Monday, January 18, 2010
A tumultuous decade for the Big East
By Brian Bennett
All this week on ESPN.com, we'll be looking back on the decade that just completed in college football and every major conference.
It's safe to say that no major league went through more upheaval than the Big East.
In the early 2000s, Ken Dorsey and the Miami Hurricanes were on top of the Big East.
The conference began the decade on top of the sport. Miami finished second in the 2000 season, won the 2001 national title and played for the championship in 2002, losing in a memorable overtime game to Ohio State. The Hurricanes were the unquestioned big dogs of the Big East, going 46-4 between 2000 and 2003. Virginia Tech, which played for the national title in 1999, seemed like the only program that might keep pace with Miami over the long haul.
Then, of course, the Hokies and Hurricanes bolted the Big East for the ACC after the 2003 season. Boston College followed after the 2004 season. With Temple being forced out for poor performance, the league was down to just five schools, and one of them -- Connecticut -- had just joined as a football member in 2004 after moving up to the FBS level a few years earlier. Lawsuits were flying, mistrust was everywhere and there was very real doubt whether the Big East would even continue as a football affiliation.
Needing to do something to assure survival, then-commissioner Mike Tranghese led the charge to invite three football teams from Conference USA into the mix: Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati. Louisville had shown a lot of promise in the previous years, building its program through frequent TV appearances and double-digit win seasons. But South Florida was a gamble on potential, as the Bulls didn't even field a team until 1997. Cincinnati, meanwhile, had never accomplished much of anything in football in its long but unremarkable history.
The new alignment could have very easily failed, and the league might have lost its automatic BCS bid if the teams fared poorly. But all three new schools proved competitive nearly immediately.
West Virginia assumed the role of conference bully, going 11-1 and beating SEC champion Georgia in the first year of the new format, giving the Big East instant credibility. Louisville won the conference in 2006 in the culmination of an exciting year that saw the Cardinals, Mountaineers and Rutgers all go into November undefeated and ranked in the top 10. West Virginia came back to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl for another major Big East bragging point. Brian Kelly turned Cincinnati into an unlikely powerhouse, winning back-to-back league titles and finishing the 2009 regular season 12-0 and ranked No. 3 in the BCS.
The Big East no longer has a fearsome, elite national program like Miami, but it has a well-balanced, eight-team consignment that's not dominated by one team. And it has the potential to get even stronger. Pittsburgh has recently regained some of its past glory under Dave Wannstedt. Connecticut and Rutgers have become perennial bowl teams with room to grow. The conference needs Syracuse -- a former power which won 10 games in 2001 -- and Louisville to rebound from bad coaching hires, but they seem to be going in the right direction.
Speaking of coaches, the Big East has lost a lot of high-profile names, including Rich Rodriguez, Bobby Petrino and Kelly. Only UConn's Randy Edsall and Rutgers' Greg Schiano have been at their current schools for more than five years. Huge programs from other leagues continue to look to Big East schools when they need to hire a new coach; the conference won't truly have arrived until more of its members are seen as destination jobs rather than stepping stones.
Change, however, was a constant for the Big East the last decade. If nothing else, the league showed that it can survive, and even thrive, during a period of upheaval.