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The Big 5: Philadelphia, A City Divided

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For the city of Philadelphia, the word rivalry isn’t as simple as playing your most hated team each year. In Philly you play four of those games. Each team’s fans attend games and live, work, and interact with each other not just at the gym, but in every day life.

Winning your conference gets you into the NCAA Tournament, but winning the Big 5 gets you the banner and bragging rights throughout the city for a whole year. The five schools – the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, Saint Joseph’s University, La Salle University, and Temple University – are all located a stones throw away from each other. One man was telling me that La Salle was the furthest away from his home, “Yeah it is like 20 minutes away,” he said.

Established in 1955, the Big 5 is a sports tradition like no other in the United States. A regular season tournament that exists within a 20 mile radius with some of the most passionate fans throughout the country. Four of the five schools don’t even have a division one football program, Temple is the exception. That raises the importance and intensity of college basketball in Philadelphia.

The Big 5 has been won outright 35 times and tied for 24 times. To this point it is Temple University that leads the charge with 27 Big 5 championships. They have won outright just six times and tied with at least one school 21 times. For the most part of the history of the Big 5, each team has played the other four. But from 1991-1999, each team only played two games against Big 5 opponents creating two five-way ties with each team going 1-1 in 1991-92 and 1997-98 seasons. The only other time that there has been a five-way tie was the 1980-81 season when all five teams finished 2-2.

Each year these teams compete for the pride of Philadelphia, but no trophy. That’s right, this rivalry is about more than a trophy, although the Big 5 player of the year receives the Robert V. Geasey Trophy.

The first winner was Temple’s Guy Rodgers, who actually won the first three individual honors. Since Rodgers, only three other players have won it three times: La Salle’s Ken Durrett and Lionel Simmons, and Villanova’s John Pinone. The fact that there is no trophy given to the school might sound silly, but there is an old saying, “If they say there is no real prize for winning the Big Five. They must not be from Philly.”

With ten combined Final Fours and 118 combined NCAA Tournament appearances, the teams in the Big 5 have made a lot of noise throughout college basketball. Over the last 37 seasons at least one of the Big 5 teams has made the NCAA Tournament. That streak will continue this season with St. Joe’s and Villanova both being locks for the the big dance. Here is a brief look at the school’s Big 5 histories and the current home gyms they play in.

Saint Joseph’s University: 

Hagan Arena is one of the  most unique buildings in college basketball

Hagan Arena is one of the most unique buildings in college basketball

The Hawk Will Never Die, the first ever winner of the inaugural Big 5 championship belonged to the St. Joe’s Hawks. Since then they have won 20 championships and have made the NCAA Tournament 19 times. Of their 20 Big 5 championships, nine have been won outright. In 2004, under current Coach Phil Martelli and with the backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, St. Joe’s completed an undefeated regular-season. They finished 27-0 and the number one team in the country before losing in the Elite 8 to Oklahoma State. Nelson won National Player of the Year and Martelli Coach of the Year. The Hawks have one final four appearance in 1961, when they were led by Jack Egan and Vince Kempton.

The Hawks play at Hagan Arena, a newly renovated version of the old Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. The arena originally opened in 1949. It has the feel of an old barn and when it is full and loud, it is one of the toughest places to play in the country. The student seats are right on top of the baseline and often draw attention and complaints from officials. Seating just 4,200, Hagan Arena is the second smallest venues in the Big 5, only Tom Gola Arena at La Salle is smaller.

La Salle University:

Tom Gola Arena is the smallest of the Big 5.

Tom Gola Arena is the smallest of the Big 5.

The La Salle Explorers may have the fewest Big 5 championships at 11, but that doesn’t mean that they have the smallest history. They have the most important figure in Philadelphia college basketball history, the late Tom Gola. His playing record at La Salle was an incredible 102-19 and he remains the NCAA’s leader in career rebounds with 2,201. He leads that category by 171 rebounds and he stood only 6’6″.

St. Joe’s coach, Phil Martelli, praised Tom Gola saying that he is Philadelphia basketball. With Tom Gola, the Explorers won the National Championship in 1954 and then lost in championship the very next year. Those are the only two final four appearances for La Salle. After a 20 year drought of making the NCAA Tournament, last year’s Explorers made a remarkable Sweet 16 run in the last full season of Tom Gola’s life. The Explorers have two other National Player of the Years, Michael Brooks (1980) and Lionel Simmons (1990).

There was no question when their new arena was built in 1998 of what it’s name would be. Though Tom Gola Arena is the smallest in the Big 5, it still can be incredibly loud and a tough place for opponents to play. It has a really small and intimate feel, but most importantly about the arena, is it brought basketball back to campus for the first time since 1955. The Explorers played their home games at the Palestra for the majority of the second half of the 20th century.

Temple University:

The Liacouras Center is the Big 5's largest and flashiest arena

The Liacouras Center is the Big 5’s largest and flashiest arena

The leaders of the pack, Temple have won 27 Big 5 championships. They shared their first title in the Big 5’s second season with La Salle and St. Joe’s but have since won at least a share of 26 titles and 5 outright. The Owls have played in two Final Four’s, but never made it any further. Under the guidance of legendary coach, John Chaney, Temple made 17 NCAA Tournament appearances. Including 11 straight from 1990-2001, in which they made the Elite 8 four times. Those teams were led by Aaron Mckie and Eddie Jones, who were both first round draft picks in the 1994 NBA Draft. Chaney went on to have an incredible 516-253 record with Owls, helping them become just the sixth school in NCAA history to win 1,800 games.

The Liacouras Center is the largest arena in the Big 5, seating over 10,000 people. It also has the largest scoreboard and the flashiest light show during introductions. It has an NBA type feel with the two distinct levels of seats, unlike the cavernous buidings and gyms that the other four teams play in. Built in 1997, it has plenty of big games still to be played in.

Villanova University:

The Pavilion is one of the oddest shaped, but loudest venues in the country

The Pavilion is one of the oddest shaped, but loudest venues in the country

They may not have as many Big 5 championships as Temple, but the Villanova Wildcats won their 22nd this season. They have had at least a share of seven of the last 10 Big 5 championships and have won more outright (10) championships then any other school has. The Wildcats have also won the most recent NCAA Tournament of any team in the Big 5 (1985) and have more Final Four appearances (5). The 1985 championship came against a highly favored Georgetown with Patrick Ewing.

The Wildcats have had just five coaches since 1936, Al Severance (36-61), Jack Kraft (61-73), Rollie Massimino (73-92), Steve Lappas (92-01), and Jay Wright (01-present). Their most recent Final Four appearance was in 2009 led by All-American guard Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds is up there with Kerry Kittles, Randy Foye, Howard Porter, Ed Pinckney, and other Nova greats, as some of the best players Philadelphia has ever seen.

The Wildcats at one of the most unique arenas in college basketball. The Pavilion seats 6,500 people and feels like an auxiliary gym with seats and basketball floor because that’s what it is. It can be used for several different types of events including indoor track, tennis, and conventions and trade shows, but this place can get extremely loud. The students take up a full third of the arena and are as loud as anywhere in the country.

University of Pennsylvania: 

The Palestra is one of the Meccas of College Hoops

The Palestra is one of the Meccas of College Hoops

The Ivy League School in the bunch was established in 1740. The school is located just a few blocks from 30th Street Station and has the easiest access to downtown Philadelphia. The Quakers won their first big 5 championship in the 1962-63 season making them the last team to win the tournament, a title they share with Villanova. Their first outright win came in the 1969-70. They went on to win it the following four seasons as well making them the first team to win five straight years. During that run, Penn had some of the best teams any Big 5 school has put up with a 26-0 regular season run in 1970-71, a team that would lose in the Elite 8 to Villanova. They had some incredible players in this run: Dave Wohl, Steve Bilsky, Corky Calhoun, and Bob Morse.

Penn plays their home games at one of the most important college basketball venues in the country. It has hosted hundreds of Big 5 games and over 60 NCAA Tournament games. Known as “The Cathedral of College Basketball,” the Palestra is an absolute must see for any college basketball fan. The arena is clearly at its fullest potential when it hosts a game between Big 5 opponents. Saving the best for last, the Palestra has hosted more NCAA basketball games then any other building in the country since its opening in 1927. With seats extremely close to the floor and a lack of an advanced air conditioning unit, the Palestra gets really hot and sweaty when its packed, but thats when its at its finest.

Over the past month and a half, I personally went to at least one game at each of the Big 5 home arenas. I have been to over 25 venues in college basketball and there really aren’t many better than the traditions and experiences of the Big 5. The Palestra stands alone as the top dog. The history, the sweat, the rafters, and the sight-lines create an experience like none other. Surprisingly, despite being built in 1927, it has zero obstructions of sight. The flags of all five of the Big 5 banners hang right in the middle of the arena, the trophy cases that wrap around the concourse and the darkness of a night game, compared to the light of a day game, make the Palestra one of a kind.

Scott Zolotorow