Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Big 5

There is only one Big 5.  It's an association of five schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that play college basketball -- St. Joseph's, Pennsylvania, Temple, Villanova and LaSalle.  The Big 5 was originally formed in 1955 and the history and tradition that all of these programs have is what makes the Big 5 so great and so unique. 

Originally, all five members of the Big 5, located withing 17  miles of one another, played their homes games at The Palestra in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania aka The Cathedral of College Basketball.  (see the picture that graces the left hand corner of this blog).  The Palestra itself has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other facility -- 52.   Additionally, The Palestra has hosted more college basketball games than any other facility.  The Palestra is as much a part of the Big 5 as any of the institutions.

The Big 5 also features a religious dimension as St. Josephs (Jesuit), Villanova (Augustinian) and LaSalle (Christian Brothers) all stem from respective religious orders of the Catholic Church.  Temple and Pennsylvania are public insitutions although Penn is the only public institution in the Ivy League.  The Palestra was named at the suggestion of Greek professor Dr. William N. Bates who reasoned that the name fit because in Ancient Greece, young men would compete in a variety of events in a rectangular enclosure (a Palestra) in view of spectators. So in 1927, the Palestra opened its doors.

Philadelphia coaching legends all made their names in the Big 5 -- John Cheney, Rollie Massimino, Chuck Daly, Jack Ramsey, Jack McCloskey, Phil Martelli, Dick Harter, and Harry Litwack, even Tom Gola coached a couple of years in the Big 5.  

Ramsay, has always been a favorite.  He is an interesting story, he coached his alma mater St. Joe's for 11 seasons and won six Big 5 Championships.  In 1961 Ramsay coached the Hawks to their only Final Four appearance.   (See below for additional details).  He followed that up by winning an NBA Championship as general manager of the 76ers.   Ultimately, he traded away Wilt Chamberlain and wound up winning another title as the coach of the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 with Bill Walton as his big man. 

Daly coached the 1992 Dream Team to gold (most experts agree the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled).   He started his coaching career in at Punxsutawney (PA) before landing at Penn in 1971.  All 5 of the starters on the 1979 Penn Final 4 team were recruited by Daly, but Daly was not the coach, he had moved on to an assistant position with the 76ers.   Bob Weinhauer actually coached the team, still the farthest any Ivy League school has advanced in the NCAA Tournament.

"What made Penn basketball special were The Palestra, the student body, and the players. The tradition of the students tossing the red and blue streamers after the initial basket in every game, is one those memories that stays with you forever."   Penn Coach Bob Weinhauer.

Each Big 5 school has its own history and tradition though.  Everyone will remember Villanova's 1987 NCAA Tournament Title, but the other schools boast as much if not more history and tradition.

The LaSalle Explorers nickname derives from a mistake made by a local Philadelphia sportswiter. The writer thought the university was named after the French explorer Sieur de La Salle, when in fact it is named after St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle.  The nickname caught on, however, and has remained ever since. Even being embraced by schools mantra of, "Never stop Exploring".   

LaSalle won the 1954 NCAA tournament and the 1952 NIT Championship (this was before the NIT was even considered the less prestigious tournament (see discussion regarding Murray State's history:  The Explorers appeared in NCAA Final again in 1955, but were turned away by the University of San Francisco and future Boston Celtic legends Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.  

However, LaSalle's best team may have been the 1969 team, coached by Gola, which went 23-1, but was ruled ineligible for postseason play due to academic and recruiting violations that occurred before Gola took over as coach.   

Temple, named the Owls, because it started as a night school (the Owl being a symbol of the night) went to two Final Fours during the 1950's led by Litwack. Cheney coached Temple to 17 NCAA Tournament appearances and the Number 1 rating in 1988.   Both Cheney and Litwack are in the basketball Hall of Fame.  Temple has actually been the dominant team in the Big 5 winning 25 unoffical Big 5 Titles.  St. Joseph's and Temple first met during the 1901-02 season.  The Owl without a Vowel (Bill Mlkvy) scored a school record 73 points against Wilkes College in 1950-51.  He led the nation in scoring and rebounding that season. 

St. Joseph's 1961 Final Four appearance (coached by Dr. Jack Ramsay) was vacated due to a gambling scandal when star players Jack Egan, Vince Kempton and Frank Majewski were declared retroactively ineligible because of their involvement in a point shaving scandal.    Earlier in the season, Majewski had thrown a game against Dayton, scoring only 4 points and grabbing only 1 rebound.   The Flyers beat the Hawks 67-65.   Games against Xavier and Seton Hall were also proven to have been fixed.   Ultimately, the Xavier and Dayton games were two of only five losses the Hawks experienced all year.  Egan, Kempton and Frank Majewski were expelled from St. Joseph's.   Sports Illustrated gave a then in depth account of the details.  (See link: titled "Portrait of  Fixer").  

However, St. Joe's 2004 teams' 27-0 start led it to the number one rating and it was the last undefeated team that season.   See link:   The Hawks did not lose until the Atlantic 10 tournament against Xavier, and only a second time in the Elite Eight by two points against Oklahoma State.

St. Joe's also boasts arguably the best cheer in college sports, "The Hawk Will Never Die." 

Villanova's best season was obviously the 1984 NCAA Tournament Championship.  However, the Wildcats also reached the Final Four in 1939 and did it more recently in 2009 and in between appeared in 28 NCAA Tournaments. 

The 1971 Villanova/Penn rivalry was particularly spirited as the Wildcats avenged two previous Big 5 defeats by knocking off a then undefeated University of Pennsylvania team in the East Regional Final by a score of 90-47.  However, the Wildcats subsequent championship game appearance was vacated when it was determined that star player and leading scorer Howard Porter had signed with an agent prior to the tournament.  Ultimately, all five NCAA tournament games were vacated. 

There is a book on The Big 5 -- Palestra Pandemonium by Philadelphia sportswriter Robert S Lyons.  It is much better than anything I could write or put into a small read on a blog.   You'd have to be from Philly to truly appreciate the Big 5.  Additionally, there is a website promoting the Big 5 -- also better than anything I could put together and to be honest much of what appears here is stolen from it. 

However, The Big 5 deserves our attention now because of what it has always been and I wrote this hoping that fans, especially from other regions, fans that have never been to Pennsylvania or Philadelphia, might take a second to go out of their way and watch a Big 5 match up this year.  No matter how much college football changes the landscape of college athletics by shifting Louisville to the ACC, Nebraska to the Big 10  or The Big 5's own Temple to the Big East -- The Big 5 remains.  It's not based on conference affiliations or television dollars, it's based on proximity and a city.   Players play high school ball in Philly and they end up at different schools in Philly, they play again in college, the atmosphere is intense.   Penn can't suddenly decide to opt out of the Big 5.   Villanova, LaSalle, St. Joe's and Temple are their Philadelphia brothers -- relatives that they can't get away from or pay exit fees to escape rivalry games from.  

This year Penn will play Villanova on December 8th -- its Big 5 opener.   Penn actually shows a road game against St. Joe's on January 19th at the Palestra on its schedule.   Keep in mind that the Palestra is on the University of Pennsylvania campus.  More historic is the fact that from 1955 through 1989 LaSalle actually played all of its home games at The Palestra.   What forced LaSalle to move it's games to the Palestra?   Its 1954 National Championship,  when the Explorers knocked off Bradley in the final game behind Tom Gola, forcing the school to abandoned its limited on campus facility in favor of a more prestigious environment. 

LaSalle will precede these games by playing Penn State at the Palestra on December 5th as well as St. Joe's later in the season.  Never mind that Tom Gola Arena is the official home court of the Explorers. 

Here is the full Big 5 schedule for this season:

MEN'S BASKETBALL Sun. Nov. 25: La Salle 77, Villanova - OT (Tom Gola Arena)
Wed. Dec. 5: Temple at Villanova (The Pavilion), 9 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 8: Villanova at Penn (The Palestra), 8 p.m.
Tue. Dec. 11: Saint Joseph’s at Villanova (The Pavilion), 7 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 5: Penn at La Salle (Tom Gola Arena), 2 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 19: Penn vs. Saint Joseph’s (The Palestra), 5 p.m.
Wed. Jan. 23: Penn at Temple (Liacouras Center), 7 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 2: Temple at Saint Joseph’s (Hagan Arena), 6 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 16: Saint Joseph’s vs. La Salle (The Palestra), 1 p.m.
Thu. Feb. 21: La Salle at Temple (Liacouras Center), 7 p.m.

The Big 5 is what college basketball should be about.  

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