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Catholic conference offers challenge, opportunity

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Catholic conference offers challenge, opportunity

As a chunk of the Big East transforms itself into a mostly or even all-Catholic basketball league, the conference faces a choice: play up or play down its faith-based roots?

With Catholic higher education already struggling to strike a balance between faith and financial security, either course carries both challenges and opportunities.

On the one hand, the seven schools that announced Saturday they'll set off on their own - St. John's, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova - have already made clear they'll look to non-denominational institutions that otherwise fit their profile, such as Butler, to expand.

But even if they do so, the conference's identity will likely lie with its core of Catholic-rooted schools. To be sure, going overboard with that identity could harm recruiting of non-Catholic students - both athletes and non-athletes - and limit expansion. But a moderate embrace could help institutions reconnect their sports programs to their missions, and reinvigorate their religious identities at a time when important groups on campus fear it's slipping away.

Think of a non-secular Ivy League, but with much better basketball. It might take a leap of faith to believe these days, but the NCAA's musical chairs game of conference realignment isn't always just about money.

``Its' not all about revenue,'' said Warren Zola, an assistant dean at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, who follows college sports business issues closely. ``It's partly about brand. I think the Catholic schools are looking at that and thinking, `What do we have in common with the existing Big East and the future Big East?'''

It's not a coincidence that the seven schools that announced Saturday they're separating from the Big East are all Catholic. They're each part of a tradition that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - church institutions that sprang up to serve urban immigrant communities. Neither their demographics nor tightly-packed city campuses lent themselves to football players and stadiums (Notre Dame, with space to grow in Indiana, proved the exception to the pattern).

Basketball was a better fit for city schools, and each has done well with it.

The problem today is that college athletics revolves around big-time football dollars. That's left behind the niche these Catholic schools inhabit - basketball powers where football is either second-fiddle (Georgetown, Villanova) or not played at all (the others). So they're setting off on their own.

``If it ends up as all Catholic schools, that's the way we're going to talk about them,'' said Linda Bruno, a former associate commissioner of the Big East and former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 conference, who now leads the Division III Skyline conference. But while it will be up to the school presidents to decide whether to market the conference that way, she's not sure that's the best course.

``Why box yourself in?'' she said. ``They're so much more than a Catholic basketball league. They're going to be a national basketball league.''

So far, that seems to be the marketing plan.

``The criteria that we'll set forth will be non-denominational,'' Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said Sunday, adding the group will be looking for schools that are committed to top-tier competition, are ``attractive media entities,'' and ``care about the holistic development of their student athletes.''

``When you start to populate that matrix, you'll probably see some Catholic schools in there and see some schools that aren't Catholic,'' he said.

Still, it's also worth noting that five of the seven institutions now leaving the Big East are led by priests or members of religious orders. Seton Hall installed its first lay president in 2010, and it's widely believed that many such schools will soon follow, given the dwindling pool of academics from the clergy or religious orders.

That could encourage the current presidents to try to put a mission-related stamp on the conference, a way to distinguish the schools in this particular league.

What kind of stamp? One model is the Ivy League, which prohibits athletic scholarships (but awards them for financial need), and schedules league basketball games only on weekends (the Ivy League also doesn't allow football teams to play in the post-season).

The soon-to-be former Big East schools probably wouldn't go that route. But they could impose their own mission-related choices like public service requirements and higher ethical standards - practices that could be cast in non-sectarian terms that the likes of Butler might embrace.

And while Butler's two recent runs to the national title game make it especially appealing, there's no shortage of Catholic colleges with creditable basketball programs that might aspire to such company, and where the played-up Catholic identity would be part of the appeal. Gonzaga and St. Mary's on the West Coast may prove too far away, but Creighton, Dayton, Xavier, Canisius and St. Bonaventure could all be potential candidates (as might Saint Joseph's and LaSalle in Philadelphia, but for the fact nearby Villanova would be unlikely to accept expansion in its own market).

At the far end, one could even imagine a conference decision not to play games on Sundays - and a dramatic showdown with the NCAA over a request to be assigned only to Thursday-Saturday brackets in the NCAA basketball tournament.

``That would definitely be something meaningful,'' said Rev. John Piderit, president of the New York-based Catholic Education Institute, mulling the Sunday idea.

A few of Piderit's other suggestions, like ``name that hymn'' contests and saints trivia on the scoreboard of basketball games, likely wouldn't get past the schools' marketing teams.

But they speak to the kind of branding opportunity only Notre Dame routinely gets among America's Catholic schools. Notre Dame's slick ``What Would You Fight For'' campaign, boosted by this year's run to the BCS national championship, has become a marketing engine for the university and, arguably, the faith in the United States.

Another possible upshot of the new league: at a time when conference realignment has torn asunder so many natural rivalries that percolated for decades - Duke-Maryland, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Oklahoma-Nebraska - a conference embracing its Catholic identity could reinvigorate some natural ones. Imagine the intensity of Catholic high school basketball rivalries, but with 15,000 spectators instead of 1,500.

``A Catholic basketball conference could be a way back to the roots of why conferences came together initially,'' Zola said. ``I think it's fantastic if some leaders in intercollegiate athletics can put the brakes on chasing every dollar out of their potential in athletics and refocus on their purpose as an institution.''

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AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report from Villanova, Pa.

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Follow Justin Pope athttp://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP

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Did you know Bill Belichick has deep ties to Navy football?

Did you know Bill Belichick has deep ties to Navy football?

Sports Uncovered is a six-part weekly podcast series that explores the stories that took the national sports world by storm. The newest episode, The Bill Belichick You Don't Know, explores the lesser-known side of the New England Patriots head coach.

On the outside, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems pretty easy to read. A man of few words -- at least to the media -- Belichick has made it clear that he has two things he cares about above all else: football and winning.

However, there is another side to the six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach that most may not be aware of. On the latest Sports Uncovered podcast by NBC Sports, 'The Bill Belichick You Don’t Know’ takes a look at some lesser-known stories, facts and passions that Belichick has.

Among them all, one thing many may not know about the Patriots head coach is that he has deep ties -- and a strong love -- for Navy football. Yes, despite his longtime rivalry with the Baltimore Ravens, Belichick does indeed have a soft spot for some football in the state of Maryland.

Belichick's connection to the Naval Academy football team stems from his father's history of coaching at the program. Steve Belichick, who passed away in 2005, spent 30 years as an assistant coach while also teaching classes at Navy.

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During that time, Bill Belichick became embedded in his father's world of football. Spending time so close to the team, he carried a close personal connection to the team and school. Being the football genius that he is, the head coach can still recall specific moments, players and uniforms from games that took place over 40 years ago.

Though Belichick now resides in New England, his relationship with Navy Football is as strong as ever. As NBC Sports' Peter King showed in 2019, Belichick and his father's legacy will remain in Annapolis forever as the school has a special archive named the "Belichick Collection."

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There, football books dating back 100 years can be found, and read. For a family dedicated to football, it's the perfect touch.

For as long as he is the head coach of the Patriots -- and even after -- Belichick may not be the most popular person in the state of Maryland. However, his lesser-known side shows that he does have at least one positive connection to football in the state. 

To never miss an episode, subscribe to Sports Uncovered and get every episode automatically downloaded to your phone. Sports Uncovered is also available on the MyTeams app, as well as on every major podcasting platform: AppleGoogle PodcastiHeartStitcherSpotify, and TuneIn

Stay connected with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

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The most memorable moments between Bill Belichick and the Ravens organization

The most memorable moments between Bill Belichick and the Ravens organization

Sports Uncovered is a six-part weekly podcast series that explores the stories that took the national sports world by storm. The newest episode, The Bill Belichick You Don't Know, explores the lesser-known side of the New England Patriots head coach.

Bill Belichick and the Ravens have been attached at the hip for longer, and more deeply, than people might assume. 

Perhaps the NFL’s best coach of all time, Belichick has had a great impact on Baltimore football, even when he’s not been actively on the team’s staff. 

He was an assistant coach for the Baltimore Colts and coach Ted Marchibroda in 1975, his first ever coaching job in the NFL. After a few stints as an assistant coach, he moved on to the Giants where he led one of the most successful defensive teams in NFL history to two Super Bowls. 

There’s no shortage of memorable moments between the famed coach and the Ravens, and here are a few that stand out: 

The 1996 NFL Draft

Belichick was the head coach for the Cleveland Browns from 1991-1995 before the Browns’ move to Baltimore. Even with Art Modell’s assurances that he’d be the head coach in Baltimore too, where Belichick started his career, he was fired in early 1996. 

But while the Ravens’ first draft in the NFL was one of the best drafts of any team in NFL history, it couldn’t have happened without Belichick. 

He made a trade in the 1995 season, still as the coach of the Browns, with the 49ers that gave the Ravens two first round picks in 1996. The Ravens’ first pick ever, their own pick, went to the selection of Jonathan Ogden at fourth overall. 

Later in the first round, with the pick Belichick had traded for, the Ravens selected linebacker Ray Lewis. 

 

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Ed Reed

Belichick perhaps had no greater admiration for a Ravens player than Ed Reed. That manifested itself on one play against the Colts. 

Reed had studied Peyton Manning’s tendencies and found out that a pump fake indicated where Manning wanted to throw the football. He intercepted a would-be touchdown in that week’s game. 

Reed’s play still sticks out in his mind.

“Best play I’ve ever seen a free safety make,” Belichick said.

Tom Brady was understandably worried about Reed in his career, and both he and Belichick have marveled at Reed’s ability for years. 

Brady once had “Find 20 on Every Play” written on his quarterback armband.

2007 Ravens/Patriots

The Ravens nearly ended the perfection of Belichick’s best team of all time. 

On Monday Night Football late in the 2007 season, Belichick took his unbeaten Patriots to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens. There, one of the wildest finishes in the storied rivalry took place. 

The Ravens thought they had the Patriots stopped on 4th down on three separate occasions as the Patriots drove for the game-winning touchdown, but each time had to replay the down. 

Belichick’s Patriots escaped with the win as the end of the Brian Billick era in Baltimore was set in motion, which led to John Harbaugh’s hiring as coach.

2012 Justin Tucker winner

In one of the least proud moments of the rivalry, the Ravens knocked off the Patriots 31-30 on a last-second field goal by Justin Tucker early in the 2012 season. 

Late in the game, Harbaugh was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after coming onto the field, while yelling, “I was trying to call timeout!” That led to a “manure” chant by Ravens fans that Al Michaels noted on the NBC broadcast. 

The Ravens got the ball back and marched into Patriots territory, where Tucker’s game-winning kick sailed seemingly directly over top of the right upright. As Vince Wilfork ran screaming toward the officials, Belichick ran off the field and tried to grab the arm of an official who was running off the field.

At the time, the NFL’s referees were in the midst of a lockout and replacement referees were the biggest story of the season.

“Deflategate”

The Ravens, at least publicly, denied any involvement in their role in the “Deflategate” controversy. But according to documents released in August of 2015, the Ravens were the ones who let the Colts know about deflated footballs. 

After a 35-31 loss in the divisional round, Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg called Chuck Pagano, then the coach of the Colts, to warn him about the condition of the footballs in New England.

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2019 Lamar

In what was the future of the rivalry, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens handed the Patriots their first loss of the 2019 season. 

Jackson threw for 163 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 61 yards as the Ravens won 37-20. It was the Ravens’ most notable win of the season to that point and the win that propelled them to a 14-2 finish.

And, as it turns out, it was Belichick’s last game against the Ravens with Brady at the helm and the turning of the page in the rivalry to the next chapter.

To never miss an episode, subscribe to Sports Uncovered and get every episode automatically downloaded to your phone. Sports Uncovered is also available on the MyTeams app, as well as on every major podcasting platform: AppleGoogle PodcastiHeartStitcherSpotify, and TuneIn

Stay connected with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE SPORTS UNCOVERED: