In 2013, the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Big East, new teams, a new conference, a new commissioner, a new sports network, and an upcoming new facility combine to create a surface tension not felt on the Chicago collegiate scene in some time.
It was on June 26, 2013, that Val Ackerman joined DePaul University president Fr. Dennis Holtschneider in creating a new Big East conference. But how does one essentially begin a new conference that would start athletic play in just five months? It began with Ackerman.
Fr. Holtschneider introduced Ackerman at the luncheon, reeling off her accomplishments in sports: a four-year starter in women's basketball at the University of Virginia; the founder of the WNBA; an assistant to David Stern in the NBA; a four-year president of USA Basketball, where she interacted with current DePaul men's basketball coach Oliver Purnell and current women's basketball coach Doug Bruno.
But again, how would this work?
Ackerman took the stage and, with her trademark enthusiasm and relentless spirit, said this would work based on three things: 1) a new television contract with Fox Sports; 2) all of DePaul's men's basketball games being shown on a national platform; 3) the Big East will set up shop in New York, believed to be the first conference ever to do so.
Purnell and Bruno also spoke at the luncheon, but perhaps the biggest stars there did not say a word.
At the front of the room were four blow ups of color photos of DePaul's arena, set to open in 2016. The arena, designed by the New York architectural firm of Pelli Clarke Pelli, has the appearance of an open, inviting structure, and it will seat roughly 10,000 people. Pelli Clarke Pelli has also designed the World Financial Center in New York, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and the International Finance Center in Hong Kong.
Bruno, a winner of over 500 games at DePaul, spoke about what the new arena would mean to his program.
"It's going to mean the ability to recruit Chicago players who want to play in Chicago. We love our home at McGrath-Phillips Arena, and we are still going to play there on campus, but to have the ability to grow our program and to play in a 10,000 seat arena will bring recruits to a facility that competes with all of the people that the public expects us to compete with."
And of the selection of Allstate Arena as the site for the Big East Women's Tournament?
"The only negative comments I have heard about hosting this tournament come from the New York media."
Bruno is angling for DePaul's 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. A remarkable achievement by itself, but also remarkable as an example of how far women's basketball has progressed over the years.
"When I played at Virginia we didn't have a business model, we had a Title IX model," said Ackerman.
Purnell commented that the origins of the new arena go back to when he was interviewing for the DePaul head coach position. Fr. Holtschneider told him at that time that he wasn't going to make any promises that he could or would not keep, but that a new arena might be in the mix.
In his assessment of his team, Purnell was honest and optimistic.
"I won't go through the number of close games that we had last year, but we have a tremendous corps coming back," said Purnell. "We have two of the top five Big East scorers from last year in Cleveland Melvin [16.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 48 percent from the field] and Brandon Young [16.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, and the only player in DePaul history to have scored 1,200 points, dished out 400 assists, and made 100 three pointers]. We also have Charles McKinney, who was probably the top defensive player in the Big East last year, and we have Jamee Crockett, who had an injury-plagued year last year."
"We have added seven new players, including a fifth year transfer from Purdue, Sandi Marcius, who ‘we are counting on tremendously.'"
"One of the things this new group will add is rebounding, an area we really need to improve in. We also need to improve our defense and our shooting, something [freshman R.J. Currington] should help us with."
Purnell's voice hardened when he talked about his team's conference schedule.
"I challenge anyone to look at our schedule and find a night off. Butler, Creighton, and Xavier are three of the toughest home courts in the country."
Change and potential. One word that can produce fright, and another word that can produce fight. The old Big East was always a conference that was never afraid and one that always fought. The future of the new Big East is best defined by Ackerman:
"We are going to make this great."
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