For years, the names rolled off your tongue so effortlessly that it felt like you were on a first-name basis with them. Everything felt so warm and reassuring when discussing certain Big East coaches that mentioning them in the same breath as death and taxes was perfectly acceptable.
Nothing is certain but death and taxes – along with Jim Boeheim coaching at Syracuse. Ditto Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, Rick Pitino at Louisville and Mike Brey at Notre Dame.
Harkening back to when the Big East took flight in the early 1980s, the association between schools and the men who patrolled the sidelines in splendid suits – or in Lou Carnesecca’s case, flamboyant sweaters – was just as prevalent.
You couldn’t speak about Georgetown without mentioning John Thompson. The same holds true with Villanova and Rollie Massimino, along with St. John’s and Carnesecca. All three leaders of young men helped to bring credence and acclaim to their respective institutions of higher learning.
They also played a substantial hand in creating the kind of coaching cache that helped rocket the Big East into national prominence.
Yes, the ’85 Final Four will always be remembered as THE moment when the league that Dave Gavitt built from the ground up left the college basketball landscape little choice but to pay attention. One conference sending three representatives to the sport’s crowning event will do that, but what Thompson, Massimino and Carnesecca did in guiding their respective squads was to help create the perfect salt-to-pepper ratio that would serve as a guide for those Big East mentors who would eventually blossom into worthy heirs.
What Thompson, Massimino and Carnesecca did was bring a rock star mentality to the Big East coaching realm. The trio turned winning games and embracing the spotlight into an art form. Their personalities filled every arena they walked into, and the same belief could be directly applied to Boeheim, Calhoun and Pitino.
“The evolution of college basketball has changed that the one constant is the coach. He’s the image,” longtime college basketball analyst Bill Raftery explained. “This isn’t denigrating the presidents at these schools, but the head coaches are the image for the school.”
When the reconfigured Big East gathered for Media Day in New York City recently, there was no Boeheim, Calhoun or Pitino on hand. Left behind in their wake is a collection of coaches that if you break them down individually have carved out successful reputations in their own right.
Yet when you’re competing against coaches where “Hall of Fame” and “national championships” appear on the résumé, it’s easy to cave to peer pressure and focus on the select few who have driven the bus for so long.
“I think we thought we were at the top already,” said Georgetown’s John Thompson III with a laugh.
With Boeheim, Brey and Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon now in the ACC, Pitino in the American Athletic Conference and Calhoun in his second year of retirement, the Big East coaching spotlight now shines on Thompson, Jay Wright (Villanova), Steve Lavin (St. John’s) and Buzz Williams (Marquette).
Certainly it’s a good foundation to build upon considering Thompson and Wright have been to the Final Four, while Williams fell one game shy of reaching that aforementioned Holy Grail last year. Lavin was a regular “March Madness” participant when he held the top job at UCLA.
You could have added even more luster to the current configuration had Butler University prepared to set sail in the Big East with Brad Stevens still at the helm. Alas, Stevens was able to parlay back-to-back national championship game appearances into a head-coaching job with the Boston Celtics.
“Did it hurt our league that Brad Stevens left? Yeah, because he’s a really good coach,” Williams stated.
Moving forward and not fretting over who’s no longer in the fold is what the coaches in the “new” Big East plan to do.
“If you look around the room, I think the quality of the coaching is outstanding,” said Thompson III. “Yeah, we lost some Hall of Fame coaches, but I don’t think too many teams want to go up against the guys in this room.”
Thompson III then provided the secret ingredient as to why stalwart head coaches such as his dad, Boeheim and Calhoun were able to scale the lofty heights of coaching success.
“If you look at the coaches who have stayed at one institution, it helps create aura,” he said.
It also creates easy recognition. You can mention Georgetown, but also make sure to include that Thompson III is preparing for his 10th season at the university. You say Villanova, where Wright has been for the past dozen seasons.
“It’s a new era, but there are still established coaches like John and Jay,” Providence’s Ed Cooley pointed out.
Time will tell if history repeats itself regarding the coaching-association game that for so long has served as the hallmark of Big East hoops. Rest assured that the pieces are in place that someday, some expansion talk regarding recognizable Big East coaches could be in order.
“In the old days, we started using first names on the air. John, Lou, Rollie, everyone knew who they were,” Raftery said. “With exposure, these guys will start to become first-name guys. John Thompson III has a legacy with his dad, but Jay will be Jay and Buzz will be Buzz.”
Added Williams, “It will be interesting to see who in this room blossoms into those guys. Somebody is going to.”
“There are Hall of Fame coaches in this room just waiting to happen,” Cooley expressed.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03