- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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In 1979, the first employee the Big East hired was Mike Tranghese. Nearly 30 years later, the last employee the Big East needs to retire is Mike Tranghese, who announced Thursday that he will do just that after the 2008-09 academic year.
Tranghese is the man who kept the conference alive after Miami and Virginia Tech left in 2004, and again after Boston College left a year later. He is the man who cobbled together a 16-school conference in which only eight of the schools play football. He is the commissioner who held the membership together when common sense and a lack of common interests suggested the basketball and football schools go their separate ways.
For all the power that tradition and marketplace wield, at the end of the day -- which remains Tranghese's favorite phrase -- college sports is fueled by the respect the industry's titans have for one another. The Big East always has been more of a coed fraternity than the other conferences. Tranghese and his mentor, Dave Gavitt, the Big East's founding commissioner, made sure of it.
"There's a feeling of camaraderie in this league," Tranghese said during a teleconference Thursday.
And this: "[The members] get along so well. That doesn't happen by itself. You've got to really work at it."
With Tranghese gone, who will be there to keep the Big East together? Who will keep it whole? Who will serve as the institutional memory and conscience of a league that survived because of the leadership of one man at a critical time?
Tranghese believes the league has regained its footing to the point where he no longer has to nurse it.
"Some of it is a feel," Tranghese said. "I see who we are recruiting. I hear our coaches. They are really good football coaches. What I like about our coaches is they have a good understanding of what their programs need. The last three years, we have beaten the SEC, ACC and Big 12 champs [in BCS bowls]. My sense is we are recruiting better than we ever have. All eight of our [football] schools feel if they do their jobs, they have the ability to win the league. That wasn't the case before, with Miami. It has really motivated people."
The belief that it can be done stems from one event: West Virginia's 38-35 upset of Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, which was held in Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. Tranghese named the victory the most memorable game in his 29 years with the league, more memorable than even the 1985 Final Four, which included three Big East schools.
"It took the burden off of everybody's shoulders," Tranghese said of the Mountaineers' victory, which concluded the conference's first season without Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The victory excited Tranghese so much that he walked from the Georgia Dome back to his downtown hotel, ever-present cup of coffee in hand, in the wee hours.
"I'm lucky I didn't get jumped," Tranghese said. "It wouldn't have mattered. I probably would have won."
From that win sprang an entire league's self-confidence. If the Big East didn't feel that good about itself, Tranghese said, he wouldn't retire. He would continue to swallow his fear of flying and get on airplanes, a work necessity he can't wait to shed.
Whether the league retains its increasing self-regard will depend on whom it hires to replace Tranghese. That man or woman better have big feet. Big shoes await.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
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