STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Gonzaga men's basketball team achieved a first in the school's history this week. The Bulldogs were ranked first in the AP Top 25 Poll. This achievement for a tiny school in Spokane, Washington caught the attention of commentator Frank Deford.
FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: I've always felt it's no coincidence that some basketball powerhouses - let us say, off the top of my head - Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Indiana, get a few better players because those hoop museums don't do very well with football. I mean, if I were a big-deal high-school recruit, I might very well say to myself, you know I'd rather be a Hoosier or a Wildcat or a Jayhawk, than I would go someplace where I'm just going to be a lounge act for the glamorous Mr. Touchdowns.
No, I'm not suggesting that cagy old Coach K whispers to prospects, hey, be a Dukie, son, and get all the glory 'cause our football team is dog meat. But year in and year out, there must be just enough PR savvy blue-chippers who realize that they've got a better chance being a hero at a place where the football players are regularly unpopular losers.
And as this spirit moves us, so too is a powerful Roman Catholic leadership group stepping forward, heading in a bold new direction. Of course, as Dick Vitale might say on ESPN: I'm not talking about the Vatican, baby. No, this is the so-called Catholic Seven, and if that gives off a hint of martyrdom, well, just so.
The seven are colleges: DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova who, you see, have been discriminated against. That's because they're the outcast members of the Big East Conference who do not play big-time football.
When the Big East was created, it was absolutely basketball first but the league was seduced by football money, and basketball atrophied. Now the Catholic Seven want to get out of the Big football East, and once again make basketball the one blessed athletic faith. This new league will probably expand, too, even adding Butler, which would be the token heathen member. Proving that while there is only one true path to salvation, anybody can find a way into the NCAA tournament.
This development is a lovely loop back to a time when Roman Catholic schools were preeminent in the sport. So many, like the Catholic Seven, had started in urban areas to serve the immigrant faithful, but could not afford to maintain football teams as that sport became too expensive. Notre Dame and Boston College are the Catholic Two left in Division One football. So they concentrated on basketball. Seventeen different Catholic colleges have made the Final Four, but only three since the 1980s.
But now, never mind the Catholic Seven. There is white smoke rising over the polls, for little Jesuit Gonzaga, with less than 5,000 undergraduates, is the new number-one in all of college basketball. Maybe more of those blue-chip high school players will even skip over colleges with merely bad big-time football teams, and go star for colleges with no big-time football teams. May the saints be praised.
INSKEEP: Praise the saints. Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday.