MORGANTOWN - There is no question that John Marinatto left the Big East Conference worse off than when he inherited it from Mike Tranghese three years ago.A league teetering on the brink of football insignificance took the final steps over the edge. A men's basketball conference poised to become the most powerful in the history of intercollegiate athletics became just that ... and then quickly began coming apart at the seams.What Marinatto left on Monday when he resigned under pressure as the league's commissioner is a tenuous group of far-flung schools with barely anything in common save for a desire to be relevant in the face of widespread public perception that it is not. It is a football conference whose most significant traditional BCS member is Rutgers and whose basketball side, while still strong, is now once again dominated by institutions that count that sport as the most significant on their campuses, which in this era is, well, quaint.The Big East Conference, now more than ever, is hanging by a thread. Where once there seemed at least potential for revitalization there is now desperation. Its traditionally strong members are all gone, soon to be gone or wishing they were gone. And for some reason it has managed to repopulate with a bevy of schools seeking the Holy Grail of a BCS automatic qualifying spot that soon will disappear, too.Not since the Titanic has anything sunk so fast.But is it John Marinatto's fault? No, not really.Granted, he did little, if anything, to steer the Big East out of troubled waters, but the truth is there was nowhere to go but down. The slide began long before Marinatto's watch began and might have been inevitable no matter who was in charge.Yes, if we go back 10 years there's an argument that a conference that held onto Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College might have thrived.Might.
The bottom line, though, is that even then those schools left for stability and financial gain. You can curse ACC commissioner John Swofford if you like for his raid in 2003 and point to it as the beginning of the end - which it was - but he didn't have to pry those schools loose from the Big East. They saw the benefits of a 12-team league with everyone on the same page as opposed to the divisive nature of the Big East's football-basketball Brady Bunch family.Since then the Big East has been in survival mode. It dipped into Conference USA to prop up its football numbers and to further strengthen the basketball side, which was really its only option. And for a while it seemed to work.Seemed, we say, because it was really nothing more than an illusion. Two things managed to paint the Big East as surviving and thriving: the growth of the basketball side into an absolute monster and West Virginia's success in football.The former gave rise to a buzz that masked the football issues. For nearly half the calendar year, from the start of practice in October through the end of the season, Big East basketball was such a beast that it seemed ludicrous to imagine that the league did not belong among the elite.
And the latter - mainly WVU's climb and relative stability in the Top 10 between 2005 and 2008 and impressive wins in two BCS bowl games - masked the reality that football on the whole in the league was mediocre at best. Because of West Virginia and the occasional rise of a Louisville or a Cincinnati, it was plausible to make statistical arguments that the league was thriving.And perhaps Marinatto bought into that. Perhaps the league's presidents did, too. Maybe that's why they elected not to sign a lucrative contract with ESPN when given the chance, instead gambling that there would be more money when the old contract expired. But even if the league had pulled the trigger on a new TV contract, would it have made a difference?
That's doubtful.Pitt and Syracuse, when deciding to jump to the ACC, saw the same things that Miami & Co. had seen some eight years before - stability and financial security as opposed to never-ending damage control. West Virginia's escape was inevitable once it found a safe landing spot. Louisville fought all the way to Mitch McConnell to have the same chance and isn't done yet. Connecticut is waiting by the phone for the ACC to please, please call. Ditto Rutgers and the Big Ten or anyone who might provide a lifeboat.All because of the failed stewardship of John Marinatto? Hardly.The Big East as an all-sports power conference is simply a flawed notion and always has been. It was transformed from a basketball league into a BCS football conference only because through some means - smoke and mirrors, perhaps? - it had to satisfy the needs of three of its members at the time: Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College. Its growth was then accomplished by providing a landing spot for programs unable to latch on elsewhere - WVU, Miami, Rutgers, Virginia Tech and Temple.But when television began really dominating the landscape with football as the driving force, the league began breaking up because it wasn't built for that. Every fix since then has been of the Band-Aid variety, not because that was the preferred remedy, but because it was the only one.That the league ultimately disintegrated to the point it now finds itself - relying on battlefield promotions, really - is not as much the fault of Marinatto as it is the wholly unworkable structure of the conference in these times.
Marinatto might have been able to stave of the demise a bit better than he did. He certainly had no call to refer to the latest ship-jumpers as "untrustworthy,'' as he did Monday. Those schools trusted him to keep the league stable and he couldn't. Then again, perhaps no one could.My everlasting memory of him, in fact, will be from Sept. 17 of last year, when - while waiting in the press box to watch West Virginia play Maryland in College Park - he was informed of the defection of Pitt and Syracuse. That it seemed a complete shock to him was rather alarming.He should have been more involved and more proactive. The league itself has dawdled far too much, whistling in the graveyard.But ultimately nothing he or the league could have done - or will do in the future - is likely to revive what was from the very start a flawed idea.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.