January 3, 2006 is the day that will live in infamy, not just for the victory that my beloved Mountaineers had over the much favored Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. More importantly, it showed that the Big East truly belonged. One conference commissioner, was sitting in the press box of the Georgia Dome that night, with that Cheshire Cat grin, knowing that he had been right all along. I learned that Mike Tranghese was a man that I should never play poker against. Because when the chips were down, he was holding that royal flush the whole time.
Last week, Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year. With nearly 30 years with the conference, his time had come. He had been there since the beginning in 1979, when a small group of eastern basketball powers would form a league. It was he and then conference founder Dave Gavitt that took a chance with a relatively unknown entity at the time with ESPN. The decision in hindsight would be the first in many great decisions that would define his career. In an almost symbiotic relationship, the league and the channel would grow to unprecedented heights during the 1980's and beyond.
In 1990 when he took over as the commissioner, the next move was to try to fulfill Joe Paterno's dream of an eastern football conference. For years, the eastern powers wanted to do it except two teams, Pitt and Syracuse. They were afraid that an Eastern conference would destroy what they had in the Big East in basketball. They could not have been more wrong. In 1991, Penn State fed up with the stances of Pitt and Syracuse, decided to join the Big 10. Tranghese had enough foresight, to expand the Big East to include the football schools as a part of the league, bringing in WVU, Miami, Virginia Tech and Rutgers. The league would thrive.
The departures of Miami, BC and Virginia Tech could have been the end of the conference, but again, when the chips were down, Mike Tranghese was at his best. As much as it is not needed now, the relationship with Notre Dame was needed so the Big East could have a seat at the big boy table at the BCS fortress of ineptitude. With that secure, the conference needed to prove itself. Pitt's thrashing by Utah in the Fiesta bowl was not a good omen for the league.
What the league needed was an influx of talent and exposure. In one of his smartest moves, Tranghese negotiated with ESPN to broadcast their games on Thursday nights. As per usual the critics and traditionalists were in an uproar. How could they do something as crazy as play a game on a weeknight? It was, in hindsight, pure genius. The league was the only show in town on that night on TV. Instead of playing their marquee games on Saturdays, going against every other conference, they said why not play when there is no competition? The exposure and its results in upgraded recruiting and coaching are now bearing this out.
Since the departure of the three teams, The ACC has not won one BCS game. The Big East, however, have one the last three straight, beating the conference champs of the SEC, ACC and Big XII respectively. Karma is a bitch.
For all the venom, I had against Tranghese with the handling of the departures of VPI, Miami and BC, and his help in the formation of the BCS, I could not have been more wrong about that man. I have learned that sometimes, it's better to sit back and have faith that he will lead us through the darkness. That's what great leaders do. Now if only Jim Delaney at the Big Ten (11) would follow suit...
Rest in Peace, Jim McKay