Big East’s transition from dual-sport conference to its basketball excellence

Villanova regularly fills the Wells Fargo Center, where the Philadelphia 76ers play.
Credit: Villanova University


The Big East started as a dominant basketball conference in 1979, and it certainly remains that today, but there was a time when football controlled the league. However, that time is over.

From 1991-2003, the Big East had eight football programs. Today, there are three schools primarily in the Big East who still have football programs, all with other conferences. So, what went wrong?

After the Big East formed, its basketball programs took off in the 80’s thanks to the superstardom of players like Patrick Ewing, and the National Championships for his Georgetown team in 1984, and Villanova in 1985.

Then, almost overnight, the pigskin ruled the conference.

While the Big East was rising to prominence, the Miami Hurricanes football program was doing the same, winning their first three National Championships over the course of seven seasons. In 1991, the Hurricanes joined the Big East, marking their first conference affiliation in half a century.

New Year’s Day 1992 marked a turning point in Big East history, as Miami defeated Nebraska 22-0 in the Orange Bowl, giving the conference a National Championship after just four months as a football conference.

The Miami Hurricanes’ 1993 team took on the Alabama Crimson Tide on January 1 in the Sugar Bowl.

This actually marked the last championship for the program until 2001, but Miami played in the de facto National Championship game again in 1992 and 1994. Meanwhile, longtime contender Virginia Tech, then a football-only member of the Big East, reached its first National Championship Game in 1999, and played valiantly in a loss to Florida State.

Miami would win the 2001 title by slaughtering Nebraska again in the championship game, but 2003 proved the beginning of the end for Big East football.

While UConn would reclaim glory for Big East basketball by winning the 1999 National Championship, basketball did not take precedence in the conference until Syracuse’s title run in 2003. The perfect storm hit the Big East when Syracuse not only won the National Championship, but also did so at Madison Square Garden, where they claimed the conference title. Syracuse also embodied the local and geographically tight-knit image of the Big East, thanks to the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, a New York City native named Carmelo Anthony.

The Syracuse title reminded Big East brass the conference could survive on basketball in the Northeast Corridor alone, which significantly lessened the pain of Miami and Virginia Tech leaving the conference after the 2003-04 athletic season. UConn basketball also helped fill the void by again hoisting the National Championship Trophy in 2004.

Yet, National Championship-quality football looked dead in the Big East.  Over the next two years, the conference added UConn’s football program, as well as those of Conference USA members Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida, while also losing Temple and charter member Boston College to the ACC.

Then, conference realignment truly kicked in for the Big East. In the next decade, the conference would lose Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12. TCU officials also disappointed many by pledging to join the Big East before changing their decision and also allying with the Big 12.

Temple’s 2012 return to the Big East did not take the conference off its heels. The Big East made a desperation move in 2013 by adding Boise State and San Diego State as football-only members. Yet, neither team ever played as a member of the conference.

The Big East dissolved prior to the 2013-14 academic year and re-branded UConn, Cincinnati, Louisville, USF, and Temple as part of the American Athletic Conference, of which all member schools have FBS programs. Michael Aresco, the Big East commissioner since only 2012, still helms the AAC.

The conference sprung anew without missing an academic season, as the Catholic Seven (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanova) joined forces with Butler, Creighton, and Xavier to create arguably the best basketball conference in the country. Villanova hoisted two National Championships in three seasons, giving the Big East its first March Madness winner since UConn in 2011.

Football still lingers in the Big East on the campuses of Butler, Georgetown, and Villanova, but they all reside in the FCS, outside the realm of the College Football Playoff. There is no better indicator of how far Big East football has fallen than the capacity of Villanova’s sporting venues. The basketball team plays roughly half its home games at Wells Fargo Center, a 20,000+ seat capacity NBA and NHL arena in the heart of Philadelphia, while the football team plays at Villanova Stadium, a 12,000 seat on-campus venue.

In March, the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament will once again overtake Madison Square Garden and highlight the conference’s academic year. Yet, two championship banners in Miami will continue to remind Big East fans of what could have been.