It was a sad Donald "Dee" Rowe who rose Wednesday morning and prepared to drive to Rhode Island to attend the wake of his friend of 55 years, Dave Gavitt. The funeral is scheduled for today and Rowe will of course be there too. "I knew Dave since he was 18 years old," Rowe said Wednesday morning. "When I was athletic director and basketball coach at Worcester Academy, he came to us as an assistant coach." Gavitt, 73, who died of congestive heart failure, spent some time at Dartmouth College under Tony Lupien and Doggie Julian, succeeded Joe Mullaney as head basketball coach at Providence College, where his basketball knowledge, bright mind and brilliant knack for winning strategy made him a national figure. "He was a chess master on the court, a brilliant coach and a man for all seasons," Rowe said. "And he never forgot his roots." Gavitt's success as Providence coach was extraordinary, but all will remember that he was instrumental -- the key man -- in the founding of the Big East Conference. Rowe again: "Dave founded our league -- the Big East -- and changed our lives, made an impact. He brought people together in a special way." Dee Rowe is a highly respected figure in Connecticut sports. After a successful nine-year tenure as UConn head coach (AD John Toner hired him from Worcester Academy) he started a new career working for the university as a fund raiser and good will ambassador, a position he still holds, albeit he has cut back. Gavitt was like a younger brother to Rowe. Dee's children called him "Uncle Dave." They visited each other often during the offseasons. In 1980, Gavitt was named head coach of the U.S. National Basketball Team. He immediately selected Rowe and Larry Brown as his chief assistants. "We trained in Kentucky," Rowe remembered, "We picked the team there, and then we traveled the country playing exhibitions, getting ready for the Olympics. Of course, you know what happened." Who doesn't remember? President Jimmy Carter pulled the U.S. team and all athletes from the Olympic games, which were scheduled for Russia, because of the USSR's invasion of Afganistan. "We last saw Dave three weeks ago," Rowe said. "And then he went back to the hospital." Rowe paused for a long moment, and then, "He made everybody's lives better." Dee Rowe is a dear old friend whom I have known and had a good relationship with since he walked in the doorway at UConn. I feel sympathy for the Gavitt family but I am particularly sorry for Dee Rowe today because he has lost his best friend in sports. And that hurts. TRIVIA Can you name the original members of the Big East Conference? TROUBLING TIMES These are troubling times for many NCAA universities, as they struggle to find their rightful places on the national sports landscape. But our own State U is not in a bad place at all. Although the ACC is apparently playing the waiting game, it seems clear the league will soon lay a welcome mat strewn with rose pedals at UConn's feet and yell, "Come on in!" Why would it not? The Huskies, after all, would enter the conference wearing the crown of national basketball champions. Moreover, the football program is moving forward. Don't worry right now about the team's record on the gridiron. The school's new president, Susan Herbst, appears dynamic and wise, coach Paul Pasqualoni is seasoned and has a successful past and everyone is applauding the choice of Paul Pendergast as the new athletic director. It's going to be mighty interesting, not just in the Nutmeg state but all around the country. I guess I'm one who is lamenting the disintegration of the Big East, but that's because I remember the terrific basketball games that were expected and almost routine in the early days of the league which Gavitt founded in 1979. The clash of powerhouse teams such as Georgetown under Coach John Thompson, St. John's with little Mister Dithers, Lou Carneseca, Villanova (Massamino) and UConn under first Dom Perno and then Jim Calhoun. But that's nostalgia and it doesn't play into the issues of the day. Football and the tremendous television revenue it generates are making league affiliation less relevant. But rivalries can still be maintained and the quality of the games is what matters most. Play good football and the rest will take care of itself. TRIVIA ANSWER In 1979, UConn, Providence, St. John's, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall and Boston College formed the Big East. One year later, Villanova joined.