Long before the Big East became a watered-down Catholic school athletic conference, the league was getting ready to hit its peak.
Still in its pre-football days, the Big East was one of (if not the) premier conference in college basketball with a slew of powerhouse programs and burgeoning stars like Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. Its success on the court was clear, but football was still the nation’s top revenue-generating sport.
That’s where Penn State came in.
To be able to keep the conference’s football schools — Syracuse and Boston College — some sort of incentive was needed. Both had marquee basketball programs and were located in decent TV markets, making the schools indispensable to the Big East.
College football was at the same crossroads that brought about the Big East basketball — the need for schools to be aligned with a conference. Many schools, mostly in the northeast, were independent. Penn State was not part of a conference in any sport at the time.
In 1982, the Big East knew it needed to make a move to keep its football schools content for the time being. The idea of admitting Penn State to join the conference to play basketball would allow Syracuse and Boston College to have a guaranteed opponent to play while also staying independent for football.
This idea was lofted among the eight member schools and put to a vote, which Penn State lost 5-3 — just one vote short of becoming a full member of the Big East. The conference elected to take Pitt instead.
That one-missed vote might be one of the most important moments to the success of Penn State athletics since.
Penn State ended up re-joining the A-10 in most sports after several years as independents. The football program stayed independent for the next nine years — allowing it to win its two national titles in the process.
The athletic program got its needed boost with a decision to join the Big Ten in all sports by 1991. Without that one vote Penn State likely wouldn’t be in one of the premier conferences of college sports.
The Big East continued to succeed for years to come following the 1982 decision and future member additions that led to the creation of the football conference in 1991. As the years continued, the conference started to lose its football schools that it had accumulated and eventually the beloved Big East dissolved.
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese knew that the conference would “rue the day” of the decision to reject Penn State.
Penn State, on the other hand, might be in its best position because of the decision. While football was strong in its early days in the Big East and the basketball program may have been helped out by being in the top conference, there’s no guarantee either program would have been overly successful.
If neither sport was successful, Penn State might have ended up in the same predicament UConn and Cincinnati currently face — large schools playing outside one of the Power 5 conferences. Being far outside a major TV market, Penn State may never have gotten the offer from a power conference if its teams didn’t live up to its Big Ten successes in the Big East.