A once timeless rivalry evokes mixed feelings in Philadelphia.
By Matt Rineer
In both professional and collegiate settings, basketball is one of the most beloved sports in Philadelphia, and one of the most historical aspects of Philadelphia basketball is the collegiate rivalry known as the Big 5.
The city series between La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova officially began in 1955 after La Salle won the 1954 NCAA Tournament.
Since its founding, four of the five Big 5 teams are among the top 50 in all-time Division I victories.
While it is one of the longest-running rivalries in the city of Philadelphia, the popularity of the Big 5 has dwindled, and now the new City 6 format, which will add Drexel, divide the teams into pods, and culminate in a tripleheader at South Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center in December, is an attempt to revive interest in the city series.
But how much does that mean to today’s Temple fanbase as opposed to older fans who used to frequent Big 5 games?
A small sample size of 20 fans – 10 Big 5 graduates and fans and 10 current Temple students – were interviewed for this story to discuss that subject.
A nostalgic generation
Temple graduate Theresa Hondros Meyer comes from a family built by the Big 5, with all of her siblings having attended at least one Big 5 university.
“The Big 5 for me was about the rivalries,” said Meyer. “Who got bragging rights at Sunday dinner? I have two brothers who went to Nova and one to St Joe. I went to Temple. Competition back then was pretty even and local.”
The Big 5 is a fierce rivalry, with many split allegiances within it. With connections to Temple and St. Joseph’s, Glenn Wilson has been able to create a number of memories from the rivalry.
“I am not an alum of any Big 5 school. However, I remember listening to games on AM radio in the late 50s, early 60s,” he said. “I also remember going to the Palestra in a completely different era. I went to games where if you sat too high up in the stands, you came out with your clothes smelling like smoke.”
Temple graduate Susan Garfinkle Fried, a 1967 Temple graduate, explained how important the rivalry was to her, as well as her fellow students.
It had more importance during her time at Temple, she said.
“The rivalries back then, I feel, were bigger than today,” Garfinkle Fried said. “In some cases, beating the other Big Five teams was more important than other wins. The memories are awesome.”
Fans of the Big 5 come from all over, with many not having attended the participating schools. West Chester graduate Rich Weiss fits into that category.
“Great memories from the 70s as a young teenager watching doubleheaders,” Weiss, whose wife’s uncle was the late former Temple coach Harry Litwack, said. “Many weeknights on Channel 17 with (former late Philadelphia sportscaster) Big Al Melzer. And when you tune in and see that you piece sign it mid-court, you know it’s just great basketball, no matter who’s playing.”
“I saw Temple win NIT in 1968 over the Boston College team coached by Bob Cousy,” said Eph Smit. “Outclassed by the Chief, Harry Litwsck, who loved lighting up that victory cigar. I miss the Old Quaker City Tournament.”
“Temple vs. Villanova, 1988, McGonigle Hall! Cheered one of the greatest games in Owl history, and we completely shut down Broad Street afterwards,” said Temple graduate Daneen Roanoke Simoneau.
The rivalry was once one of the most covered events in the city, even if the venue faced a potential danger.
“In February ‘65 at age 15, I attended the St Joe’s v. Villanova bomb scare game hoax,” said Ron Diment. “It was surreal when we all evacuated mid-game out into a bitter cold night. Only the Channel 17 broadcasters stayed inside and continued their broadcast.”
Many of the Big 5 matches have been held at the Palestra. As such, many of the best moments of this rivalry occurred there.
“I spent many nights at the Palestra,” Jerry Greenberg said. “Mostly La Salle games. It was a great deal, double headers every Saturday night. Calvin Murphy was my favorite night.”
Mike Candelori, a 1973 La Salle graduate who later earned his Master’s degree from Temple in 1982, has plenty of experience with Palestra from two different sides of the game.
“The Palestra is where it was at,” Candelori said. “ When Penn won in the early 70s after a brief hiatus, someone had a sign, up top in the bleachers: ‘Penn collects Palestra Rent.’”
“Never missed a game,” said 1979 La Salle graduate Jim Curtain. “The first shot had streamers all over the Palestra floor.”
A waning Big 5 fanbase
During the interviews and conversations, however, there was a notable difference between the excitement and passion for the Big 5 between the responses from former students and longtime fans and current Temple students, faculty, and more recent graduates.
Several said their disinterest in the Big 5 comes primarily from how they consume sports. A number of interviewees explained social media and other forms of content have affected the popularity of the Big 5.
“I think with technology nowadays people will just check the scores on your phone or computer or whatever,” said Salvator Demuro, a current Temple student. “I do think people still come out because people want to watch basketball. I think it’s still a good view, but nowadays with computers and technology people just check the scores off of one search, and they’re right there.”
“With the rise of social (media) in itself, I won’t say it’s taken away attention from the game,” Temple School of Sport, Tourism, and Hospitality Management student Timothy Vincent said. “But as far as in-person attendance, I would say it’s down because people can multitask. They can do more things and be updated with the score.”
While some students said their disinterest is a result of how times have changed, there were some who pointed out how recent events have impacted attendance.
“Going to the game … I don’t think COVID has an effect, but after COVID, I think everyone was like ‘Ugh going out, I dunno,’’ Temple student Aidan Savoy said. “And now that everyone is going back to it, it’s not that people are scared to go out, but I feel like people, with how they did things before and after COVID, it makes a difference.”
While COVID and social media have played a role in the decline in game day attendance for Big 5 games among current students, there were several who have simply lost interest in the Big 5, regardless of external factors. “I think it’s lost its luster over the years,” Temple student Matt Dvonch said. “I think transitioning away from the Palestra is a big part of that.”
“I think it may be more popular within athletic programs,” Temple graduate student Brenden Johnson said. “But as far as students go, I don’t think they care nearly as much as they used to.”
Several students said they felt let down by the rivalry once they got to Temple, as well as how the schools are promoting the Big 5 and its relevance and tradition.
“I feel like as a senior at Temple University, I haven’t felt the hype for it,” said Madaline Dykas. “I thought coming to Temple, I thought I would see more of it and be in that atmosphere that was talked about years prior. But I personally have not felt too much of the hype of the Big 5 while being at Temple.”
“I don’t know if it’s [students]not caring as much as it’s them not knowing the history of it or not knowing what it is,” Temple student Allison Ascareggi said, “because it hasn’t been as advertised or promoted as I thought it would be.”
Angelise Stuhl, an STHM professor at Temple, has also covered sports as the sports director and founder of Philadelphia Sports Digest.
She agreed that educating students on the Big 5’s past is important.
“The institutions have to tell the students just how important it is,” Stuhl said, “and (how) going to these schools (includes) supporting the athletes when they’re playing these big games.”
Some Temple students, however, said they still found the rivalry relevant and offered ideas on how the Big 5 could potentially resurge among the modern consumer.
“I think it’s pretty relevant,” Gabriel Albertson said. “It gets us going. We have Nova and Penn, those are always good matchups.”
“I feel like it takes only one really good team, like Villanova the last couple of years,” Jimmy Falcone said. “I feel if there’s a Temple team that’s a top-25 team, and a Villanova team that’s a top-25 team, I feel like that could bring a lot of tension to the Big 5, ‘cause people would love to see them play together at the Palestra.”
The distinction between how important the Big 5 rivalry is between generations is apparent. Whether that gap is bridged in the coming years, be it through the new proposed showcase at the Wells Fargo Center or simply more success with the Big 5 programs, remains to be seen.