In 1979, the Big East was formed.
It looked quite a bit different in those days. Instead of the massive, 16 team conference the children of the twitter generation have grown up with, the original Big East had just seven teams, including Syracuse and Georgetown.
While the inaugural Big East season was 31 short years ago, the names of the coaches leading those two programs haven’t changed … drastically. Jim Boeheim has been at the helm of the Orange for every season they have been affiliated with the Big East, while Georgetown’s current coach — John Thompson III — is the son and namesake of the Hoyas head man all those years ago — John Thompson, Jr.
And it was the elder Thompson that we can thank in large part for spawning what is one of college basketball’s most influential rivalries.
First, a history lesson. At the same time that the Syracuse basketball team was joining the Big East conference, the school was trying to keep their football program at the Division 1-A level. The old Archbold Stadium was crumbling, so the school began construction on the Carrier Dome, a football stadium with a fiberglass, inflatable roof. With the project scheduled for completion in September of 1980 and the basketball program’s move into a powerhouse Big East conference, it only made sense to play their basketball home games in the new facility, one that could hold many thousands more orange-clad fans than the 9,500-seat Manley Fieldhouse.
At the time, Manley was one of the most difficult places to play in the country. The Orange were riding a 57 game winning streak in Manley as they headed into the final men’s basketball game the building would host, a Feb. 12th, 1980, date with Thompson Jr.’s Hoyas. The plan, as you would imagine, was to send the building off with a farewell victory, but Georgetown had other ideas.
The Hoyas staged an epic comeback, rallying to beat the No. 2-ranked Orange 52-50. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Thompson Jr. grabbed the microphone after the game and infamously told the crowd “Manley Field House is officially closed.”
This angered Syracuse and the Orange faithful quite a bit, but hatred can only last a rivalry so long.
For a rivalry to survive in more than just proximity and conference affiliation — Rutgers and Seton Hall are must-see TV right? Dickie V’s on the call every time NC State plays Duke and North Carolina, isn’t he? — it needs three things: great teams, great players, and memorable moments.
Check, check, and check.
Georgetown made the national title game three times between 1982 and 1985, winning the 1984 title. Syracuse lost in the title game in 1987 and 1996. The Hoyas won 13 conference regular season and tournament titles between 1980 and Thompson Jr.’s retirement in 1999. Syracuse won nine in that span.
Great players came by the handful. Georgetown can claim Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo, Reggie Williams, Charles Smith, Othella Harrington, and Allen Iverson as alums. Syracuse pumped out their own laundry list of stars — Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman, Lawrence Moten, Billy Owens.
There were plenty of memorable moments as well. After losing to Georgetown in the 1984 Big East Tournament Final in overtime, Jim Boeheim knocked over a chair and screamed “the best team did not win tonight.” On March 5th, 1990, in the Carrier Dome, the Orange beat Georgetown 89-87 in overtime, aided by a 10 point possession thanks to Thompson Jr. picking up a technical foul from three different referees. And that doesn’t come remotely close to highlighting the number of bare-knuckle brawls and buzzer-beating buckets these two programs have had over the years.
While the hatred between these two fanbases has never subsided, the national attention it garnered did in the early 2000’s (we’ll blame that on the Craig Escherick era). But this rivalry’s impact on the current landscape of college basketball cannot be overstated. The battles between Boeheim and Thompson Jr. are what the Big East was built on. They are a primary reason why the Big East is, and has been, the nation’s preeminent basketball conference.
Without it, the Big East may not have blossomed the way it has.
That kind of legacy within the sport is why any true college basketball fan should be excited that the annual battles between these two programs are nationally relevant again.
Today’s 7:00 pm tip between Syracuse and Georgetown is only the appetizer for the Duke-UNC nightcap. Not even the most delusional Big East historian would argue otherwise.
But don’t ignore the historical significance of this rivalry. Without it, college basketball could look very different today.