Joe Dzuback is an RTC correspondent. He filed this column after Villanova’s win over Pennsylvania Saturday, reflecting on the history and importance of Big 5 basketball in Philadelphia.
Five schools all within a 12-mile radius of center city Philadelphia square off each season to play a 10-game, round-robin series that decides who has the bragging rights to the city’s collegiate basketball scene. There is a Crosstown Shootout, an Iron Bowl (for both basketball and football), Oaken Buckets, Backyard Brawls and Border Wars, but no single city has five schools willing to set aside so much of their 29-game allotted schedule to settle a local rivalry. The Big 5 is not an informal agreement (this is Philadelphia we are talking about, everything is in writing), as the first agreement, a five-year deal that ran from the 1955-56 season through the 1959-60 season has been renegotiated (and modified) and re-signed at regular intervals since.
Over the last 56 years, from the first game played under the joint agreement on December 14, 1955 (Saint Joseph’s beat Villanova, 83-70) to the last game last season (on March 5, Temple defeated La Salle, 90-82), the five Philadelphia schools played 520 games using the original round-robin format, except for the years between 1992 and 2000 when each school’s four-game slate was reduced to two. What is the tie that binds one of America’s most prestigious private colleges, founded by one of the country’s Founding Fathers (Penn), to three Catholic universities founded nearly a hundred years later (St. Joe’s, Villanova and La Salle), and a public university with an alumni base of 270,000 (Temple)? “It began… as a loveless marriage,” wrote Rich Hoffman in his introduction to The Big 5-0, a commerative to the 50th anniversary of the Big 5 published in 2005. “Everybody walked to the altar while trying to figure out exactly what angle the other guys were working.”