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BIG EAST IS FORGETTING ITS ROOTS

What images spring to mind when someone utters the words "Big East?"

The Big East is Pearl Washington coming over midcourt and throwing in a shot at the buzzer to beat Boston College in his freshman year. It's Patrick Ewing elevating for a block, Chris Mullin hitting a lefty jumper, Khalid El-Amin twisting into the lane.

It's Syracuse vs. Georgetown on a Sunday afternoon on national TV. It's Jim Boeheim with his palms upraised and his glasses pinched, begging for a call; it's John Thompson glowering in front of the Hoyas' bench, the towel draped over his shoulder.

It's Rollie Massimino and Looie Carnesecca and Jim Calhoun. It's BC-Providence on a cold Saturday night in the Civic Center. It's the fans arriving by train in New York City for the tournament in March. It's all those great UConn women's teams.

The Big East is college basketball. When the sport took off on ESPN in the 1980s, it was at the forefront. Football? It's something to pass the time until Big Monday rolls around each year.

So it's sad to see this great conference about to be torn apart in the name of big-time football -- and in the name of greed.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, eager to form a 12-team league and fatten its coffers, is trying to lure Miami and two of its Big East brethren (Syracuse and BC) away from the Big East. A 12-team ACC could hold a football title game, which could be worth as much as $15 million to the league.

Miami wants to bolt, and the Big East is in a panic. Rather than play football in a league weakened by Miami's departure, Syracuse and BC might chase the money and jump to the ACC, too. That would leave Big East football in disarray, with the league scrambling to find football-playing replacements.

"It's about money, power and football in any order," Boeheim said. "It's football. It's always football. Football drives everything."

But why? Why does the Big East have to get on its knees for Miami? Miami didn't have a problem with the Big East when its football program was struggling and it needed a solid conference for basketball.

Just 18 months ago, Miami president Donna Shalala told the Big East there was nothing to worry about. Miami had no intentions of leaving. Of course, Shalala is a former Clinton cabinet member, so the truth was bound to take a beating.

Miami's switch isn't a done deal yet. The Big East began its annual meetings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., over the weekend and the athletic directors seemed encouraged. Now it appears Miami might not make its decision until the end of June.

It's too bad the Big East can't tell Miami to take a hike. Geographically, Miami fits in the ACC. But it would be ludicrous for Syracuse and BC to abandon their Northeast tradition and pose as ACC powers. It's hard to envision Boeheim as a regular player on Tobacco Road. He's one of us, a Western New Yorker. He's stayed in one place for 41 years. His Orangemen belong in the Big East, along with Georgetown and St. John's.

But that's an overly romantic position. The Big East simply can't have it both ways. It has tried to gain stature as a football conference while holding on to small Catholic schools that don't play big-time football. Something has to give, and in the end, the Big East will defer to football.

If the league wants to keep Miami, Syracuse and BC, it might have to expand and create its own super conference -- in other words, beat the ACC at its own game. The schools that don't play I-A football (Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova) will probably be forced to form their own basketball conference.

College sports are big business today. That means big-time football. The ACC's grab for the Big East schools is being pushed by the school presidents, the same people who want us to believe that college sports is about academics and high ideals.

What hope is there when the presidents of Georgia Tech and Virginia are raiding the Big East in the name of profit? They don't care about the Big East basketball tradition.

The Big East has given us great hoop memories. It's sad to say, but the league we knew might soon be a memory, too.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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