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Big East Extinction Is Forever - Game 14, St. John's

A genetic look at the Big East Conference.

A red kite, close relative of the extinct Cape Verde Kite.
A red kite, close relative of the extinct Cape Verde Kite.
Scott Heavey

Today we meet another extinct animal, and discover another reason why organisms, and athletic conferences, die out.

Many extinct species have close relatives that are alive and well. We saw this with the Blue Paul Terrier (Seton Hall), the Eastern Cougar (Villanova), and we'll see it again when we play Pittsburgh. But in the case of St. John's, their genetic flexibility was the root of their demise.

The Cape Verde Kite disappeared from the earth in the year 2000, about the same time St. John's basketball did. This large bird of prey is now extinct because of interbreeding with the more common black kite. These red kite/black kite offspring were genetically viable, but they were all hybrids, containing traits from both parent species. As a result, the Cape Verde Kite's unique genetic code was lost to the ages.

Birds are quite good at hybridizing. The Wikipedia page lists a large number of successful combinations. There's the perlin, which has a mix of traits useful in falconry. Parrots, songbirds, game birds, and chickens have been variously hybridized, presumably for commercial purposes. The lesser spotted eagle can interbreed with the greater spotted eagle, an idea that must have come from the world's most boring grad student. Then there's the "swoose", which is exactly what it sounds like. I know it sounds harmless and goofy, but swans are vicious psycho killers. No kidding, go look up "swan attack" on YouTube. I'm not even going to link to it. It's that disturbing.

Hybridization also played a big role in the extinction of the Big East Conference. At first, football x basketball was a stable crossing, maybe even a beneficial one. But as football injected more and more DNA into the mix, the offspring became increasingly sickly, and inevitably became non-viable.

Look at the history of the Big East from the perspective of St. John's. Once upon a time, they were in a basketball league with other northeastern schools. Most were private schools like them, but for those that weren't, their state-school big-football status was nary a concern. In 1991, the University of Miami was added. While a geographic outlier, it's a private school, and culturally northeastern. 1995 saw the additions of Rutgers, West Virginia, and Notre Dame -- schools that mostly fit the existing profile of the Big East. Virginia Tech further stretched the definition in 2000, but that was only one school.

In 2005, the league lost Boston College, and added Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, and USF. The gene pool had been changed forever, and the traits that once defined the Big East were no longer recognizable. And it only got worse from there.

But both science and college sports have tried to reverse hybridization. In cases like the Cape Verde Kite, scientists try to re-create the original species through breeding back - attempting to isolate the original genes via selective breeding. Which is really what the Catholic 7 move is all about. It is an attempt by some to redefine the species as what it once was.

As you might guess, breeding back doesn't work too well. As best, it produces creatures that are superficially similar to whatever they're trying to re-create. Which is exactly what the Catholic 7 is. Yes, they succeeded at excising football from the genetic code. But also lost in the process were Syracuse, Connecticut, Boston College, and Pittsburgh. Almost half of what they're trying to reclaim is already lost forever.