IOWA CITY, Iowa — At its conception seven years ago, the Big 4 Classic was a modern-day basketball compromise.
The Prime Time League was born in 1986 with Iowa City attorney Randy Larson forming a summer basketball enterprise that had the region talking every June.
Both became staples that enabled basketball fans to watch in-state teams collide in the summer and in mid-December. On Thursday both institutions were scrubbed from the calendar with a shrug. The PTL, which was scheduled to begin next week, has folded. The Big 4 Classic, known recently as the Hy-Vee Classic, will end after its Dec. 15 doubleheader.
Sometimes, traditions run their course. The Big 4 Classic felt like a multi-year grace period from when Iowa’s four Division I basketball programs had played annually on campus to seldom playing again. For more than 20 years, Iowa and Iowa State had to play at Drake and Northern Iowa every other year. Sometimes, the power programs won big. There were plenty of times when they didn’t. Either way, the in-state series served as a proper introduction to the basketball season.
That yearly rite ended after the 2011-12 season when Iowa and Iowa State declined to renew their contracts with Northern Iowa and Drake. In its place came the Big 4 Classic at Wells Fargo Arena, which held a doubleheader featuring the four teams. Drake and Northern Iowa disliked it from the start because it took high-profile games out of their gyms. Iowa and Iowa State didn’t want to play the other teams because they had little to gain and much to lose. Fans didn’t seem to catch on, either. With Wells Fargo Arena divided into four sections, the only time it reached capacity was at the end of the first game. That’s the only time Iowa and Iowa State fans were seated together.
School officials inserted a clause into the most recent Big 4 Classic contract that enables any of the schools to leave without penalty with 18 months notice should its conference commit a team to 22 games each year. With the Big Ten expanding the league schedule this year to 20 games, an annual game in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and a semi-regular date in the Gavitt Games against the Big East, Iowa’s schedule was stretched to its limit.
Something in its schedule had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the Hawkeyes’ annual exempt tournament or its rivalry game with Iowa State. A neutral-site contest against a mid-major in-state opponent was the most expendable option.
The PTL became a must-see event for thousands of basketball fans in the region. Every year, Iowa and Northern Iowa basketball players took to gyms in Iowa City, North Liberty and Waterloo to compete twice a week alongside and against one another. Fans got to see the newcomers up close and speculate on how the team would mesh for the upcoming season.
Different college coaches had annual issues with the PTL, but Larson always accommodated them. If the schedule contained too many games, Larson cut back. If they were scheduled too close to a summer holiday, he reconstructed the dates. If needed, Larson would add more teams so as many Iowa and UNI players could play as possible. The NCAA allows only two players per college team to compete on the same summer-league roster.
When Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson rightly complained his players traveled too often, Larson split the locations between North Liberty and Waterloo. But when the NCAA loosened its summer workout rules, that was too much to keep the league afloat.
“With the opportunity created by an NCAA rule change to have 4 hours of practice together each week in the summer and another 4 hours of individual skill work with the players, there just isn’t a need for it,” Larson wrote in an email to Iowa news outlets. “When we started 32 years ago, college coaches couldn’t even watch their players scrimmage; now they can actually coach them all summer, which is great for the players.
“Between summer school classes and homework, strength and conditioning workouts, and now 8 hours of either practice or skill drills, the coaches at Iowa and UNI concluded that their players were just being asked to do too much. They correctly wanted the summer to still be the off-season, albeit one with much more development than it used to have when coaches didn’t get to help the players improve.”
Anyone who knows Larson understands the Prime Time League was his joy. He promoted it, he coached in it, he held tryouts and a draft. Fans appreciated it, too. On Sunday afternoons in North Liberty, several hundred fans would crowd in a gym to watch each game. It was free entertainment and an opportunity for youth to grab autographs.
With a double-sided chop, the Big 4 Classic and PTL are soon to become Iowa relics. The Big 4 Classic wasn’t important enough to save, and the PTL was too well-organized to fit with the NCAA’s liberal legislation. In either case, the only losers are the state’s basketball fans.