Every coach and conference official at Big East Media Day could recite the statistics to you: 20-8 in bowl games since 2005, five consecutive seasons with a winning record in bowl games, second only to the SEC in non-conference winning percentage, and seven of the league's eight teams have been ranked in the past four years. Why were these figures on the tongue of everyone at Media Day? Because, in the words of South Florida head coach Skip Holtz, "We're fighting an image, not a product."
Factors in the Decline
Since Boston college walked out in 2004, skeptics have questioned the Big East's credibility as a league, and its worthiness to be a BCS automatic qualifying conference. Early on, Big East team's did well in BCS bowlsw against champions of the SEC, ACC, and Big XII. However, beginning in 2008, the Big East's champion has been beaten in BCS bowl games, and the back to back embarassment of a 12-0 Cincinnati team getting dominated in the Sugar Bowl by Florida and a Connecticut team that had no business being in the Fiesta Bowl being blown out by Oklahoma has left the league in its most vulnerable position yet.
Inability to retain successful coaches has weakened all of the conference's champions while also helping to reinforce the stereotype that none of the Big East's coaching positions is a destination job, and if none of the jobs are destination jobs, then just how strong is the conference after all? These are the reasons the current crop of coaches and Big East officials have been so quick to tout the objective numbers on the conference's performance. But, if the conference was good, you wouldn't have to convince anyone that it is.
What Can Be Done
The Big East can't change its football past, it can only work to earn respect in the future, and that starts with the 2011 football season. Big East football teams must win non-conference games against top shelf opponents while avoiding some of last season's embarrassing losses. West Virginia's win over Maryland was probably the league's best non-conference win, and that simply won't do if the conference as a whole hopes to earn respect. Having your champion lose to a Temple team that did not even go to a bowl game doesn't help, either. There are plenty of opportunities in 2011, and teams must capitalize. Both South Florida and Pittsburgh get cracks at Notre Dame. Pittsburgh also hosts now PAC 12 member Utah. West Virginia has the highest profile non-conference game when it hosts LSU in October. It would do wonders for the league to win some of these games.
The Big East must also retain its quality coaches. No football program can sustain success with constant coaching turnover, and when you consider that Greg Schiano has more years at Rutgers than all other Big East coaches have at their respective schools combined, its no secret why the conference has struggled. Retaining coaches is almost entirely a matter of commitment from and relationship with the administration of the schools, and this is why the negotiation of the next media rights deal is so important. To keep great coaches and assistant coaches, Big East schools need resources, resources that must come at least in part from greatly increased television revenue.
What Won't Help
It's worth pointing out here that while TCU will be a stellar addition to Big East football and provide an instant credibility boost to the conference, the long term answer to Big East football is not to be found in ever creeping expansion. That's not to say that I want the league to stay at nine football teams and not explore viable ways to expand to 10 or even 12 teams and play a championship game, because I support both of those notions. The point here is only that no matter who or how many teams the Big East adds, the conference will not be respected until the success is organic. Syracuse needs to ensure that the Carrier Dome is a hard place for teams to play in again. Rutgers needs to lock down the best talent in New Jersey. Louisville needs to get back to the days of dominating its in-state rival Kentucky and being a team that Charlie Strong said he thought no one wanted to play in 2006. West Virginia and Pittsburgh have always been best situated to be the flagship teams of this conference and need to play like it. South Florida needs to finally live up to its nearly limitless potential in a talent laden, football crazy state. Eight win seasons, 40,000 person crowds, and middle of the road recruiting have got to change.
Thankfully there are some signs that things are on the right track. Pittsburgh and West Virginia both deliberately made head coaching changes after being unsatisfied with mediocrity, and both chose head coaches that promised to bring a more wide open and aggressive offensive philosophy. Doug Marrone resurrected Syracuse a year earlier than most thought that he would. He's a Syracuse man through and through. When I spoke with him, the pride he feels for Syracuse and the faith he has that the program can be a winner was evident. That's what Syracuse needs. Connecticut recognized the inherent limitations of the job being in a somewhat remote portion of New England, and opted for Paul Pasqualoni, a native who embraces his Connecticut roots. Greg Schiano also went back to his roots, and after playing around with Wildcat formation heavy offenses, brought in Frank Cignetti Jr. to take the offense back to a power running, physical style that made them successful early in his tenure. Charlie Strong swept aside three years of losing in one year at Louisville and if he can get through 2011 without a real step backward, Louisville will be a Big East contender in 2012. These are all encouraging signs.
The only thing left to do is win.