Tuesday, July 1, 2014
No secret to successful conference moves
By Josh Moyer
There's no easy winning formula for Randy Edsall and Maryland as they transition to the Big Ten.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knew exactly what to expect -- and where to focus -- when his Utes moved from the Mountain West in 2011 to the Pac-12: Recruit better prospects. Upgrade the facilities. Break down new opponents.
But that didn't make the transition any easier.
The Utes made a big splash that first season and finished 8-5, before dropping to 5-7 in the two seasons thereafter. Whittingham knew a drop-off like that was possible -- a move into one of the Power Five carries with it certain risks -- but that doesn't mean any challenges caught the 54-year-old head coach off guard.
"No real surprises," Whittingham told ESPN.com. "Nothing blind-sided us from a football perspective. It was exactly as anticipated. ... The bottom line is it's just a process transitioning. We're not making excuses -- people don't care; we have to win -- but it takes time to ramp up."
With three programs set to officially join a new power conference Tuesday -- Louisville to the ACC; Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten -- that process will play out once again. New members know they'll have to adjust, improve and upgrade before taking a step forward in their new conferences. But that doesn't make the task any easier.
Since 2000, a dozen other football programs have transitioned into one of the Power Five conferences. And, in their first seasons, only three teams improved upon their previous year's record -- with just two watching their win total increase by more than one. For most teams, the acclimation has been gradual.
"There are no shortcuts," Whittingham added. "But I don't think there's anything that's undiscovered or a secret. It's pretty simple and pretty plain."
In one interview after another, five coaches told ESPN.com the same three keys for transitioning successfully: improve recruiting, upgrade facilities and figure out those new teams. That really shouldn't come as a shock, as those tips are useful for any team in any circumstance. But when it comes to transitioning, several coaches said, those priorities are magnified.
All of a sudden, during that conference transition, Utah's great facilities in the Mountain West didn't quite pass muster with USC's 110,000-square-foot sports facility or Oregon's $68 million football building. So it unveiled its own new facility last fall. In 2004, Virginia Tech's old Big East recruiting footprint wasn't enough to dominate long-term in the ACC. So the staff immediately sought out prospects in Georgia and the Carolinas. And, in 2005, Boston College's staff was forced to scout nine new opponents on a schedule that ballooned from No. 74 in terms of strength to No. 22. So, even during "off time," some coaches stared at their laptop screens morning to night.
Each team needed to improve in that area immediately or risk falling behind their conference foes. Transitioning is a constant arms race, after all, a game where teams that tread water end up sinking. There's no such thing as being stationary in college football, especially during such a transition. Especially during that first season.
"It's definitely more of a burden that first season, for sure. No doubt," said former Boston College assistant Jerry Petercuskie, who helped oversee the Eagles' transition to the ACC and currently coaches at FCS Elon. "But there's no magic in it. It's just getting your players to play and adapting to the enemy."
Truthfully, several coaches said, there's not much they can do to quicken that Year 1 transition. Payoffs in recruiting and facility upgrades aren't immediate; the main short-term advances come from locking yourself in the film room and studying up on new opponents.
In other words, the recipe for such immediate success isn't a big secret either. Of the three teams that did improve their record that first season, they all returned solid teams that boasted solid quarterbacks. Texas A&M had Heisman winner Johnny Manziel (7-6 record to 11-2), Virginia Tech started first-team All-ACC QB Bryan Randall (8-5 to 10-3), and Pitt had NFL draft pick Tom Savage under center (6-7 to 7-6).
So, until that increased recruiting focus starts to yield changes on the field, most coaches during the transition spend a considerably higher amount of time figuring out opposing schemes, opponents and situations.
"When you're away from the office, every coach is looking at the opponent. You need to figure out that new enemy," Petercuskie said. "[Coaches] are a paranoid group of people. We don't want to go out on a Saturday afternoon in front of a national TV audience and get embarrassed. So we're going to do whatever we have to do."
Added Tom Bradley, who coached at Penn State during its move to the Big Ten and is currently the senior associate head coach at WVU: "I would say it took a couple of years for us to really get a beat on teams -- to understand the fans and feel comfortable with the climate you're entering. What do they like to do in certain situations? Not knowing that definitely made it harder."
No one can say for sure exactly how Louisville, Rutgers and Maryland will fare in their new conferences: Virginia Tech assistant Charley Wiles believes the Terrapins are already a bowl-caliber team; Temple assistant Ed Foley thinks Rutgers will wind up in the middle of the pack. But everyone knows what these teams have to do to succeed.
They can't win in Year 1 without a solid group of returners. They have to upgrade their facilities to stay competitive. And above all -- Whittingham said this was 80 percent of the transition – they need to recruit well. Do all that, and the wins will roll in faster than the fans' question marks.
Transitioning successfully is as simple -- and as difficult -- as that.