Ranking the Best Jobs in the Big East

Despite the ugliness of the current coaching situation in Morgantown with head coach Bill Stewart allegedly being a source for Chuck Langdon's Dana Holgorsen alcohol incident article (Stewart also asked a West Virginia beat writer to dig up dirt on Dana Holgorsen), we can see why Holgorsen was tempted to take the West Virginia job in the first place as we went through the BECB ranking of the Big East jobs. Inspired by Andy Staples of SI's ranking of the top 25 jobs in America, we took a stab at ranking the Big East's jobs. We measured each job by looking a six different categories: tradition, in-state talent, facilities, revenue, fan support and potential. The teams were ranked based on the average of all those categories. Team by team breakdowns can be found below the table (Mark handles West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida and Connecticut while I write about Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Syracuse and Rutgers).

Team Tradition In-State Talent Facilities Revenue Fan Support Potential Average
West Virginia 3 7 2 1 1 2 2.7
Pittsburgh 1 3 3 2 7 1 2.8
Louisville 4 5 1 6 2 5 3.8
Cincinnati 5 2 6 8 3 4 4.7
Syracuse 2 6 7 4 4 6 4.8
South Florida 8 1 8 5 5 3 5
Rutgers 6 4 4 3 8 8 5.5
Connecticut 7 8 5 7 6 7 6.7

 

 

Team Breakdowns:

 

1. West Virginia - It might be somewhat of a surprise to see West Virginia ahead of Pittsburgh and some of the other jobs, but it shouldn't. West Virginia has played major college football since 1939 and had some measure of success under Bobby Bowden in the mid 1970s only to falter again under Frank Cignetti. It wasn't until the 20 year tenure of Don Nehlen that the foundation was laid for what we now consider the best football job in the Big East. Under Nehlen the Mountaineers were an injury to the wonder Major Harris away from winning a national title in 1988. In 1993 the Mountaineers went 11-0 and were passed over for the national title game for a once beaten Florida State team (and then promptly invalidated their beef by losing the Sugar Bowl to Florida 41-7). The Mountaineers were an upset in the Backyard Brawl from playing for the national title again in 2007. 

Morgantown is as feared a road environment as there is in college football (only to be more feared now with beer sales allowed inside), consistently lead the conference in attendance, and their fans travel. For those reasons, we rated West Virginia fan support so highly. The immediate talent base for recruiting is not great, however, the program has shown the ability to reach into more talent rich areas like Baltimore and Northern Virginia to get quality players. In the Rich Rodriguez era, West Virginia developed a rather strong "pipeline" into the state of Florida that has taken a dip under Stewart. Holgorsen and his staff will work hard to reestablish that connection. The football program generated just under $30 million in revenue, tops in the conference, and nearly double the bottom four teams in the league. Resources like that allowed the Mountaineers to pluck Holgorsen from Oklahoma State when others were considering him (including rival Pitt) and will ensure that whoever is coaching will have the support needed to succeed.

 

 

2. Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh was just edged out by West Virginia for the top job in the Big East. No other program in the conference has the tradition that the Panthers have. Pitt began playing football in 1890 and lays claim to nine national championships. The Panthers have 23 former players or coaches in college football's Hall of Fame (here's just some of the names: Pop Warner, Jock Sutherland, Dan Marino, Mike Ditka, Marshall Goldberg and Hugh Green). Tony Dorsett won Pitt's only Heisman in 1976. Pitt's last claimed national title came in 1976 as well and the program slid from prominence by the mid-1980s. Football independence ended when the Panthers joined the Big East in 1991 but they have only won the league once (2004) since joining the conference.

Pitt ranked in the top 3 in everything except for fan support. Playing off-campus at Heinz Field does not help the situation, nor does failing to meet on-field expectations. Here's a quote from Pitt's last bowl game (BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham) in 2010:" Pitt fans? Good luck finding many of them. (And who can blame them given the costs of traveling here, the dismissal of two coaches, and a disappointing season)." Yet, because of the other factors and past track record of getting fans into Heinz Field with a winning team, we still think Pittsburgh has the most potential for future success.

 

3. Louisville - It might surprise some people to learn that Louisville did not even begin playing major college football until 1962. The Cardinals bounced around the Missouri Valley Conference upon the move up to then Division I, but it was the independent period from 1975 to 1995 that was decisive in making the Louisville football program one of the better jobs in the Big East. Louisville had some noteworthy personalities in its history. Names like Johnny Unitas, Lee Corso, and Tom Jackson are household names. When the Cardinals opted to hire Howard Schnellenberger instead of dropping football altogether, the program moved from obscurity to the road to prominence. Schnellenberger stayed at Lousville for 10 years and in that time took the Cardinals from playing in an old minor league baseball stadium to helping get a brand new on campus stadium built (two years after he left) and leading the Cardinals to the 1991 Fiesta Bowl. Beginning with Jeff Brohm and Jay Gruden, Louisville had a string of successful quarterbacks in Browning Neagle, Chris Redman, Stefan Lefors, and Brian Brohm. In 2005, the Cardinals moved to the Big East and earned a trip to the Gator Bowl. The following year they won the Big East and were a Thursday night upset against Rutgers from playing for the national title. The Kragthorpe years (2007-2009) ended what was a decade long bowl streak. Charlie Strong led the team back to the postseason and has them poised to return to prominence. 

Louisville has the gem of the Big East stadiums in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Built in 1997 and expanded last year to seats 55,000 the stadium is loud and cash cow for the athletic department. Louisville also has new and state of the art workout facilities, offices, and a full, 100 yard indoor practice facility. Hence the high facilities ranking. Although attendance sank under Kragthorpe (29,000 average his last season), it shot up to 52,000 in 2010 and Louisville sold its entire allotment of tickets to the Beef O'Brady's Bowl (not the most prestigious of events). For that reason we rated the fan support so highly (though Strong has nagged fans about getting into their seats before the game starts. Louisville is right in the middle of the conference in football revenue, but, two things mitigate that. First, the school generates obscene revenue and profits from the basketball program. Second, the revenue numbers for 2010 don't entirely include the impact of the expanded stadium. When they do, that number will climb closer to the top of the conference. 

 

4. Cincinnati - Despite fielding a team as early as 1885, the Bearcats football prowess did not show up until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Before Sid Gillman went on to open up the passing game in pro football, he developed downfield passing as head coach of Cincinnati. The Bearcats won the MAC three out of four years under the watch of Gillman before they returned to the ranks of the football independents. However after Gillman left, the Bearcats didn't play in a single bowl game from 1951 to 1997. After winning four MAC titles in six seasons, Cincinnati has only won five conference crowns since 1952 (I should note, the Bearcats were independent for nearly 30 of the intervening years).

What Cincinnati lacks in football revenue, they make up for in fan support and in-state talent. If the Bearcats get back to the level of on-field performance they enjoyed under Brian Kelly, they might be able to capitalize on the uncertainty at Ohio State. Nippert Stadium has a great atmosphere for a home stadium when it is filled to the brim, but the small size is still an issue. The games played at Paul Brown Stadium are an negative for us, but we doubt teams such as Oklahoma would want to play at Nippert. New facility upgrades in recent years as well as those two Big East titles give Cincinnati the potential to rise to the top again in the future.

 

5. Syracuse - "New York's College Team" played their first football game in 1889. They played as an independent until 1991 when the Big East added football. Over the years the Orange have won 686 football games at a 58.2% clip. They have won at least a share of four Big East titles and were the 1959 National Champions (that's right Ole Miss). Syracuse's only Heisman was won by Ernie Davis in 1961. Other Syracuse players you might have heard of include Jim Brown, Larry Czonka, Floyd Little, Art Monk and Donovan McNabb.

While the Orange are long on tradition, they came out in the middle of the pack or worse in every other category. Two things working in their favor are money and fan support. Doug Marrone got the most out of his players last season to help fans forget about the dreadful Greg Robinson tenure. Marrone has already won more games in two season than Robinson did in four years. Now that Marrone has started to lay down a foundation for a return to consistent success, fans may have hope but we think there are some obstacles that we can't ignore until the wins start to pile up.

 

6. South Florida - South Florida is as old Louisville's Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Both made their football debuts in 1997 (I had the honor of attending South Florida's first ever football game in old Tampa Stadium against Kentucky Wesleyan - ME). All considerations of the program and the desirability of the job should keep that in mind. The Bulls have only had two football coaches in that time. After posting a 5-6 record in its first season of football, the Bulls have only had one losing season since (4-7 in 2004). In its short history, USF has won games on the road against in-state competitors Florida State and Miami and beaten other traditional powers like Auburn and Clemson. They've dominated the lower level in-state schools (undefeated against FIU, FAU, and supposed rival UCF). The Bulls have worked their way as high as #3 in the polls while also producing a slew of NFL players and first round draft picks. There's no replacing the time component of tradition, but, USF has done well in its short time. The only knock on USF up to this point is its inability to take advantage of a down stretch for the Big East and actually win the conference. 

The Bulls have the conference's best  local talent base to draw from and for that reason alone it will be an attractive job for as long as they remain in a BCS conference. Even though Florida and Florida State won't lose the elite recruits to USF any time soon, the Bulls can still load up on extremely good players drawn entirely from their own backyard. Recently, USF has been able to attract some upper echelon players with offers from Miami like Todd Chandler and Elkino Watson. USF is in the middle of the conference in terms of football revenue, but, relies heavily on student fees for it. Without an on campus stadium or prominent basketball program to lean on, the revenue picture is less than ideal. The Bulls play in Raymond James Stadium, a setup we're not big fans of. Like Pitt, playing in an antiseptic NFL stadium seems to kill the college football atmosphere. USF did unveil the fantastic, state of the art Frank Morsani practice facility that is as good as anyone in the league has. Even with such a large venue, USF ranks in the middle of the Big East in attendance. Raymond James has looked sparsely attended at times, and it looks bad on TV. 

There are things about the South Florida job that by themselves will make it attractive, still, other programs in the conference have better overall resources to draw on that make them better jobs. 

 

7. Rutgers - Rutgers has been around forever. They won the first college football game and the first Big East football game. So they are good at "firsts," but the other stuff...not so much. Despite all those years of games, Rutgers has only gone to six bowl games and is a hair over .500 all-time. Since joining the Big East in 1991, the Scarlet Knights are under .500 overall despite making five consecutive bowl games from 2005-2009 under current head coach Greg Schiano. Recent success or not, if Schiano can't get Rutgers back to the success he produced during that period, he'll be out the door. Unfortunately, Rutgers ranked dead last in our potential category.

New Jersey has plenty of in-state talent, but Rutgers doesn't land it. We were quite surprised when local talent Savon Huggins said yes to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights must have been shocked as well as they've never landed a five-star recruit from New Jersey until Huggins signed his letter of intent. Rutgers does have money and has been willing to spend it on facilities. The fans will show up if the team is winning. But, can Rutgers sustain success and attract both players and fans to the program? It seems like a steep hill to climb.

 

8. Connecticut - UConn has played FBS football for just 11 seasons. UConn played football in I-AA/FCS from 1937 until 2000 when it was invited to move up and directly into the Big East. In that time short amount of time, the program reached its heights this year by winning the Big East championship and playing in the Fiesta Bowl. The Huskies have played in five bowl games in their 11 years of football, including each of the past three years. Much like South Florida, UConn has little major college football experience or tradition, but has made much of the time it has had. The perceived stature of the program took a hit when, on the heels of reaching its first ever BCS bowl game, head coach Randy Edsall left to become the head coach at a marginally better job in Maryland. 

UConn clearly sits in the most challenging of areas for recruiting major college football players. While there have been a handful of elite players in the New England area recently, it's nothing compared to the populous areas that most of the conference sits in. Compounding the challenge is, although UConn routinely fills its on campus stadium, the football program is last in the conference in football revenue. The fan support on campus for gameday is solid, but the program suffered an embarrassment when it lost almost $2 million in making the trip to the Fiesta Bowl due to its selling just 2,800 of its alloted 17,500 tickets.The fanbase is rabid for basketball, but is nowhere near as rabid for football, especially when it comes to postseason travel. 

The challenges listed above make UConn's Big East title run even more impressive. This is a program with little to work with that won the conference. Some would argue that the title run came at what was probably the lowest point in the conference's history, but, they were at least able to capitalize on that. Still, one can't help but think that this state of affairs won't last and that the inherent hindrances of the position will keep it near the bottom of the conference regularly as well as make it a tough place to attract (and keep) quality head coaches. 

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