After hearing Providence's head coach Ed Cooley refer to the Big East as "the best conference in the country" for seemingly the 1,000th time in the league's first season after the reboot, the reaction of many of the people watching the Friar coach's post game press conference was to roll their eyes. There goes Cooley with his hyperbolic statements again. The Big East 2.0 had an okay first season in 2013-14. A nonconference record winning percentage of 72.6% (98-37) was better than the ACC and SEC and just below the other 3 members of the "Football Five". Getting four of the league's 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament was also a very solid first showing for the newly formed league made up of holdovers DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova and bolt-ons Butler, Creighton and Xavier. Then the league failed to have any of it's 4 teams make it out of the first weekend. Talk of the league's requiem began popping up again.
The league needed to make a statement in year 2. It did.
That was the headline of an SI.com article written by Brian Hamilton on December 12, 2014. At that point the league had won 78.8% of their non-conference games, including some marquee wins like Butler beating North Carolina, Providence beating Notre Dame, Creighton beating Oklahoma and even perennial cellar-dweller DePaul beating a good Stanford team. Jay Wright had a quote in that article that is exactly the "cool" concept that I'm going to write about in this space:
"We do feel rejuvenated and excited by [the newly formed basketball-centric league]. And we root for each other. Then when we play during the season, we want to kill each other. It’s pretty cool."
That is pretty cool. It also isn't a concept seen throughout other leagues. I have a strong feeling that you won't find too many Clemson fans rooting for Louisville or Oklahoma fans rooting for TCU. But that does happen in the Big East. Creighton fans did root for Providence. Marquette fans did root for Villanova. All 9 teams were rooting for Xavier in the Sweet 16 this season. The 6 Big East teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2015 had their own fanbases supplemented by those of the other schools. There was a genuine camaraderie and rooting interest. Don't take my word for it. "Based on my perspective from interacting with fans on social media, it seemed that once the final buzzer of the BIG EAST Tournament
sounded, fans from all teams came together to support all six teams in the NCAA Tournament," said Kim Adams of the Big East Digital Network. Adams mentioned the uniqueness of the entire league rooting for Xavier in the Sweet 16. "It was really special to see fans across the conference pulling for Xavier - in just its second year in the conference - when they were the only team left standing in the Sweet 16."
Perhaps it can be explained away by saying that the coaches, teams and fans are still in a honeymoon stage. Adams thinks it has more to do with fans of the league's teams responding to being slighted by the national media. "I think there was a large sense of pride from fans across the conference after season-long mumblings in the media about the BIG EAST being overrated or not the same caliber of play as 'the old BIG EAST'." Adams continued, "I think players on all ten teams share a vision of wanting to prove to the country that this new-look league is just as tough and just as competitive as the other major conferences and that the roots and foundations of the original BIG EAST still exist. I think once they step outside the lines, the teams really support each other because they want to continue to build the brand and identity of the conference."
Adams hits on a very important point in that the league does need to be conscious of and proactive about continuing to build on the history and traditions of the Big East conference. They paid a large chunk of change to maintain the league's history and records back to the founding by Dave Gavitt in 1979 so they might as well use it to their advantage. Adams' colleague at the Big East Digital Network, Cayleigh Griffin, shared similar sentiments when asked about her perception of the league's camaraderie.
"The coaches, athletes, and schools within the conference know and understand what they're a part of...Since the restructuring, people on the outside looking in tend to judge solely on what the conference used to be," Griffin explained. "Each school does a great job of supporting each other in the non-conference schedule & during NCAA tournament time, especially via social media outlets, because those within the BIG EAST know how good the programs are and want others to see it as well. It's not the same conference that it used to be, but that certainly does not mean it is not an elite basketball conference."
It isn't the same conference it used to be. That is obvious. But Griffin mentions another critical factor that may be behind this unusual camaraderie happening within the Big East: this is an elite basketball conference and that fact needs to be expressed outwardly to people that don't watch it all the time. ESPN isn't going to go out of their way to promote a product they no longer own the rights to. Fox Sports 1 is still in the very early stages of growth so the job may fall on the league's coaches to get the word out that the Big East is still an elite basketball league.
"I was struck by the camaraderie and the sense that we were all in this together," said Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski when asked about his experience in year 1 at Marquette. Wojciechowski continued, "the Big East has been and will always be a major player in the college basketball world. One of the big reasons moving forward is all schools are on the same page." Another possible clue towards the league's camaraderie is in that last sentence from Wojciechowski. The 2015 version of the Big East is much more similar to the 1979 version in that the schools are all similar in size, ideals and mission. Money is obviously a driving force for the Big East like it is with any league. But by abandoning the football schools and getting back to the league's roots as a basketball-centric conference the Big East has separated itself.
When pressed about what the league can do to avoid the negative outlook that many in the national media have taken Wojciechowski said "we have to look at doing anything we can to promote our league. The best way is winning, which we did in the non-conference...The NCAA Tournament is only one measuring stick. Our conference had an outstanding season on the whole and stands right there with any conference."
The pronouns that Wojciechowski used are important. During the entire phone conversation I had with Marquette's lead man he was naturally dropping in "we" and "our" when talking about the Big East. This is something that Cooley stressed during his introductory press conference
in 2011. Cooley was passionate about Providence being "our program, not Father [Brian] Shanley's program, not Bob [Driscoll's] program, our program." That sense of ownership and fellowship that is shared by the coaches was on display almost every time one of them spoke about the Big East these last two seasons.
Butler's head coach Chris Holtmann even gave me a little taste of that for this story. "From what I’ve been able to see from my short time as a head coach in the Big East is a great deal of respect for each other and the job one another does," Holtmann said. "I think we have very good coaches who are quality people so that improves the overall camaraderie."
Cooley's words from that now prescient press conference after being hired to coach his hometown team fit well with the overall feeling of Big East camaraderie that I've felt and witnessed. "As we have all the naysayers and there's a lot of negativity around our program...once we understand that this is a family, once we understand that this is a community...we will absolutely set this place on fire and if you're late, don't come in."
The Big East is hoping that Cooley's words about the Providence program back in 2011 can apply to this new configuration of the league. If you replace the word "program" in Cooley's quote above with "league" I think that's truly how the Big East's coaches and fans feel. That's the camaraderie that the Big East coaches, presidents, athletic directors, players, fans and employees have which is unique to any other league I've seen. If the national media is late to the party on the excellence of the Big East then maybe they shouldn't come in the door. Those of us inside the room are already enjoying the ride.