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Bob Ryan

Gavitt’s impact huge

College basketball loses a giant figure

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 18, 2011

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Phoenix Suns honcho Jerry Colangelo was there to scout Tony Hanson, as I recall. I was on hand to cover the Providence-Connecticut game.

When it was over, Dave Gavitt, then in the middle of his memorable tenure as coach of the Providence Friars, said, “Come on back to the house. I’ll fix us something to eat. I used to be a short-order cook in Peterborough, N.H.’’

Sounded good to us.

We arrived at the house, but there was a little problem. The coach had forgotten his keys. He rang the bell, or banged on the

door, or whatever, and before long, Julie Gavitt came shuffling out in her bathrobe and slippers. She let us in, and the look on her face said, “I’ve been here before.’’

Chef Gavitt delivered eggs, bacon, and toast, as promised, and it was pretty good. But the food was secondary to the basketball talk. Dave Gavitt was always good for great basketball talk.

We all knew Dave Gavitt wasn’t doing very well. I last spoke to him on the Saturday afternoon of the Final Four, and though the spirit was willing, the voice was weak. But the news that Dave Gavitt died yesterday at age 73 stings. In all of New England basketball, there was only one Dave Gavitt, and he will never be replaced.

Perhaps for some, he was known as the guy who ran the Celtics for a while in the early ’90s. I almost wish that never happened. He had jumped onto a sinking ship, with the (original) Big Three in physical decline. He did not have the answers. His time with the Celtics was neither the happiest nor the most successful time in his career.

That wasn’t who he was, anyway. He had answered Red Auerbach’s call. And he had enough of an ego to think he could do the job.

It doesn’t matter. Dave Gavitt was bigger than the NBA. He was perhaps the single most important non-playing figure in college basketball over a 20-year period.

He was an American leader in the realm of international basketball. As founder of the Big East, he changed the entire landscape of Eastern college basketball. This made him The Man To See on all matters administrative in college basketball, and it eventually led to his becoming head of USA Basketball.

He was the de facto general manager of the One and Only Dream Team, an honor he deserved, if only because he had been head coach of the 1980 Olympic team that never made it to Moscow after President Carter decided that the US had to boycott those Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of - talk about irony - Afghanistan.

Dave Gavitt’s vision had long been global. I can’t remember exactly how long ago he had spoken wistfully of the most amazing atmosphere for a basketball game he had ever witnessed, that being an outdoor game played under a star-filled, big-moon night in Greece.

He had gotten himself involved in international play when a preponderance of his peers were still more concerned with picking up extra dollars running summer basketball camps.

But as skilled and famous an administrator as he would become, the best thing he did was coach.

Providence was the epicenter of New England college basketball throughout the ’60s and ’70s, first under Joe Mullaney and then for a glorious decade under Dave Gavitt, peaking with that great 1972-73 team that went to the Final Four and may very well have upended mighty UCLA had Marvin Barnes not messed up his knee in the national semifinals against Memphis State.

Many would nominate that squad as the best team New England has ever seen. Jim Calhoun might even second the notion.

But Dave Gavitt had promised himself he would never become an old coach. Most of us didn’t believe he could go through with it, but after he retired from the PC bench at the conclusion of the 1979-80 season, the only time he coached again was during a ceremonial exhibition tour that 1980 Olympic team went on after receiving the disappointing news that it would not be going to Moscow.

It became easy to take the Big East for granted over the last three decades, but the idea of it was pretty revolutionary at the time, at least to Eastern sensibilities.

It wasn’t the first major attempt at organizing Eastern teams. The current Atlantic 10 was born as the Eastern 8 a few years earlier. But Gavitt took the shell of that idea and expanded it, with one thing in mind: television.

The Big East was about television markets. New York (St. John’s). Boston (Boston College). Philadelphia (Villanova). Washington (Georgetown).

The phenomenal success of Syracuse after the Orange moved from cozy Manley Fieldhouse to the Carrier Dome caught everyone by surprise. UConn languished until Calhoun made it happen in Storrs.

But the idea was centered on cornering the big Eastern markets while not ignoring his own beloved Friars. He was, after all, the PC director of athletics for many years.

It took only six years for Gavitt’s creation to make history when Villanova, Georgetown, and St. John’s all made the 1985 Final Four.

I can only imagine how much it hurt him to see his creation eventually hijacked by football, and what a sad turn of events to have Syracuse and Pitt applying for admission to the ACC on the very day he died. But were it not for Dave Gavitt, there would have been nothing to hijack.

A recurrent Dave Gavitt theme: The Saturday afternoon of the Final Four is the greatest day in American sports.

He would say, “A half-hour before Game 1, there is such a buzz. The bands are playing. The building is full of fans, all wearing team colors, and all of them thinking their team cannot lose. There is nothing like it.’’

That’s why the NCAA should make it official. Henceforth, the Saturday afternoon at the Final Four is Dave Gavitt Saturday, with banners everywhere carrying the message.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.