(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on St. Bonaventure men’s basketball. Today, the effects of conference formation on the Bonnies)
In March of 1978, St. Bonaventure was near the top of the college basketball world.
A year after winning the National Invitational Tournament, the Bonnies made their fourth NCAA appearance in program history. It had been 22 years since their last losing season.
But as the decade came to a close, the landscape of eastern college hoops was rapidly changing, and Bona found itself stuck in the middle of it.
"EVERYTHING changed when the Big East came in," said Jim Satalin, SBU’s coach from 1973-82.
A conference for basketball powers in the Northeast was largely a new concept at the time.
Most of the top programs, such as Providence, Georgetown, Syracuse and, of course, St. Bonaventure, were independents.
Their only affiliation was with the Eastern College Athletic Conference, for which they would participate in a postseason tournament to qualify for the NCAAs.
In the late '70s, however, changing NCAA rules were going to make it harder not only for independents to qualify for the tournament, but also to schedule the opponents they preferred.
Mike Tranghese, the first-ever employee of the Big East Conference under founder Dave Gavitt and a former commissioner, explained the rule changes.
"THE NCAA passed a rule that said you needed to play the people in your district twice a year," Tranghese said. "So if you're Providence, you'd need to play Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine twice every year."
The same would go for the others. Georgetown would have to play the Washington, D.C.-area schools, Syracuse and St. Bonaventure would play the upstate New York schools, and so forth.
The problem was, those were lower-quality games than the big programs wanted to play.
"All of a sudden, these programs who were trying to compete at a pretty significant level were being mandated to play a very weakened and unattractive schedule," Tranghese said.
Create a premier conference.
That's what Gavitt, coach of Providence, envisioned. The "Big East" would be the new destination for top Northeast basketball schools.
"As (Gavitt) was putting (the league) together, he was looking for successful programs that played in big, attractive markets," Tranghese said.
St. Bonaventure checked the first box with ease. Its basketball resume could be put up against any other school in the region.
But the market part ... not so much.
Gavitt wanted large arenas in big cities.
Tom McElroy, SBU's sports information director and director of personal relations at the time, who then worked 20 years for the Big East starting in 1981, recalled Gavitt's motives.
"Dave wanted the league to play in big buildings," McElroy said. "He knew that if the league was ever going to be dominant nationally, they'd have to play in big buildings in order to get the best players to go there."
St. Bonaventure's Reilly Center had a good reputation. It was known for its hostile crowds and the difficulty winning there.
But at just under 6,000 seats, in a town of less than 20,000, it wasn't the ideal destination for Gavitt.
"IT HAD nothing to do with records," McElroy said. "It had to do with marketplace. Potential. The fans never understood that it wasn't about what your win-loss record was."
A driving force behind the success and expansion of the Big East was its partnership with a fledgling cable station, ESPN.
The two grew together. Gavitt knew that television exposure would be a great way to grow the conference, and it became another trademark of the schools in the Big East.
And 75 miles away from Buffalo, the nearest large television market, Olean was a tough sell.
"The thing for most teams was this," McElroy said. "If you don't win there, don't recruit there and your alumni aren't there, why go there?"
Gavitt aimed at locking down the big cities of the region for the conference. Its original four members were Providence, Georgetown (Washington, D.C.), St. John's (New York) and Syracuse.
He also added Boston College, Seton Hall (New Jersey) and Connecticut before 1979, the first season of play.
By the time the Big East was ready for its first season, St. Bonaventure knew it wasn't going to get in.
"We were left at the altar without a marketplace," McElroy said.
So for the Bonnies, now what?
Another league in the Northeast had been formed several years prior to the Big East.
Founded in 1975 and beginning play in '76, the Eastern 8 was another jump-start league started by formerly independent schools. Its original members were Villanova, Duquesne, Penn State, West Virginia, George Washington, Massachusetts, Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
When 1978 and '79 rolled around, Bona's next task became getting into that league at all costs.
"NOW THERE’S a dogfight, and we've got to get in," McElroy said. "We didn't want to get left out again. We were a school that was playing Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse regularly, and we were going to lose those games."
The league sent a visitation team to SBU, and in '79, the Bonnies were in.
Bonaventure's relationship with Duquesne was a big help. The schools had been playing each other at least once a year since 1952, and Duquesne athletic director Red Manning was close with Bona athletic director Larry Weise.
The league then went through a transition period before becoming more similar to what it is today.
Villanova left in '80 and was replaced by Rhode Island. Pittsburgh exited in '82, and Saint Joseph's and Temple were added.
Now at 10 members, the league adopted the name "Atlantic 10" which it remains today.
Following some limited success in the early '80s, the Bona basketball program started to lose its power in the new league.
"We were fortunate to get into the Eastern 8," Satalin said. "But it wasn't quite the same level we had been playing at before. That was probably the main reason for the drop-off."
The Bonnies went through eight consecutive losing seasons from 1987-94, and wouldn't return to a national postseason tournament until 1995.
The Eastern 8 wasn’t a bad league. It has always been considered one of the better Division I mid-major conferences.
But the arrival and success of the Big East really hurt its growth.
"It was hard for the Eastern 8 at the time because it didn't have a television contract," Satalin said. "The Big East was able to get ESPN to be on board, and it left out the Eastern 8 from a recruiting standpoint. All of a sudden, it was a secondary league and it never really recovered."
It's hard to say where the Bona program would be at today if it could have joined the Big East.
But those who were close to the program at the time say that joining the Eastern 8 is part of what has kept it an annual NCAA tournament contender. McElroy argued that if Bona hadn't gotten in, it would have ended up in a much lower-quality league.
"We would probably end up in the MAAC," McElroy said of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. "In terms of geography, size of enrollment, no football, mission and vision, we look like a MAAC school."
The MAAC is, and always has been, a one-bid league. In order to make the NCAA tournament, a team must win the conference tournament and get the automatic bid.
This is the league that long-time Bona rivals Niagara and Canisius are in. Other successful programs in the league are Iona, Manhattan and Quinnipiac.
That's not quite the caliber of programs the current-day Atlantic 10 features, with perennial NCAA tournament contenders such as Dayton, VCU and Davidson.
The A-10 has put multiple teams in the NCAAs in 23 of the last 25 years, and had a record six tournament teams in 2014.
"The Bonnies ended up landing fine and they've always had a place to play in a good league," Satalin said. "It's hard looking back and thinking what could have been if they would have gotten into the Big East, but it's worked out well for them."