The Big 5’s foundation will not be forgotten.
By DECLAN LANDIS
Very few cities have multiple Division I college programs within a few miles of each other. Even fewer have historic rivalries centered around one building and a rich history of some of the greatest high school and college athletes to pick up a basketball.
No city, however, has a rivalry as historic or rich as Philadelphia’s Big 5.
“Anyone who was a basketball fan in this area attended a Big 5 game at the Palestra,” former Temple guard and Big 5 Hall of Fame inductee Mike Vreeswyk said. “Philadelphia is so unique because all these teams in a small radius play each other, and a rivalry grew out of that. Adding the Palestra, one of the most important buildings in basketball, to that, there’s such an unmatched mystique around the Big 5.”
With the news of a City 6 tournament that will add Drexel to the mix and replace the traditional Big 5 round-robin series, many have questioned whether the Big 5, comprised of Temple, Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and Penn, matters as much as it used to.
In fact, many point to 1991, the year the round-robin format ended before it was renewed in 1999, as the beginning of the end of the storied tradition, one that will be reinvented next season when the teams will be split into pods and play in a tournament at the Wells Fargo Center.
At its peak, the Big 5 provided a platform for some engaging rivalries. Its history changed the trajectory of basketball in the city of Philadelphia, even though that storied tradition has fallen off in the past five years.
Rise to prominence
When the Big 5 started in 1955, four of the five schools did not play in conferences, as Penn joined the Ivy League more than 50 years prior. The city-wide round-robin tournament, as announced by Penn president Gaylord Harnwell, celebrated the culture of the city, placing bragging rights on the line between the Owls, Wildcats, Hawks, Explorers and Quakers.
The contests were heated, and all teams felt there was much on the line.
“It was so important to us players,” former La Salle player, former Penn and Temple head coach and current La Salle head coach Fran Dunphy said about the impact of the Big 5. “For some, it was more important to win the Big 5 championship than your own league championship. It was so important to us.”
A key to maintaining that intensity over decades was the relationships between the teams, specifically the city’s legendary coaches. Dunphy, the late former Temple Hall of Fame coach John Chaney, the late former Villanova head coach Rollie Massimino, former St. Joe’s head coach and current Michigan assistant Phil Martelli, and former Villanova head coach Jay Wright are just some who came through the Big 5 during its history.
Without the connections between coaches, the energy of the series would have dwindled because the history would not have been passed on to each team, Dunphy said.
“When we’d go on the road to recruit, all the Philly guys would hang out at one table,” Dunphy said. “When you join the Big 5, you need to be part of the group. When you come in, it’s not a good idea to not get the culture of coaching in Philadelphia.”
Another important aspect of the Big 5 is the Palestra, the arena on Penn’s campus dubbed the “Cathedral of College Basketball” thanks to its gothic architecture and historical importance. When the Palestra opened its doors on Penn’s campus in 1927, it took another 30 years before its full potential was realized as the home of the rivalry.
Though the venue hosted Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers games, the atmosphere in the Palestra was turned up a notch when the five college teams battled on the floor.
“It was fantastic,” Vreeswyk said about the crowds at the Palestra. “Typically, the games were a sellout crowd.”
Vreeswyk’s favorite tradition, and one that separated the Palestra from other arenas, was when students from each Big 5 team would throw streamers after their team scored its first basket of the game. Streamers flew from as high as the rafters onto the court twice, and the cheer teams would scramble to clear the floor as fast as possible so the games could resume.
“It was something so special and unique,” Vreeswyk said. “It gave me chills every time.”
Originally, all five teams played one game against each team, most of which happened at the Palestra. The rivalry was a celebration of the city of Philadelphia as most of the teams had several players from the area. The games had a little more intensity and meant a little more to each team, especially when played in the Palestra.
“I always spoke about the Big 5 games being more than just a game,” Martelli said. “You may have 31 games on your schedule, but the Big 5 games were always like a game-and-a-half. Psychologically, physically, and emotionally, it felt like a game and a half because of the intensity, the crowds, and the burning desire to win.”
The intensity of the Big 5
No game showed that intensity more than the matchup between No. 1 Temple, which had just been named the top team in the country, and No. 20 Villanova, the national champions just three years earlier, at McGonigle Hall on Feb. 10, 1988.
Despite not being at the Palestra, the intensity of the matchup remained, as people from across the city and the state filed into the bleachers, aisles, and stairways to watch the game between the two titans.
Though Vreeswyk left Temple in 1989, the memories of that matchup stick in his mind to the day.
“You could feel the tension in the arena and the anticipation in the city,” Vreeswyk said. “McGonigle Hall only held 4,500 people, but there had to be at least 7,000 people in the building that night. I don’t make the decisions, but a lot of people will tell you that’s the best game in the Big 5.”
That matchup took the Big 5 to the national stage. However, as Temple and Villanova received that national attention, both programs wanted to play more games at home than at the Palestra.
The decline of a tradition
Eventually, in 1991, the Big 5 stopped playing annually, leading to what some have said was the decline of the rivalry.
“When the round-robin ended and teams played two games instead of four, that felt like when the Big 5 ended,” Martelli said. “I understand that everyone wanted to play on their home court because of their league commitments or their business. But when they went to two games, it was different.”
The Big 5 went back to the round-robin style by 1999, but the intensity had cooled off.
“It’s definitely not the same level of rivalry,” Vresswyk said. “It pains me to say it, but the Big 5 is kind of an afterthought.”
It picked back up, however, around the mid-2000s, when games in the Temple-Villanova series gained intensity. Specifically in 2003, Chaney and Wright sent public shots back-and-forth because Villanova wanted to move the matchup to later in the season so they could play at the Maui Invitational. Though Villanova blew out Temple, both teams were rather heated, and Chaney was quoted saying they’d never play Villanova again.
Another reignition of the Big 5 rivalry was the infamous “Goon Gate”’ incident. During a game against St. Joe’s, Chaney was furious with the officiating of the game, specifically feeling that officials were missing illegal screens. In response, he sent Nehemiah Ingram, who had played 10 minutes all season, into the game. In four minutes, Ingram fouled out, including a hard foul on St. Joe’s forward John Bryant that injured Bryant’s arm.
After the game, Chaney said he “[sent] in a goon,” which is how the incident got its name.
Former Temple guard Shizz Alston Jr. remembers his time in the rivalry fondly, especially the intensity of the matchups.
“Anything could happen in those games,” Alston, who now plays professionally in Japan, said. “They were dogfights. Referees would let us play. It was so important to many people, and you had to have that mindset.”
Despite how important the rivalry was during those years, attendance has dropped dramatically in recent years. About 3,300 fans attended the double-header this past season featuring Temple against La Salle and St. Joe’s against Penn earlier this season at the Palestra, according to The Temple News.
Vreeswyk believes it has to do with the programs that once touted the city-wide rivalry.
“There are so many reasons why,” Vreeswyk said. “One team dominating the rivalry for 15 or 20 years hurts. Recruiting is a much different world, and there are only a few Philly guys on each team rather than five or six, which shifts that Philly culture a little. Marketing, too, is a factor. There’s no one reason, but those are a few.”
Dunphy believes that change is a positive for the Big 5. While there are “so many opportunities” for students to play around the country, the Big 5 has always been special to him, and he thinks there is a chance to bring it back through the proposed City 6 tournament, in which the Big 5 schools and Drexel would be split into two pods where each school would play the others in its pod before crowning a champion at the Wells Fargo Center.
“It’s OK to try,” Dunphy said. “If you’d asked how I’d handle it, I’d say we keep [the round-robin format] for another year and have some serious talks with people smarter than me about what’s best for Philadelphia college basketball. Let’s try things, and let’s make it better for the city.”
Though the Big 5 has lost the sparkle it once had, the importance of its history does not go away. The rivalry has touched countless lives and brought together an entire city, even for just a few games a year, under the banner of sports.
“There’s a special vibe in this city,” Dunphy said. “This is my whole life. This is everything I love about Philadelphia.”