Keith Strudler: The changing face of NCAA basketball

Mar 13, 2013

In case you’re wondering, last night you may have seen the last ever men’s basketball game between Big East Conference foes Seton Hall and South Florida. It’s probably a good thing, since the game was absolutely awful.

It was like watching elephants try to knit. But starting next year, Seton Hall will leave the conference with six others to form the new Big East, affectionately known as the Catholic Seven. They’ll actually take the Big East title with them as part of the divorce settlement. The remaining schools, which span from Texas to Connecticut, get $100 million in savings and the opportunity to rebrand themselves as something other than leftovers.

This relatively amicable split was long in the works, with Big East powers Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburg, Notre Dame, and Rutgers leaving for greener pastures of the ACC and Big 10. So while no may care about Seton Hall vs. USF, it will be a bit more melancholy to say goodbye to Syracuse/Georgetown, or Pitt/Notre Dame, or any of the oversized basketball matchups that made Madison Square Garden in March feel like the center of the hardwood universe.

And now, incoming first year students in upstate New York won’t harbor irrational disdain for a school in Washington DC. And UConn graduates might not have a hard time hiring a St. John’s kid for an internship. This is the marrow of competitive sports, not just loving your team, but passionate hating someone else’s. It’s the DNA of the college game, where schools dating back hundreds years remain on marginal speaking terms. It’s the reason Woody Hays wouldn’t buy gas in the state of Michigan.

The only problem is, college presidents have decided that rivalries aren’t necessarily good business, especially when your rival doesn’t have a big football program. Or when the college president thinks they can make more money getting out of the shadows, like Texas A&M did when they bolted for the Southeastern Conference last year, leaving big bother UT behind. And those two football teams will not play again, at least not until the Texas state legislature makes them, giving you one less excuse to stay away from Black Friday sales.

Rivalries as a general construct were fairly organic. It was the other state school, or the cross town team, or the school that competed for the same students. It was Harvard and Yale, Mississippi and Mississippi State, and BC/BU. It was a place you could drive, if you so dared, to watch a game in enemy territory. And it’s a place you knew so well, you almost loved them because you hated them so much. Like in-laws.
But now UConn can focus its energy on, I don’t know, East Carolina. I’m sure that’s a big sell for ticket holders. And Syracuse can convince itself that Wake Forest is a mortal enemy. Perhaps if they play enough close games, eventually they will be.

This isn’t so much an obituary for rivalries in sports. Nothing stays the same, and tradition is for suckers. I get that. At some point, new animus will replace the void of the old hatred, even if it’s got the depth of a 5th marriage instead of 60 year partnership.

But what does surprise me, at least a little bit, is that this new world order done to create better business partners in new conferences seems to be, well, bad business. Maybe Missouri does make more money in the SEC now than the Big 12, which is basically Texas and the 11 dwarfs. But will alumni and donors get all jacked up for a big game against Auburn, a place they’ll never know against people they’ll never meet? As opposed to the now defunct border war against Kansas, with roots back to the Civil War? As they say, the concept seems penny smart, dollar foolish, wasting the one intangible that keeps college sports fans, well fans.

It’s New Coke and hydrogen blimps and all the other things that sounded good at the time, but ended up not so great. I don’t know if the new leftover Big East conference thing is the Hindenburg, but the Big East of the mid-80’s sure was smooth sailing.

Then again, that Seton Hall/South Florida game last night was anything but smooth, much less watchable. Perhaps as a silver lining to all this conference realignment, from now on, it doesn’t have to be.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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