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Father Pilarz, Williams see ‘new’ BIG EAST as big boost to Marquette

By Chris Jenkins

If a person can be judged by the company he keeps, perhaps the same can be said of a university.

And in that case, Marquette President Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., couldn't be more pleased to partner with nine like-minded institutions and form a new athletic conference that retains a familiar name: the BIG EAST.

"I believe we're in the best basketball conference in the country right now," Father Pilarz said in an interview with Marquette Magazine. "If you look at the history of the schools, the original seven plus the new three, it's obviously an elite group.

"In addition to that and as important, I think, for Marquette we're playing really quality academic schools that are like-minded and care about putting the student-athletes first."

Father Pilarz and Larry Williams, Marquette's vice president and director of athletics, attended a news conference in New York on Wednesday to announce details of the reconfigured conference.

It's the culmination of a process that began even before seven core members Marquette, Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul decided to part ways with the former conference's football schools.

The basketball schools keep the BIG EAST name and retain the rights to hold a postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden. They're adding three schools with similar commitments to academic excellence and high-level basketball: Butler, Xavier and Creighton.

Together, they'll become a cornerstone of programming for the new Fox Sports 1 cable channel that launches later this year.

Play begins next season, in 201314.

"I think we should be proud of the role that Marquette has played," Father Pilarz says. "We were joined by presidents and athletic directors from other schools who formed a really solid team and learned how to work together, put ego aside and get this project done. So I'm very proud of the role Marquette has played here, and I can't give enough credit to the way Larry was a real leader among athletic directors."

Yes, the "old" BIG EAST was beloved by longtime fans, and the sense of nostalgia surrounding last week's conference tournament was both palpable and understandable.

But after months' worth of work behind the scenes with fellow college presidents and administrators, Father Pilarz and Williams see plenty of reasons why the reconstituted conference can be even better for Marquette.

"There's no denying we've had a great run and a great cadre of schools in which to compete," Williams says. "But, when we look toward the future, we've broadened the base of competition. And that's really exciting."

Marquette forward Jamil Wilson expects the conference to have plenty of appeal among future student-athletes.

"We're keeping the name the BIG EAST, and the tournament's still going to be in New York, at the Garden," Wilson says. "It's still going to be an iconic, legendary conference."

With so much of college athletics being driven by football, Williams sees the BIG EAST's commitment to basketball as an "entrepreneurial mindset."

Had the seven basketball schools not broken away, the group would have continued to have its athletic future determined by schools that put football first, with less regard for how their decisions affect basketball.

"I don't think we can deny the fact that the alternatives for us were places we've already been, and we're not willing to do that as we continue to try to build better and better programs," Williams says.

Keeping the BIG EAST name and the right to play at Madison Square Garden meant giving up some financial considerations to the football schools, but Williams believes the move will pay off in the long run.

"Can you put a price on a proud heritage? I almost don't think you can, when you think about what the value of that is," Williams says. "It goes beyond money."

And for all of last week's nostalgia, Williams believes there are plenty of new memories to be made at the Garden.

"I think when those games happen, and those lights get turned on this time next year, I think there's going to be a great buzz in the building," Williams says. "There's something really unique about Madison Square Garden. I'm excited to see that happen."

If history is any guide, the Golden Eagles are likely to figure prominently in those future BIG EAST big moments.

This season, Marquette shared the regular season BIG EAST championship with Georgetown and Louisville. The Golden Eagles are 288 in league play the past two seasons, the most wins of any conference team. Coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, Marquette is making its eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

For Father Pilarz and Williams, the completed deal is the result of months of work behind the scenes.

"Father's got a lot of other obligations, but he was really committed to engaging in those conversations," Williams says. "And then once we made the decision, now things became much more operational, and he was right in the front lines in each of those conversations."

And now?

"He'll be allowed to go back to his day job, and we'll get about the business of building what we think will be one of the premier conferences in the country," Williams says.

Father Pilarz chuckled at the idea that he'll now have a chance to get back to his "day job" running a university.

"There is a little bit of that," Father Pilarz says. "But, obviously, I learned a lot and I've met some great people and I really feel excited for what we're able to do for Marquette, and for the conference. I'll always look back on this chapter as a very exciting one for Marquette and I think we've landed in exactly the right place."


Comment by Jim at Mar 20 2013 02:23 pm
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