If it wasn’t obvious by the name of this website and the content that has appeared here over the years, I think Philadelphia has a little something special in the world of college basketball.
There are only two cities in America with five college basketball programs within the city limits, New York and Philadelphia. The Big Apple houses a nation-leading seven basketball programs, though there’s no historic connection between those teams and I would imagine most of you reading this paragraph would be unable to name all seven.
For those playing along, the seven teams in the five boroughs are….St. John’s, Fordham, Columbia, Wagner, Manhattan, St. Francis (Brooklyn), and LIU (Brooklyn).
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has a rich history of pitting its local schools against one another, creating a citywide rivalry and cementing the Palestra as one of the cathedrals of basketball.
For decades, four of the five schools in the City of Brotherly Love (more on this in a moment), plus Villanova from the nearby suburbs, played an annual round robin series, often highlighted by doubleheaders at the Palestra. Penn, St. Joe’s, La Salle, Temple, and Villanova brought distinct personalities on the court and in the stands, creating a one-of-a-kind quintuple rivalry, complete with the differences in academics, class-structure, culture, and geography that fuel any college sports beef.
Slowly over time, those traditions subsided. Most of the city blames Villanova and former head coach Rollie Massimino. That’s valid, given his disinterest in playing at the Palestra and his eventual decision to stop playing the necessary four games against neighboring schools.
After the series missed a few years, started having far more games on home courts than the neutral Palestra, and was subsequently dominated by the Jay Wright Villanova dynasty for the last decade, there’s little juice left to squeeze amongst the Big 5. Last week’s doubleheader at the Palestra drew paltry crowds, no pep bands, few students and fell flat, even for a weeknight in November.
Here’s the good news: the six schools involved recognize that issue (yes, six when you add in Drexel, which started playing Division I hoops well after the Big 5 was formed). According to a recent report from Dana O’Neil of The Athletic, the six schools have been meeting, eager to find a solution to re-invigorate the series.
We all wish it were as simple as saying, “Let’s make this fun again,” and scheduling a few Saturday tripleheaders. As O’Neil notes, modern scheduling issues make that much more difficult.
Villanova, for example, is committed to playing a Big Ten team in the Gavitt Games and a Big XII team in the Big East/Big XII Challenge, in addition to invites to big-time Thanksgiving week events like this year’s PK Invitational or the Maui Invitational or Battle for Atlantis. Add on 20 conference games and the slate starts to look pretty full.
It’s easy to point out that Villanova has also found time for games against Mount St. Mary’s, Howard, and Delaware State in recent years. Two notes there: first, Howard and Delaware State are HBCUs, which was a purposeful scheduling choice by Jay Wright and now Kyle Neptune. Second, those early season cupcake beatdowns are “buy games” in which Villanova is paying their opponent to come play at Finneran Pavilion. Those are critical for the athletic department budgets of those smaller schools and the season ticket packages at Villanova. It’s not fair to simply say “Well, Villanova should ditch those games for Big 5 games at the Palestra.” The same, by the way, is true to a lesser extent of Temple, which opened its season (with a loss) at home to Wagner.
With those caveats in mind, here is my pathway to making the Big Five relevant once again:
Make It An Event
This is something O’Neil mentions as being top of mind for the programs involved. A double-header on a weekday night is only going to attract so many people and so much buzz. A Saturday, Sunday, or holiday with three games in one location makes for a more inviting opportunity.
Have it at the Palestra. Get a sponsor that will promote and legitimize the event. Make sure every game is on TV (ugh, or streaming) locally. Bring a charity element (all six programs are very active with Coaches vs. Cancer). Make sure the students coming from La Salle, Villanova, St. Joe’s and Temple (those not walking distance to the Palestra) have a way to get there. Buses or free SEPTA or discounted ride-shares or something. Get the local businesses (read: bars and restaurants) in University City involved. If you give college students free or discounted stuff, they tend to show up.
(One special note about students at Villanova: their ticketing system is based on a lottery. Games are free to attend, but if you’re selected to go and don’t show up, you have less likely chance to be selected again for bigger games. Attending women’s games or games played during winter break helps your lottery odds. These games at the Palestra should be factored into Villanova’s student ticketing lottery, in a big way.)
Bring back the streamers on the first basket by each team. Have a trophy or banner or celebration after every game. Yes, every game. It will feel stupid at first, but there needs to be some reason this thing feels special. Give the player of the game from the winning team in each game a golden streamer or silver soft pretzel postgame. Like I said, it will sound stupid for a while and then all of the sudden four or seven or nine years later, it won’t feel so stupid anymore. Do you think everyone thought Lee Corso’s mascot head picks on College Gameday were a good idea right away? What about Miami football’s “turnover chain” or any of the thousands of other contrived college sports traditions that now feel common-place?
Play the Games Opening Week
Finding a time for this event is potentially the most challenging part. In O’Neill’s report, she mentions the holidays, as well as the Army-Navy game. One problem there: Army-Navy is leaving Philly after this weekend’s game and won’t return to South Philly until 2027.
The holidays can be tricky to navigate as well. It’s hard to imagine getting big time attendance for these games with students gone for winter break and alumni potentially travelling to spend time with families. Plus, the holidays are dangerously close to conference play. All the schools involved except Penn start conference play before the New Year this season, with Villanova’s first Big East game coming December 19.
My ideal timing for this event? Opening week of the season.
The national sports media loves to bemoan how college basketball starts its season with a whimper. The entire world is watching the NFL, World Series, and NBA season openers. Power conference schools can’t seem to find a good time to play basketball games in the fall with TV networks and alums focused on football.
Football, other than Temple, is not really a concern here. Hell, let’s be honest: it’s not a concern at Temple either.
So play three games on campuses across the city on Tuesday night, the first day of the season. Play three more on campuses on Thursday, each team getting a home and road date. Then play tripleheaders at the Palestra on Saturday and Sunday, with all of the pomp and circumstance discussed above. Pray like hell for the Eagles to play on Thursday, Monday, or Sunday Night that week or schedule the Sunday games around them as best you can. Do your best to finagle the best matchups for the weekend games.
That’s four games per team. With just one more, either spread throughout the schedules as needed or with – gasp!- another tripleheader, you have a completed series and city champion to crown.
(One note: I don’t know how La Salle and St. Joe’s being in the Atlantic-10 together affects this. The conference could accept their Big 5 game as a conference meeting or they could play a “non-conference” game. North Carolina and Wake Forest did this a few years ago. It’s weird but so be it.)
Hire a Commissioner/Ambassador Council
What the hell does that mean? Frankly, I’m not even sure I know.
But here’s what I do know: getting six programs with six different goals in mind has to be like herding cats. Someone has to be thinking for the good of the Big 5.
To hold an event like I described would be a huge undertaking, like managing a bowl game. There needs to be someone guiding this process. Maybe its all six schools sending an alum, booster, or administrator to discuss matters. Maybe there’s one Big 5 Czar to run the show. I want someone to go on the sports radio stations to promote the events. The Big 5 should have dedicated social media accounts and, as I mentioned above, sponsors. In the world of NIL, let’s find a way to get the players invested (literally) in the success of the series.
I don’t know who this job goes to now, but if Fran Dunphy wasn’t back to coaching, clearly his history having been associated with three of the six schools makes a name like his logical here.
Six Teams in the Big 5
Yes. Drexel is in.
No, halfways or “City Six” nonsense. The Dragons are installed as full-time members of the Big 5.
“But Shane,” you might be whining at me, “Then there would be six teams. Then it’s not a Big FIIIIIVE.”
I have one simple and easy response to this complaint, but I’ll allow rapper and music festival mogul Ja Rule say it for me:
Right now, if I put my finger on the delete button of your bank account and said “Tell me how many teams are in the Big Ten, Big XII, and Atlantic-10!”, would you go three-for-three? Because I’ll let you in on a little secret…the answer surely is not ten, twelve, and ten.
Why does it matter that Drexel is in? A few reasons. First off, you want students and young alumni to care about the Big 5, so imagine the juice behind the Drexel faithful (modest in size, I’ll admit) in their first crack at the Big 5. First tripleheader leads off with Drexel playing its first ever Big 5 game. That’s juice.
We make Villanova and Temple go down into the Daskalaskis Athletic Center every few years. That has juice.
Drexel’s student body all lives walking distance from the Palestra and is very familiar with the fun things to do before and after a game in University City. Juicy.
Lastly, a sixth team makes the tripleheader possible. Without Drexel, someone is always sitting at home. Let’s get every reason to make the entire city care about these games every time we can.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Betway Insider, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.
2 thoughts on “The Big Five is Trying to Save the Big Five: Reacting to Recent Reports”
If you going to do the first week, make it into the big 5 hall of Fame induction week as well, and try and bring as many inductees back as well. You would mix the young with the old and get some great conversations going. You need to tie in the past to the present to make it work.
Love that idea!