MORGANTOWN - There is no question that John Marinatto left the Big East Conference worse off than when he inherited it from Mike Tranghese three years ago.
A league teetering on the brink of football insignificance took the final steps over the edge. A men's basketball conference poised to become the most powerful in the history of intercollegiate athletics became just that ... and then quickly began coming apart at the seams.
What Marinatto left on Monday when he resigned under pressure as the league's commissioner is a tenuous group of far-flung schools with barely anything in common save for a desire to be relevant in the face of widespread public perception that it is not. It is a football conference whose most significant traditional BCS member is Rutgers and whose basketball side, while still strong, is now once again dominated by institutions that count that sport as the most significant on their campuses, which in this era is, well, quaint.
The Big East Conference, now more than ever, is hanging by a thread. Where once there seemed at least potential for revitalization there is now desperation. Its traditionally strong members are all gone, soon to be gone or wishing they were gone. And for some reason it has managed to repopulate with a bevy of schools seeking the Holy Grail of a BCS automatic qualifying spot that soon will disappear, too.
Not since the Titanic has anything sunk so fast.
But is it John Marinatto's fault? No, not really.
Granted, he did little, if anything, to steer the Big East out of troubled waters, but the truth is there was nowhere to go but down. The slide began long before Marinatto's watch began and might have been inevitable no matter who was in charge.
Yes, if we go back 10 years there's an argument that a conference that held onto Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College might have thrived.
The bottom line, though, is that even then those schools left for stability and financial gain. You can curse ACC commissioner John Swofford if you like for his raid in 2003 and point to it as the beginning of the end - which it was - but he didn't have to pry those schools loose from the Big East. They saw the benefits of a 12-team league with everyone on the same page as opposed to the divisive nature of the Big East's football-basketball Brady Bunch family.
Since then the Big East has been in survival mode. It dipped into Conference USA to prop up its football numbers and to further strengthen the basketball side, which was really its only option. And for a while it seemed to work.
Seemed, we say, because it was really nothing more than an illusion. Two things managed to paint the Big East as surviving and thriving: the growth of the basketball side into an absolute monster and West Virginia's success in football.
The former gave rise to a buzz that masked the football issues. For nearly half the calendar year, from the start of practice in October through the end of the season, Big East basketball was such a beast that it seemed ludicrous to imagine that the league did not belong among the elite.
And the latter - mainly WVU's climb and relative stability in the Top 10 between 2005 and 2008 and impressive wins in two BCS bowl games - masked the reality that football on the whole in the league was mediocre at best. Because of West Virginia and the occasional rise of a Louisville or a Cincinnati, it was plausible to make statistical arguments that the league was thriving.