Direct Rays: Former Mullet-Wearers Saddened by BIG EAST’s Last Stand as We Know It

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Heck, there’s not much I remember about 1985. I know I was rocking the world’s best mullet at SUNY Oneonta, and set the non-fraternal record for most kegs at a house party on 16 Myrtle Avenue (legend has it still standing at 35); though I don’t remember much about that particular day, other than the shame I brought my parents for having made the front page of the Oneonta Daily Star the next day (we’re all cool now). I know there were helicopters hovering and a swat-like storm of really cool Oneonta P.D. at my door the next morning looking for street cleaners. The local townies, awestruck as they were, remained both impressed and depressed at the same time, long before the first Walmart opened up out on Rt. 23.

It took most of SUCO Island – plus other visitors from across NYS — a week to recover from the mother of all St. Patrick’s Day parties that year, but when the fog cleared a couple of days later we knew our focus would shift back to BIG EAST basketball like it never had before, nor ever would since.

Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard rushes and flushes in BIG EAST quarterfinal loss to Louisville last Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard rushes and flushes in BIG EAST quarterfinal loss to Louisville last Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

You see, 1985 was perhaps the single greatest year in BIG EAST history and we were living it out on our portable cable TV boxes (sans remotes) at places like Red’s Filling Station (now Legends Filling Station), the OST, the Sip & Sail and the General Clinton Pub, glued to the riveting play of surly Georgetown center Patrick Ewing. Ewing, the era’s most polarizing figure, won the BIG EAST tournament on March 9th over St. John’s, 92-80, but, miraculously, could not survive the guile and cunning of a Rollie Massimino-led Villanova team at the 1985 big dance when March Madness climaxed in hard-core form on April 1, 1985.

To those of us who are “over the hill” or “on the back 9”, 1985 was the year the BIG EAST will always hang its hat on; the year three BIG EAST teams – upstart champion Villanova, goliath Georgetown and loveable St. John’s — reached the NCAA Final 4 at the fabled Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. To this day, 8th-seeded Villanova’s 66-64 triumph of top-ranked Georgetown ranks among the purest upsets in the history of sport; time-stamped as the BIG EAST signature moment for at least three generations of sports fans.

I had my first byline in this enchanted sports industry in 1975 as a sixth-grader covering 4-5th-grade Putnam Valley football for the Peekskill Evening Star, a career launched ironically by the father of current PV football Coach Matt Mello. I have worked the industry for nearly three decades, having jump-started my childhood dream in 1989, and I can’t remember many sadder sports days than last Saturday night when the BIG EAST tournament ended as we know it; this mass exodus of former BIG EAST teams having taken its toll on one of the finest collegiate institutions known to man, which, on Sunday, qualified an NCAA-best eight teams for the 2013 tourney field.

Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, formerly White Plains High School.
Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, formerly White Plains High School.

My good buddy and current BIG EAST Basketball Commissioner Paul Brazeau, a Putnam Valley resident don’t ya know, is now charged with the monumental task of fixing the gaping hole in the hearts of BIG EAST fans everywhere; myself included. He did what he could last week when he had me properly credentialed for the BIG EAST tournament and had me courtside for the evening session after an afternoon between Brooklyn/Syracuse legend Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and former Orange/NJ Nets great Derrick Coleman, among a slew of other former Orangemen, who have meant so much to BIG EAST basketball since 1980.

We were like kids in a candy shop one last time, my brother and I; surrounded by the likes of 36-year Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, Louisville’s legendary Rick Pitino, the swag of Notre Dame, ’Nova fashion-plate Jay Wright, Georgetown’s John Thompson Jr. and the electric buzz of MSG, the world’s greatest arena, which was loudly rumored to play host for the ACC tournament in the years ahead. There was even a former US President in the house (Chappaqua’s Bill Clinton) and a kid from Section 1’s White Plains was there, Cincinnati’s second team All-BIG EAST junior G Sean Kilpatrick.

Was this the last hurrah, the end of BIG EAST basketball as we know it? There aren’t many guys on this planet I’d trust more than Paul Bazeau, an inspiring family with his lovely wife Jane, to restore the BIG EAST, or provide some form of basketball legitimacy within our great northeast corridor. If there’s a will, Brazeau will find a way, and the next couple of generations are counting on it.

I know it can never be 1985 again, and frankly I don’t think I could survive another year like the two I had on 16 Myrtle Ave., but I’d kill (not literally) to have my son relive a basketball experience like the BIG EAST thrill ride I had at Oneonta during the middle of the great Ronald Regan administration.

“It’s sad, real sad,” said Pearl Washington, the Boys & Girls High School freak, who never did fulfill his NBA prophecy (3 subpar NBA seasons with the Nets). “I’ve been coming down here since the start: Can’t believe it over.”

In our eyes, those BIG EAST clashes were just as big as the Libyan conflicts of the mid-80s. So, you can see where men of like minds might have been bummed out last Saturday night when the Orangemen, who, along with Pitt, are leaving the BIG EAST for the ACC effective immediately upon elimination from the 2013 NCAA tournament, were spanked by Louisville, 78-61 (Louisville will proceed to the ACC the following year).

Top-seeded Louisville – the suddenly chic pick to win it all this year — won its second straight BIG EAST Championship and its third title in the last five years, but for 32 of the tournament’s 34 years at MSG (34 in all), Boeheim’s Orange have rocked the Garden venue come tournament time (record 15 title appearances, 5 crowns), and nobody did it longer or better than the ’Cuse, now bound for the so-called greener pastures of the ACC.

“It’s a real challenge but that’s part of the lure of the job, bringing it back to where it was,” said a confident Brazeau, who took over the BIG EAST this past November after a decade as an NBA VP. “We’ve still got a great base of universities to work off of. Don’t play taps for us just yet.”

Let’s hope he and his cabinet can figure out a way to fill the snowballing void of BIG EAST basketball, whose dwindling numbers, plus the ensuing lack of established rivalries, have tap danced on the souls of former mullet-wearing sports fans up and down the eastern seaboard. So much for the 34 years of visionary Dave Gavitt-driven nostalgia. It’s all about the money now (always has been, really), and it’s all such a shame: Way worse than the Joe Dirt-like mullet I forced upon those poor folk in O-Town.

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