If Dave Gavitt was the founder, father, and heart of the Big East conference when it was formed 33 years ago, Mike Tranghese was the soul, working for and with his mentor before taking over the role as commissioner through a period when the Big East morphed from a small regional primarily Catholic college basketball league into a two-headed football-basketball conference with many agendas and conflicts.
Tranghese guided the Big East through defections and additions and into the BCS era in football before retiring three years ago. But Tranghese hasn’t retired his viewpoint and his perceptions of college athletics. Spending his time in Rhode Island in the summer and fall and Florida in the winter and spring, Tranghese has watched with some dismay and amazement at the assortment of news that has turned college football and basketball into a cottage industry of rumors and re-alignment as well as a series of troubling off the field incidents.
As the Big East held its summer football kickoff meetings in Newport this week, Tranghese came by for a visit with ajerseyguy.com and talked about what he saw and felt. Sitting in the back booth of a bustling breakfast-lunch restaurant just off Newport’s trendy Bellevue Ave. Tranghese took some time to offer his observations.
Q. Taking an overall look at the state of college football as it exists today, what trends do you see?
A. I see today fewer and fewer elite programs that can win the national championship. To me there is a big gap between the elite and everybody else. And I used to believe a lot of teams could win the national championship. But I think I could write down the names of 10 schools and I would bet my life that one of those 10 schools would win the national championship. Now that you have a playoff the pressure to get there is going to be accentuated. It’s not like the NCAA basketball tournament where if you get there is a compliment. There are only 4 teams. I think the pressure to go to 8 will be enormous.
Q. With the playoffs on the horizon, what effect will that have on the bowl system?
A. I worry about the bowl system. Without the bowl system, I don’t know how the so-called ‘little program’ pulls itself up by the bootstraps. The classic example is Virginia Tech. Without the bowl system, Virginia Tech would never have gotten where they were.
Q. One of the biggest topics of today is the status of the Big East. How do you fix it?
A. It’s a hard question and there’s not an easy answer. They are still going to be good in basketball. Not quite as good as they were, but still very good. But as we know you still have to be good in football. You have this huge geographic disparity. The best program on paper is Boise. But they are from the West. Is Boise going to be happy here? I just don’t think expansion is done. There are going to be more expansion and there are going to be targets and I don’t think they (the Big East) can afford to lose any more people. You can always get more teams. But now that we have the playoffs, if you don’t get into the playoffs you are going to be deemed a second-class citizen. The Big East doesn’t have a program that can get into it (the playoffs) year in and year out.
Q. Seven years ago when the ACC made its raid into the Big East for more teams, you stood up at the Big East meetings in Florida and said that the ramifications of the move would be felt for years. With all that has happened, you were basically right, weren’t you?
A. I remember when I said it, Donna (President of the University of Miami) Shalala said that I had over reacted. I remember when a reporter called me about her comment, I said, “I haven’t over reacted. This is just the start.” It had an incredible ripple effect. Interesting enough, I think the ACC has already felt it on the football side. Look at it, the ACC is now the bottom now. They are going to be the next target in football. If I need a school, where are you going? I just don’t think that’s good. I hear people saying we’re going to have four super conferences and that’s great. All that does is create less winners and more losers.
Q. Twenty years ago, you and former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan talked about having a Big East-ACC football federation, would it have worked?
A. I would have done it in a heartbeat. But Gene said he couldn’t sell his members on anything but full membership. And I understood that. But if it had been done, the ACC would have its original teams in basketball, the Big East would have its original teams and both would have been pretty successful. And the ACC would have been better in football. The ACC can get better in football; it’s just that the two programs they expected to carry it (Miami and Florida State) just haven’t done it.
Q. In all the years you were involved with the Big East, what was the biggest thing you reacted not doing?
A. Penn State is the only regret I have and I had nothing to do with it. I know if we had gotten Penn State, the whole face of college athletics would have changed. I’m not certain if the Big Ten would have expanded. If the Big Ten hadn’t expanded, I’m not sure if there would have been any other expansion. The thing I don’t know is if you sat there with Syracuse, Boston College and Penn State would they have wanted to turn it eventually into a football league and they may have. But if they did, all they had to do was snap their fingers and there was going to be a football league. The problem was that (Joe) Paterno was a football coach. You can’t be a coach and run the league. That’s really the only regret
Q. Looking at the current Penn State situation. What your reaction and can they come back?
A. In my lifetime it’s probably the most stunning piece of news I’ve ever seen. It shocked me. I didn’t know Coach Paterno well. But I knew (former President) Grant Spanier and I knew (former athletic director) Tim Curley. I always knew Penn State as one of the elite academic situations in the country. It’s sad. They are going to get worse for the next four years. Then they are going to have to start recruiting. I might be wrong, I think they are a good 10 years from getting the program back to what I call respectable. I know a lot of kids are staying, but that has to do with the fact that there aren’t a lot of places for those kids to go. What happens when they play this year and then they want to go somewhere else? I just don’t see high school kids going to Penn State now because you know they can’t compete
Q. Changing the subject a bit, if you were the Czar of College football what would you do to make things better?
A. I’m still a bigger proponent of an unseeded Plus One (two teams emerging from the winners of the BCS games). It’s complicated because you have all of these conferences that run the sport and they don’t trust the NCAA. I wouldn’t want the NCAA to do it either. There’s too much politics. I think Presidents at certain schools have to regain control. We’re paying coaches so much money and at certain schools coaches are more important than the President. That’s unhealthy. That was basically the case at Penn State. I think coaches should be paid accordingly and they should coach. In the NFL, coaches don’t determine policy. No matter what anyone says, coaches determine everything in the college game. I still would want a Plus One. I’m not naive, but I think a playoff is going to mean the demise of the bowl system. The public doesn’t care about the bowl system, but the people in charge of college football should be very leery of losing the bowl system. It’s going to be if you get in the playoff—great. If you don’t, it’s who cares. If you look at mid-level football programs, which have virtually no chance of getting into a playoff, what do they play for? And if they don’t have something to play for, I worry about the interest in the sport. We have unparalleled interest in college football on a week-to-week basis. People have badgered and criticized (former SEC commissioner) Roy Kramer for the last 10 years; his genius in creating the BCS is one of the great secrets. Now people say its lousy. All the conferences have made a lot of money because of Roy Kramer and the BCS. BCS basically opened up the Rose Bowl.
They are going to have a four-team playoff and that will be great, but the pressure is going to be great to make it bigger. Nothing can convince me it won’t be eight and I think there will be some negative ramifications. I hope I’m wrong, because I love the sport.
The thing I love about college football, those games mean something. I’m not sure if that’s going to hold true.
Q. With all the changes in configuration of conferences, don’t you think it’s sad that teams like Texas doesn’t play Texas A&M and Kansas and Missouri will not play each other any more on a regular basis?
A. I think it’s beyond sad. Even though the Big East wasn’t on Par with the Big Ten and the SEC, it was a viable factor. There was some interest in college football in the Northeast. Where’s the interest now? Syracuse is talking about owning New York City. That’s a joke. The only people who own New York City are people who win. I think there is going to be diminishing interest in the Northeast in college football. I can’t even comprehend what Texas and Texas A&M or Missouri and Kansas not playing. Just like in basketball Syracuse and Georgetown and Syracuse and St. John’s not playing. People say they will schedule each other. No, they won’t schedule each other because people who are making those decisions are coaches and coaches won’t schedule those games. I see Colorado in the Pac-12 and I can’t get my arms around it. I’ve always said if you took a map in 1989 and woke up today, you’d say what in God’s name is happening. You can’t explain it and I’ve lived through it. I’d like to say college football will find its way. I think college football is an incredible sport. I love the sport. I think college basketball has its own challenges. I applaud (Kentucky coach) John Calipari for what he has done. But what’s going on is not good for college basketball. We are basically going to be controlled by “one and done’s”. That’s not a good thing.
Q. What about the status of Connecticut in the Big East and its flirtation with other conferences?
A. I think Connecticut is in a very precarious situation. I know there was a lot of interest by Connecticut in the ACC, but we know that that the Boston College administration was very critical of Connecticut. I found that amusing. Connecticut is not the one who left. And behind the curtains it was Boston College and I will argue that if Connecticut had done to Boston College what Boston College had done to Connecticut, they probably would have reacted the same way. But you get over it. But I feel badly for Connecticut because they have been a great member. I would like them to be some place where they can succeed long term. Some people get turned off by (UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun) Jim, but he’s been unbelievably supportive of the Big East and he’s won 3 national championships. I don’t know what you can do but clearly you have an institution in the ACC that does not want them there. I don’t know what went on during the ACC expansion talks, but my instincts tell me there was a lot of support for Connecticut and Syracuse. We know the Boston College administrations did everything they could do to prevent Connecticut from coming in. We know they have always been critical of them. I always found that to be amusing because Connecticut is not the one who left.
Q. What about the ACC expansion plans and the Big East?
A. I’ve read a lot of things about the expansion and what ACC officials have said. I just don’t believe anything I’ve read. You are not going to convince me they took Syracuse and Pitt just for football. It was pure basketball. They were sick of getting beaten up by the Big East so they tried to destroy the Big East. They said that was not their intention, but it has to be your intention. You have to be an idiot not to know what taking Syracuse and Pitt would do to the Big East.
© 2012, Mark. All rights reserved.