Temple is joining the Big East where it will join local rival Villanova while leaving St. Joseph’s and La Salle behind in the Atlantic 10. Introducing Temple on Wednesday, Big East, Temple and Villanova officials strenuously made a point of classifying the rivalry between North Broad Street and the Main Line as being among the nation’s best. Commissioner John Marinatto and Villanova President Fr. Peter Donohue both compared it to the storied Tobacco Road rivalry between UNC and Duke.
Lately, the rivalry has been particularly heated, with Fran Dunphy getting the Owls on a roll of success and building talented teams on North Broad Street. Even so, as a non-conference rivalry, it has had more in common with Cincinnati-Xavier than UNC-Duke; strong local and regional relevance, but limited national interest.
A funny thing happened at the press conference though, the Big 5 was mentioned only once and in the past-tense.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful day for Temple University athletics, for its student body, and for all in Philadelphia that love the rivalry that used to be something called the Big Five,” said Lewis Katz, the chairman of Temple’s Athletics Committee.
The Big 5, which celebrated it’s 50th anniversary just six years ago is now something that used to be. That was the message captured by anyone who caught that moment.
The Big 5 is a five-way rivalry that involving Temple, Villanova, St. Joseph’s, La Salle, and perhaps most importantly, Penn. The series started in 1955, as a result of Penn agreeing to allow the city’s other 4 basketball powers to use their arena, the Palestra, considered a “cathedral” of basketball and one of the largest venues in the city at the time. The five schools agreed that they would play each other in round-robin competition every year, and began a tradition of playing double-headers at the Palestra — evenly splitting the proceeds of the games at the gate.
That tradition became watered down in the early 1990s, when the round-robin series ended while Villanova pursued a “national” non-conference schedule. The rivalries didn’t stop however, Villanova still played at least two Big 5 games each year, and the Big 5 still crowned a champion. In 1999, the round-robin series was re-started, but now the proceeds of each game belonged to the home team exclusively and most of the games were moved to campus sites, instead of the Palestra.
The Big 5 never really went away in the hearts and minds of Philadelphia’s college basketball fans, though the 1990s certainly soured many of them on Villanova as an institution.
The most important fact of the rivalry was that the Big 5 was always bigger than the rivalries between any two schools that were a part of it. Now, that isn’t so clear.
The Big East may marginalize the Big 5.
“I don’t think you’d honestly say that Philadelphia is a Big East city, its more like a Big 5 city, an Atlantic 10 city, and there’s a Big East school there in Villanova,” Villanova’s Jay Wright said on Wednesday. “So, I think it can really turn into a big time Big East city because everybody’s going to be coming in there twice, and then Villanova and Temple are going to play, and I’m sure that the way scheduling goes we’re going to wind up playing twice.”
No doubt, the Big East conference would love to grow the rivalry between the two Philadelphia schools into a huge television event that will capture the full attention of the nation’s 4th-largest television market — and generate lots of television money in the process. That process has already started, with Temple’s introductory press conference serving as much as an opportunity to promote that rivalry as to welcome a new conference member.
What was previously a game that meant little other than bragging rights will now have an impact on conference standings for both schools. They could potentially play twice every year, or meet on the floor at Madison Square Garden in March on ESPN.
Temple previously shared a conference with St. Joes and La Salle and had a similarly meaningful rivalry with both schools, but there was never as much hype for the games that were often relegated to the CBS Sports Network, buried somewhere deep on your cable television dial. The lack of special attention kept those games from becoming bigger than the Big 5, but the Big East hoops hype-machine will almost certainly elevate Villanova-Temple now.
That could be bad news for St. Joes, La Salle, and Penn, who all hold the Big 5 dear — games against city schools are well-attended and meaningful to their alumni.
With one pair of schools making their rivalry bigger than the Big 5, however, the round-robin rivalry may be fading into a memory as Katz hinted on Wednesday. It will be slightly more difficult for Temple to schedule the Big 5 games, though there is no indication that they intend to cancel those games in the future, they will no longer play La Salle and St. Joes twice. The A-10 schools will have less leverage in local recruiting battles now and their Big 5 home games will likely remain buried on hard-to-find cable channels, while Villanova and Temple meet on ESPN’s Big Monday.
The Big 5 will survive this challenge as it has survived most other challenges over the last 56 years, at least in form, but not in spirit. Temple’s move to the Big East, by necessity, will change the meaning and importance of the rivalry and ultimately, the other three Philadelphia schools might get lost in the shuffle.
Losing a little piece of the Big 5’s relevance may not be as painful a loss for college basketball as the discontinuation of Missouri-Kansas or Syracuse-Georgetown, but in Philadelphia it will be noticed.