Vidakovich column: Jimmy V. and the Big East
Last week, on a Tuesday night, I turned the television to ESPN because I saw that two old rivals in the Big East Conference, Syracuse and Villanova, were squaring off in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Garden is often referred to as the mecca of basketball, so it was only fitting that these two combatants would meet to rekindle the memories of a conference that has undergone many changes in the last two decades.
The Jimmy V Classic is played at this time each year in the big city to honor late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who passed away in 1993 after a lengthy battle with glandular cancer. Valvano’s endearing personality — part coach, part humanitarian and part standup comedian — drew people to him in a way that has led his research foundation to raise millions of dollars in the fight against cancer.
This year it was not only Valvano’s memory that once again captured the hearts of Americans, but his good friend and basketball analyst Dick Vitale also became a focal point of the sports world in his fight with a cancer diagnosis. Vitale, who coached against Valvano when he was the head man at Detroit Mercy, is now helping to carry on the torch started by his friend to find a cure for a disease for which there is still no sure fire way of being halted for good.
Vitale is normally one of the announcers for the Valvano Classic, but this year he was sidelined after a series of chemotherapy treatments kept him at home recovering in Florida. Vitale did make a video appearance before the sellout crowd, telling everyone he was doing fine and would never give up his fight, and expressed his remorse at not being able to call the highly anticipated game between Villanova and Syracuse.
During the decade of the 1980s, the Big East Conference ruled the college basketball landscape. It was to hoops what the Southeastern Conference is now to college football. The best teams, best players and the best coaches resided in the conference that was nicknamed “The Beast of the East.”
Jim Boeheim, who is still leading Syracuse, is the only coaching holdover from a conference that featured such immortals as Lou Carnesecca (St. John’s), Rollie Massimino (Villanova), John Thompson (Georgetown), PJ Carlesimo (Seton Hall), Jim Calhoun (Connecticut) and Rick Pitino (Providence).
I rarely missed the opportunity to flick on the television when games from the Big East were on the airwaves, which was quite often back then. I was also fortunate enough to see two of the conference’s premiere teams live and up close in NCAA tournament regional games when I watched Seton Hall face off with Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hooseirs and Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack go against Lou Carnesecca’s St. John’s team. Both games were played at Denver’s old McNichols Sports Arena.
By far the most memorable of the two was the game in late March 1985. I was driving back to college in Greeley from Glenwood and decided to stop by McNichols arena to see if I could possibly get a ticket from a scalper to get in to see NC State and St John’s. It was a Sunday afternoon just before game time, but I managed to get a ticket for a seat in the end balcony to watch the big game. I was just happy to get into the arena. Sitting up in the nosebleed section was of little consequence.
St. John’s won a tightly contested affair that day with a star-studded lineup that included Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Walter Berry and Willie Glass. All five players went on to at least brief NBA careers, and their victory in that regional final gave Carnesecca his first-ever trip to the final four.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was witness to an epic game with two of the greatest coaches who ever walked a college sideline. As a testament to the strength of the Big East Conference, three of the four teams in the Final Four that year were from that league, with Georgetown and Villanova joining St. John’s.
As is the case with many of the traditional conferences in the college ranks, the Big East teams have fragmented in many directions to different affiliations to chase the big money that is always for the taking. It never has made sense to me. I miss the old rivalries, such as Colorado playing Nebraska in the old Big Eight. I was at Folsom Field in Boulder for many of those games.
Maybe someday things will all come full circle and we can look forward to geographical rivalries once again playing each other. I’m not holding my breath on that one, though.
Glenwood Springs native Mike Vidakovich is a freelance sports writer, teacher and youth sports coach. His column appears on occasion in the Post Independent and at PostIndependent.com.
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