New Big East basketball boss is tiny package of big surprises

November 25, 1990|By Neil Best | Neil Best,Newsday

PROVIDENCE, R.I — PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The revenge of the nerds is pretty much complete. It started in the early '80s, when bookish David Stern ++ replaced political smoothy Lawrence O'Brien as commissioner and turned the National Basketball Association into a multicontinent attraction.

By the end of the decade, the National Football League was being run by Paul Tagliabue and baseball by Fay Vincent.

Fay Vincent!

The face of sports administration has changed. Glasses are in. Glamour is out.

All of which helps explain Mike Tranghese, ruler of one of the most powerful college basketball conferences on earth, and a man of hopelessly uninspiring physical presence.

"We used to call him 'Iron Mike' as a joke because he was so weak," said Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk, a close friend who worked with Tranghese at Providence College in the mid-1970s. "He only weighs like, what, eight pounds?"

Not to worry. Like their professional counterparts, big-time colleges recognize the importance of qualified business management in an era when zillions of dollars are at stake. Substantive, smart, behind-the-scenes types have moved to the top of the letterhead.

Still, Tranghese's promotion to commissioner of the Big East in June was more than a matter of plugging in the nearest competent functionary. He paid his dues.

When Dave Gavitt's dream of a new Eastern league came true in 1979, he made Tranghese the Big East's first full-time employee. By the time Gavitt stepped down in May to work for the Boston Celtics, Tranghese had become one of the nation's foremost experts on scheduling and television negotiations and earned enormous respect inside and outside the league.

"We looked at all the options," St. John's athletic director Jack Kaiser said of the brief search for a new commissioner. "He seemed to be the obvious one."

Said Gavitt: "I've been saying for 10 years that Mike could have stepped into my job at any time and the conference wouldn't miss a beat."

The only lingering doubt was about style, not substance. Gavitt, a commanding presence who once coached the Providence basketball team to the Final Four, had been the public face of the Big East -- a vital role in a league created for maximum media exposure. Tranghese, who spent seven years as Providence's sports information director under Gavitt, rarely had faced cameras and note pads.

For nearly 20 years, Gavitt and Tranghese were the ying and yang of Eastern basketball, a matched pair of opposites. Gavitt was called a visionary and the most powerful man in college basketball. Tranghese implemented the visions. "I call it an idealist-realist situation," Big East Associate Commissioner Chris Plonsky said. "As a team, they were terrific."

Tranghese did not have to wait long for the first test of his ability as a politician and media star. The first four months of his tenure were marked by a life-and-death struggle to save the league that resulted in the University of Miami becoming the Big East's 10th member. Pittsburgh and Syracuse had become targets of conferences seeking to add Division I-A football schools, forcing Tranghese to accommodate his football members or risk losing them.

"There was a time, in late August, early September, when every way we turned it seemed we confronted another problem," Tranghese said. "I had my doubts. It wasn't a lot of fun."

His handling of the crisis was vintage Tranghese, according to those closest to him. The man who once produced copious statistics from the tiny Providence sports information director's office now walked into meetings with Big East and Miami officials armed with carefully researched proposals.

"He's a very detail-oriented person," Seton Hall athletic director Larry Keating said. "He prepared an evaluation of Miami as well as a presentation to Miami. It was a marriage being made, and he did a great job leading that effort."

But what about that "vision" thing, which supposedly was lost forever once Gavitt walked out the door? Actually, Tranghese had seen the Miami situation coming nearly a decade earlier, back when he was just beginning to build his reputation as Gavitt's alter ego.

Minutes of a 1981 Big East meeting at which the subject of adding Penn State was discussed, show that Tranghese realized even then the importance of football to the league's future. "Here's Mike, two years removed from the SID job at Providence, saying we're going to rue the day we didn't take this Penn State thing seriously," said Tom McElroy, a Big East assistant commissioner.

Nine years later, with Penn State having joined the Big Ten, the Big East was forced to look to distant Miami to avoid being torn apart by the football realignment craze. "He has a way of seeing around the corner to problems that may be ahead," Plonsky said.

After weeks of marathon meetings, the Big East finally added Miami in October, giving the Hurricanes instant credibility for basketball and the conference negotiating leverage for football.

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