NEW YORK -- Seven years have passed since Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's barreled into the Final Four, the first time in college basketball history that three teams from one conference reached the national semifinals.
The conference was the Big East. The league's spectacular performance after only six years of operation highlighted a period of meteoric growth. It became known as "the conference of the '80s."
For all its credentials, the Big East's most incredible statistic was that in its first decade, none of its member schools was placed on probation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. For that matter, none had even been publicly reprimanded.
It is now March 1992, and the Big East is no longer the child star with cute dimples.
Syracuse, one of its flagship programs, is bracing for an investigation of its basketball team by the NCAA. Pittsburgh might also be the target of an NCAA inquiry in connection with a possible recruiting violation three years ago.
The prospect that two Big East teams might be scrutinized has prompted at least one lament at a certain loss of innocence. That's a charming sentiment, though somehow I never thought of the Big East as particularly innocent.
At an ethical level, Big East schools have seemed no better or worse than any of the institutions with which they compete. The league's significant advantage was that its founder in 1979 and commissioner, Dave Gavitt, sat on a number of important NCAA committees and was a highly respected figure within the NCAA hierarchy.
Conferences like the Southeastern, the Southwest or Pacific-10 too frequently had members who blatantly broke rules, whose boosters were too open in providing favors. The suspicion was that lesser conferences, like the Missouri Valley, lacked the connections to shield them from NCAA scrutiny.
The Big East appeared to strike a balance between subtlety and sphere of influence. Whether it was respect for Gavitt's presence or a lack of evidence, the NCAA never went after Big East schools during his tenure. Whenever they were asked why there had been no investigations, Big East officials would invariably answer, "Because we do it the right way."
But it does seem odd that not quite two years after Gavitt left to become vice president of operations for the Boston Celtics, two Big East schools face possible NCAA investigations.
In any event, the general sentiment among coaches and administrators around the country is that the Big East has never paid its dues.
Through the magic of TV, the conference did, in fact, avoid having to stand in long lines to receive recognition and visibility.
It became known as a coaches' conference, and gradually the arrogance that accompanied the Big East's rapid success was coupled with a certain narcissism. Coaches began treating players like chess pieces who had no creative life other than the life their coaches gave them.
Faced with the constant glare of media, the coaches seemed blinded to the fact that it was mainly players who won games, not coaches with towels or lucky sweaters.
The chief resource of the college sports industry is bodies, and the Big East, largely through the lure of television, landed more than its fair share of bodies. Perhaps, in the impetuousness of youth, the conference began to take its resources for granted. This might help explain why the Big East has recently had one of the nation's highest rates of player transfers.
For all the talk about its youth, the Big East's infrastructure is aging. Lou Carnesecca is 67 years old, and except for three years when he coached professionally, he has been at St. John's since 1965.
Rollie Massimino, 58, will celebrate his 19th season at Villanova on March 23; John Thompson, 51, celebrated his 20th season at Georgetown Friday. Jim Boeheim, 48, will have been at Syracuse for 16 years on April 3, and P.J. Carlesimo, 42, will celebrate a decade at Seton Hall two days later.
Seven seasons have passed since a Big East team won the national championship, and it has been three seasons since one reached the Final Four.
While much of the focus will be on how the league fares during these next three weeks, a more pressing concern is how the conference will manage during the next eight years. Where will the league be at the turn of the century, and who will be there with it?
The Big East may not have paid its dues at the outset, but it may be beginning to pay them now.