the Big East name and the right to play at Madison Square Garden. Roll credits.

Final Thoughts

Overall, "Requiem" is worth a watch. I found the film fun and insightful, with moments that really make you feel what the experiences were like. The documentary is flawed in some aspects: for starters there's too much focus on Georgetown and Syracuse, and not enough focus on some other schools. The 80's part seems to take up the bulk of the film and the film really has to gloss over or omit entirely many important moments that the Big East had in the 90s, 00s and 10s (UConn won THREE national championships and they're hardly mentioned as a school, let alone as a prominent member of what made the Big East what it was) and towards the end really takes a negative perspective without showing a lot of positive highlights.

The film also fails to key on the fact the Big East is still alive, and returned to it's roots. I realize that ESPN no longer produces the Big East, and it's too early in the it's new form to call the Big East a true success, but it's important to at least highlight the motives and reforming of the new Big East because it really is a return to what the film talks about for the first hour and a half. Yet other than the end text there's no mention of it.

All that said the film does remind you of why the Big East became so renowned, and why what it accomplished should never be forgotten.

As I finish this the Georgetown-DePaul game is coming to an exciting conclusion. DePaul is up 57-54 with 14 seconds to go. A win from a team like DePaul over a team like Georgetown is what the Big East has always been about. It's good to see it alive and well.