Harris: Predicting the new age of college athletics

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 8:32 p.m.

A few months ago, I had several fascinating and revealing conversations with Trafford native and former sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro about the undeniable correlation between big-time college athletics and big business.

Of the insight Vaccaro shared, some I now realize went over my head. He says in the wake of the ACC's hostile takeover of the Big East highlighted by the departures of Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and ultimately Louisville, be on the lookout for a new super basketball conference.

“The Big East is no longer relevant,” said Vaccaro, whose association with Nike and later adidas helped build the Big East into a college basketball force. “The basketball thing is over, and pretty soon, the conference was over.

“Who's going to watch DePaul, Rutgers, Villanova, Georgetown, SMU? They're not bringing 10,000 people from SMU to the Big East Tournament. There's no resuscitating the Big East,” Vaccaro predicted. “The Big East is dead.”

If anyone knows, it's 73-year-old Vaccaro, who counts dozens of NBA stars among his good friends and has influenced and advanced the careers of numerous college basketball coaches and administrators.

Vaccaro's vision became clearer to me when last rites were performed on Big East basketball recently after non-FBS Big East schools DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova announced they planned to leave the Big East in 2015.

They could be joined in a new basketball-only conference by Atlantic 10 schools and possibly others. After all, almost no conference is safe from possible defections.

To the best of Vaccaro's recollection, the ACC, which picked away at vulnerable Big East teams like vultures on a carcass, is to blame for the Big East's demise.

But if the ACC didn't get to those Big East teams, some other conference would have.

It's the way of big-time college athletics. Big business, you know.

And it's only getting worse.

Vaccaro left his coveted position as a sports marketing executive to be a key figure in an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. The lawsuit, featuring former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, related to the use of college athletes' names and likenesses. The case, initially filed in May 2009, is set for trial in June 2014.

“When it first happened, I said this was the best move the ACC could ever do,” Vaccaro said of the conference poaching Big East schools. “By bringing in Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame, what they essentially did was destroy their main competition in basketball.

“(The ACC) has some good football teams, and they're a part of the BCS because of basketball. The same reason the Big East was part of the BCS — basketball.”

That led Vaccarro to make yet another bold prediction that also shouldn't be overlooked: Don't be surprised if the ACC Tournament moves from Tobacco Road to Madison Square Garden.

Hey, why not? After all, if Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville were bold and astute enough to bolt the Big East before the bottom fell out, it makes perfect sense for those schools to join the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Clemson and Virginia and play in what's probably the perfect venue for a major college basketball tournament.

“Let me say this for the record: I bet you they will be in Madison Square Garden for the ACC Tournament,” Vaccaro said. “They need relevancy in basketball.

“I'll tell you exactly when it will happen. I want to see the length of the (new) television contract given to the Big East (which is currently being negotiated). The first open date, they'll be in there. There's no question in my mind. It's the right move.”

Better get used to a new age in college athletics, where it's better to ask when than why.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com.

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