At some point over 30 years ago, Big East basketball was one of the most watched sports on television. That was due entirely to the efforts of one man — Dave Gavitt, the first-ever commissioner of the Big East Conference.
“Dave was just incredible,” Gary Williams told Bob Ryan on Bob Ryan’s Podcast. “The respect for Dave in that room had a lot to do with the success of the Big East…I’ve been in the Big 10 and the ACC, and it wasn’t the same at league meetings.”
Long before Williams won a championship as the head coach at Maryland, he was a fresh-faced coach at Boston College. After coaching at American University for four seasons, Williams was tasked with going up against some of college basketball’s heavy hitters.
Look down the sidelines and Williams, who retired from coaching in 2011, would be forced to glance at coaching legends like Rollie Massimino, Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson and Jim Boeheim before tip-off.
Or, as Williams tells it, his best strategy was to look elsewhere before the game began.
Great hoop talk with Hall of Famer Gary Williams on the Bob Ryan’s Boston Podcast.@BobRyansPodcast
— Bob Ryan (@GlobeBobRyan) March 16, 2018
“You learn not to look down the other end because you’d be intimidated on who you saw on the other bench,” Williams said. “It was incredible the level of play…there was no league in ’78, and by the time I got the job in ’82 we were the most watched league in the country.”
Gavitt, who Williams remembered as a “guy who loved basketball,” capitalized on putting the Big East in the national spotlight when it was available. With ESPN needing programing, Gavitt pushed the Big East to greater heights. And when other coaches voiced their concerns over scheduling conflicts, Gavitt was always the voice of authority.
“In the end we were going to do it how Dave Gavitt wanted to do it,” Williams said of Gavitt’s commanding presence.
As the Big East started to rise in popularity, Gavitt believed that the conference needed more – specifically more eyes and larger arenas. BC’s Roberts Center wasn’t cutting it, so Gavitt prompted Williams and Boston College to play more games at nearby Boston Garden.
“You look up and see all the banners from the Celtics and that was pretty neat,” Williams gushed over being able to coach in the fabled arena.
Williams would also get to coach in the other famous “Garden” arena, as Gavitt moved the Big East Conference Tournament to Madison Square Garden in 1983, where it’s still played today.
Thanks to college football and the need for universities to make even more money, a host of schools departed the conference in 2013, including founding members UConn and Syracuse (Boston College, a founding member as well, departed in 2005).
Villanova and Xavier earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament this season, helping provide credence to the New Big East, yet it’s safe to say that the fame and level of play experienced in the Old Big East will never return.