Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A letter to Mike Wilbon from Syracuse

***Editor's note: This was discussed at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician this week, but I wanted to expand on it some more. Below is a transcript of Syracuse deciding to leave The Big East, akin to Mike Wilbon deciding to leave the Washington Post  in 2010. It's actually amazing how little I had to change.***

This is the first press conference I ever dreaded having, the only time I can recall experiencing that thing known as speechlessness. It's my last press conference for the Big East conference, 30-some years after my first one and 32 years after I walked in the door as a founding member. It's not Shirley Povich's 75 years but I hung around long enough to think it might last forever.

Sadly and of my own doing, I've come to that part in the program where it's time to say goodbye, where I need to tell fans, schools, conference leadership, even some of the people I've worked with over the years just how enormously grateful I am for their helping me have the greatest adventure imaginable.

I remember thinking in the winter of 1980, after forming this conference and coming back to Providence for a second season, that it would be a successful career if I got to have a championship from each of the major sporting events once in my life. It never dawned on me I'd wind up playing in Madison Square Garden every year, going to NCAA Tournaments in basketball and BCS bowl games in football, or more importantly evolve to the point where the founders of this conference would trust me to lead the yearly agenda setting for the future of the league, as it all related to sports.

I never woke up a single day in those 32 years hesitant to go to work, whether I was playing field hockey for the Big East Championship; getting scared off the field by Miami in the late 90s in football; constant battles with UConn and Georgetown in basketball; helping found and dominate the first Big East conference in lacrosse; winning a surprising softball championship a few years ago; winning our first basketball national title in 2003; or as tragic as the sudden departures of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College that same year.

There's no "favorite" or "best" sport, no "greatest" game because there were simply too many, thousands of each, over the years. But there is a favorite moment: Gerry McNamara willing us to victory at Madison Square Garden for four straight days in 2006, leaving me to wince through Boeheim’s swears the only time in my career.

There is a favorite athlete: Carmelo Anthony, because he had and continues to have the greatest impact on Syracuse sports since Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, and because, as Bud Poliquin wrote, "Carmelo Anthony played basketball better than anyone else in Syracuse does anything else."

There is a biggest influence outside the profession: Coach Jim Boeheim, whose 2 a.m. return phone calls would often begin with, "You want to sleep or you want to bitch about referees?" and evolve into 90-minute conversations that usually had nothing to do with the Orange but everything to do with what was right or wrong with the world.

And most definitely there was and is a most important story in my career: the first raid of the conference, in 2003, by the ACC, when it looked like we’d never be able to survive without vastly changing our ways. My friend Pittsburgh observed a few years ago that those of us of a certain age mark time with that first raid the way the generation older than us does with the end of the Southwest Conference - and Pittsburgh wasn't exaggerating.

The vast majority of my time at The Big East has been anything but sad. I arrived at the conference in football close enough to the end of Dick MacPherson’s run in football that Don McPherson was still occasionally popping into the Carrier Dome to visit Marvin Graves, the man who followed him as Syracuse quarterback. As difficult as it is for me to accept the notion that I became a colleague of the world's best institutions, it's nothing compared with the complete awe, even 30 years later, I still felt whenever I was in the company of Dave Gavitt, even if it was just seeing him in the elevator.

Everything I have now in athletics I owe to the Big East, specifically to Mike Tranghese, the commissioner for almost a quarter century, for taking a chance on a brand new football conference, to Georgetown and UConn for allowing me the ability to have brutal rivalries that our fans could enjoy, especially for giving me the green light to start a football conference when the sport had basketball pinned on the ropes while landing one haymaker after another.

I can only hope, as I leave for my own personal gain with a full-time career with the ACC, that the men who shepherded my career don't regret granting all those opportunities over the years. So many of us used The Big East as a launching pad to fame and (in some cases) fortune. Long before the ACC unleashed an era of expansion on the world, the Big East and us did pretty much the same thing on the lesser conferences of their time.

We also owe - let me speak for myself: I certainly owe - the people who indulged us over the years: our fans. No major sports conference in the Northeast has an audience as educated, as diverse and as rabid as The Big East. And for those of us who care less about who was moving from guard to tackle and more about the significant issues of the day, whether it pertained to eligibility or race or performance enhancing drugs, it opened up grand possibilities for sporting events, for pursuing championship dreams that appealed to the widest audiences. Few conferences had the means or the interest in pouring resources into the Northeast, for athletics, particularly in football, where the Southern and Western schools ruled the financial and on-field landscape for generations.

I don't recall ever being told "no" if I wanted to invest in a sport, even when it had little to do with the conference’s aspirations. Probably my favorite enterprise assignment, one I viewed skeptically in the beginning, was launching a lacrosse conference a few years ago, helping legitimatize the sport nationwide.

Oh, yes it legitimatized the sport. It helped lift up programs from Villanova, Providence and St. John’s into big-time lacrosse, as well as turn Notre Dame into a legitimate power and bring Michigan into the D-I landscape. There was nothing quite like being invited one night to the Hollywood Hills home of the one and only Jim Brown – one of the greatest lacrosse and football players of all time – to join members of the Crips and Bloods who had accepted his invitation to stop playing football for one night to talk about lacrosse.

Don't get me wrong; I loved being a part of some of the greatest events of the end of the 20th century, like the game where Donovan McNabb beat Virginia Tech in the final seconds in the Carrier Dome. But the stories like the one about lacrosse were the ones that separated The Big east from 99 percent of conferences, and those issues were the ones that began to reshape the discussion of sports in America, the ones that led people to look to conferences essentially as discussion leaders. The complex sports, the ones that made people examine their own values and beliefs, were so far removed from box scores and game analysis, but they now drive athletics.

Dave Gavitt and Mike Tranghese were the most influential commissioners in my life and could see so much of this coming. That they allowed me to be the founding member of a football conference lineup featuring Miami, West Virginia and Virginia Tech starting in 1991 was beyond my dreams. My very first audition game came before that in 1987 when we played West Virginia. We were down one point and trying to preserve an undefeated season, and because we’re not pussies like Pat Dye, we went for it and won, kicking off the desire for a conference to get us into the National Championship discussion. Connecticut, Louisville and Rutgers will play, as they always do, with such passion and insight and grace that many of you might not have noticed for months I was gone. Still, knowing that I'll no longer have those kinds of games in this conference, from the meaningless to the bitterly-contested, will be far more traumatic to me, I suspect, than to you.

The past 20 years, I've had the best basketball conference in America. My only regrets are that my best chance at a football national championship, the undefeated 1987 season, happened just before I joined the conference for football, and that my next best chance, the Doug Marrone teams to come, will never truly know what this school used to play for, much of its athletic life. Everything else - all 32 years of it, thank you - was candy sweet.

To read Mike Wilbon's column announcing he will leave The Washington Post in 2010, CLICK HERE.
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