Justin, Kevin and I try to supply all the perspective on UConn that we can, but as younger fans we can't always offer a deep historical perspective. So when it is time to look to the past I reach out to my father, Robert Porter, a lifelong UConn fan and co-author of Hoop Tales: UConn Huskies Men's Basketball. The passing of Dave Gavitt last month presented one of these opportunities, so I asked my father for a few reflections on the Big East's founder. Here they are.
Lost a bit in the recent turmoil over Syracuse and Pitt defecting to the ACC was the passing of the man who made the Big East possible, Dave Gavitt. It is hard to understate his contributions to college basketball -- visionary is a word that comes to mind. While never directly involved with UConn, without Gavitt, Husky basketball, even today, would likely be in the UMass ‘wannabe' grouping. For UConn fans too young to remember the ‘dreaded 8-9 game' that started the Big East tournament in its real glory years, the enormous contribution of Dave Gavitt is well worth understanding.
Gavitt's basketball mentor was Dee Rowe - a friendship that paid off enormously for UConn many years later. Gavitt went to Dartmouth, never a hoops power, and his build was, to be polite, never well suited for a player. But he found a home coaching and in his early to mid-30s took Providence, then with a moderate level of basketball success, into much higher levels. Think of Jim Calhoun in the 90s - well Gavitt did that with Providence 20 years earlier. Four times he took the Friars to the NCAA in the 70s, once to the Final Four in 1973, where a semi-final game injury to star Marvin Barnes cost Providence a chance to face UCLA for the championship.
Those Gavitt coaching years had one great match-up with Rowe and UConn. It was in 1976, before the Big East and played in Springfield with the four best New England teams. After both won their first game, Providence was a heavy favorite, but Rowe's Huskies played superbly. Thus the mentor topped the pupil, and by winning UConn went to the 1976 NCAA for the first time in nine years.
However, it was not as a coach that Gavitt made his name.
After an NCAA rule change limited automatic tournament entrants to conferences, Gavitt saw, long before others, that the colleges with strong eastern basketball traditions would be best served by a new league. The formative year was 1978 when Gavitt persuaded Georgetown and St. John's (each with a future Hall of Fame coach) and Syracuse (through a Dartmouth friend, then athletic director at Syracuse) to form the core four of a new league. The target was eight teams with winning basketball traditions, mainly centered on the northeast corridor of large TV markets. Seton Hall became the second team from the New York market. Villanova, after completing a final year commitment to another conference, brought the Philly market into the new league. That left places for only two more New England teams, which resulted in a political scramble. The first choice, then longstanding power Holy Cross, hesitated, but its arch rival Boston College did not and thus added. Only one last spot was left. Thanks to Gavitt's persuasion of skeptics, his close ties with Rowe, and UConn's astute athletic director John Toner, that last Big East spot went to UConn. It was, quite frankly, the key turning point in UConn's basketball history and engineered by Gavitt.
With the original teams in place, Gavitt quickly put together a lucrative TV network for his leagues, soon named the Big East. Perhaps even more significant, after three years of rotating the league post-season tournament among members, Gavitt pulled off another major coup by getting the world's mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, to host it every year. The first year it was held there, a ninth team was added, Pittsburgh.
The first ever Big East game was played in late 1979 - but no one, not even Gavitt himself, could imagine what exploded on the court over the following decade. No college basketball conference, before or since, ever had a decade like the Big East in the 1980s. The following speaks for itself:
- SIX different Big East teams making the Final Four in the 1980s
- The 1985 Final Four having three Big East teams, never before and almost for surely never to be again
- Two national championships from the league in 1984 and 1985 and three others within final seconds or an overtime of doing the same, in 1982, 1987, and 1989
- In the 1980s, the Big East tournament championship game dwarfed all others (including the ACC) as the Sunday afternoon CBS lead-in for its whole NCAA coverage and done by its Final Four team before a packed and roaring Madison Square Garden
The 1980s were just a ‘happy to be here' time for UConn. The addition of Pitt as ninth team made necessary an opening night of an 8 - 9 game placing the two worst teams against each other. UConn's goal was simply to avoid that game by finishing seventh. However, the league was so strong that even eighth-place UConn managed to get an NIT bid in 1988 (back when that actually mattered) even with a 4-12 Big East record -- and won it all on the same court three weeks later. Without Gavitt's making some phone calls, the NIT bid would never have come, just as the call to join the Big East wouldn't have happened. Calhoun has stated this was the turning point for UConn, and his early recruiting was based on the awesome power of the league. Well after leaving the Big East, Gavitt was often seen at Gampel, standing in a court-side corner, watching the team he once called a ‘sleeping Giant' play just like he predicted.
The end of the 1980s saw two changes. First, in 1990 UConn started its run as a national power that continued through this past April. At the same time, Gavitt, whose genius brought a powerhouse league to life and helped UConn so much, moved on to be the General Manager of the Celitcs. Alas, with their original ‘big 3' of Bird, McHale, and Parish, all near the end, Gavitt's Celtics time never came close to his college years.
One footnote as to Gavitt that few remember was he was named coach of the USA Olympic basketball team for the 1980s games in Moscow, but these were the games America boycotted, so he never coached an Olympic game. He did however name assistants, one of whom was his mentor Dee Rowe, and a photo of this still hangs in Dee's UConn office.
Several deserve credit for building UConn basketball to what it is today, obviously Jim Calhoun the best known. In turn, the true early UConn basketball builders of the 1970s and 80s were John Toner as AD and Dee Rowe. However it is also Dave Gavitt, with his recent passing, who deserves a tip of the hat from every UConn fan as well as all who have loved Big East basketball passion and drama -- now for over 30 years.