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Big East boss elated to finally talk about hoops

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NEW YORK — John Marinatto was surrounded. Everywhere the Big East commissioner and most embattled man in college athletics stepped, another microphone or tape recorder jumped up.

Behind Marinatto, tall windows kept out the steady drizzle — besides, it would have needed a jacket and collared shirt to slip past the New York Athletic Club's sharp-eyed doorman — but gloom leaked in. The day seemed under siege from low clouds that sank into Central Park nine stories below.

Marinatto understands the feeling.

"I can't tell you," he told the reporters assembled for the conference's basketball media day on Wednesday, "how happy I am to be talking to you about basketball."

Pleas followed — begging, really — to ignore the departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Coast Conference, forget the unending questions of what form the Big East will take in a week, year or a decade and, instead, focus on basketball.

That lasted as long as Texas Christian University's stay in the Big East.

Never mind Connecticut, the defending national champion, and Syracuse, picked by coaches as co-favorites to win the conference. Uncertainty filled the room, past the gilt trim and paintings of 1920s runners on the wood ceiling and the marble fireplace large enough to fit half the preseason all-conference team.

Sure, conference presidents on Tuesday upped the exit fee to $10 million and committed to double football members from the current six to 12. Marinatto swore Syracuse and Pittsburgh would be held to the contractually-mandated 27 months before exiting. That couldn't stem the bruised feelings, shots and questions from a disastrous month.

Marinatto clung to the Big East's "glorious past," a sentiment at home among the tasseled curtains and the engraved names of the club's bridge pairs champions from 1936.

"I don't think anyone expected what's happened," Marinatto said. "The landscape is still unsettled. ... We've got a plan to move forward."

But would a future with, say, schools such as Houston or Central Florida be as glorious?

Like a preacher at a revival meeting, Louisville coach Rick Pitino waved hands, pointed fingers, pulled out marriage analogies and absolved Syracuse and Pittsburgh of everything but haste. The ACC was his target.

"This was not a football decision. This was a basketball decision to strengthen the ACC," Pitino said. "Twenty-five or thirty years ago, the premier conference in basketball was the ACC. I'm sure they want to get back to that."

Left unmentioned were the seven men's basketball national titles the ACC won over the past 20 years.

Syracuse's coach Jim Boeheim was tight-lipped about his school's move, despite last month's rant to an audience in Alabama savaging the realignment and motivations behind it.

This time, as far as Boeheim would go is that "the jury's out" on the shift among Syracuse's fan base. Everything else was swatted back with "no's" and "not at all's" and sharp-tongued reminders that his focus remains on the court.

Jim Calhoun's response, though, was typical, between preaching his gospel of Connecticut's influx of talent after losing standout Kemba Walker. Two months ago, thoughts of Syracuse and Pittsburgh abandoning the Big East were absurd. So, betting on the next move would be foolish.

"I still think things will change," the Connecticut coach said. "But we have to make sure we go in the best direction for UConn."

Coaches didn't make promises clad in iron to stick with the conference. Absent, too, were the sales pitches you'd expect from a group trying to attract new members. If there were talking points, the coaches didn't use them. Doing what's best for their school, not the conference, seemed the company line.

You got the feeling no one really knows what will happen next.

"Football's driving the income," Pitino said and shrugged. "That's where we're behind everybody."

Marinatto tried to stay ahead, answering questions as quickly as they were fired at him. He reminded the pulsating mass of notepads and cameras that the Big East's obituary was all but written after defection of three schools to the ACC in 2003.

"To be diverted by all of this has been challenging," said Marinatto, who took over as commissioner in 2009. "This isn't exactly what I signed up for originally."

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