Basketball icon Gavitt dies at 73
Former Big East commish also coached Dartmouth, Providence
Dave Gavitt had an impact on the world of basketball. From a career as a successful coach to changing the face of college sports to introducing the Olympics to a Dream Team, Gavitt’s touch was everywhere.
His death Friday night after a long illness was confirmed by his family Saturday. He died in a hospital near his hometown of Rumford, R.I. He was 73.
Gavitt coached Providence to the NCAA tournament five times, including the Final Four in 1973. He was the driving force behind the formation of the Big East Conference and was its first commissioner. He was selected to coach the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, but the United States boycotted the Moscow Games. Gavitt was president of USA Basketball and oversaw the introduction of NBA players onto the U.S. Olympic roster, including the Dream Team at the 1992 Games.
“He was not only a great basketball coach and organizer of the Big East but he was a great, great statesman for basketball, college and international,” former St. John’s coach and fellow Naismith Hall of Famer Lou Carnesecca said Saturday.
Gavitt was the Big East’s commissioner from 1979 until 1990. He served on the NCAA’s Division I Basketball Committee from 1980-84 and was its chairman from 1982-84 when the tournament expanded to 64 teams and the first of its TV contracts with CBS was negotiated.
When he left the Big East, Gavitt joined the Boston Celtics front office as a vice president, succeeding Red Auerbach in running the franchise. He was fired in 1994.
Gavitt served as chairman of the Basketball Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 2006. He was president of the NCAA Foundation and worked as tournament director of the Maui Invitational from 2005 until 2009.
His biggest impact, however, was in the lives he affected during his decades in basketball.
“While he was changing the face of college basketball with the Big East and NCAA Selection Committee, he was still able to influence so many, including me personally,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said Saturday. “He never didn’t have time to talk about the game. His legacy will always include his kindness as well as his greatness. He will be greatly, greatly missed.”
Born Oct. 26, 1937, in Westerly, R.I., Gavitt played basketball and baseball at Dartmouth, graduating from the Ivy League school in 1959. He was an assistant coach to Joe Mullaney at Providence for two years before starting his head coaching career in 1967 at Dartmouth, where he was 18-33 in two seasons.
He succeeded Mullaney at Providence in 1969 and led the Friars to a 209-84 record over 10 seasons for a .713 winning percentage that is still the best in school history. His Final Four team in 1973 featured Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes. He became the school’s athletic director in 1971.
The Big East formed in 1979, with Providence, Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Boston College and Connecticut the original members. Villanova joined the next year. One of Gavitt’s biggest moves was to have the new league become working partners right away with another new entity, ESPN.
“That ESPN came along as we did was very fortunate for us, and how we worked together benefited both tremendously,” Gavitt said.
He also moved the conference postseason tournament to New York’s Madison Square Garden, where it has played before sellout crowds since 1983. The conference’s high point came in 1985 when it became the only league to have three teams in the Final Four.
“We were so fortunate in so many ways at the outset,” Gavitt said in 2006. “We put together a solid foundation with a good plan, but we were fortunate to have four coaches who were going to be at their schools for a long time in John Thompson, Louie Carnesecca, Jimmy Boeheim and Rollie Massimino, and having them stay in place was very significant.”
On the day Gavitt died the news in sports was about Big East members Pittsburgh and Syracuse possibly leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference as the landscape of college sports faced its biggest change in decades.
“It is especially sad, considering today is certainly one of those days, with everything in the news about our league, I would love nothing more than to call him and ask him simply, 'What do you think and what should we do?’ " Calhoun said. “Sadly, we cannot do that.”
Gavitt led USA Basketball from its days of a strictly amateur organization to one that would bring the NBA and its players to a worldwide stage every four years starting with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Gavitt knew he needed the NBA to be a partner with USA Basketball.
“I wanted USA Basketball to be the 28th NBA team, outside the family,” Gavitt said. “I wanted NBA Properties, who are so good at what they do, to take our mark and represent us as our licensee and to help us get sponsorship.”
Gavitt’s business acumen drew as much praise as his coaching.
“The rest of the world has learned much from Dave Gavitt about basketball and he has taught us much more than just on the court,” said Alexander Gomelsky, coach of the Soviet Union’s 1988 gold medal team. “He understands basketball as a business and has shown many countries the right way to do things. Everybody studies this because it is a fantastic business.”
Mike Tranghese was an assistant to Gavitt at the Big East from the start and he succeeded him as commissioner, retiring from that position in 2009.
“I wish I had the ability to properly express my feelings,” Tranghese said Saturday. “We lost a giant. He helped so many people in the game of basketball and had such a profound influence. … I think he’s the most influential commissioner in the history of college athletics and at the same time was a Hall of Fame basketball coach who quit at age of 40 to spend time with his family. He had the ability to get things done and above all that he was your friend and it wasn’t just to the powerful people.”
Gavitt is survived by his wife, Julie, and three sons, including Dan, an assistant commissioner with the Big East.
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