The Big East at 10
by Jim Alderson
TSL Extra, Issue #7

A decade has passed since the creation of what was then known as the Big East Football Conference. A conference round-robin did not begin until 1993, but 1991 was the year the conference hung out its football shingle. It has been an eventful ten years. Tech, the last member chosen to fill out the conference, has benefited the most, as BE membership has enabled us to reach heights unimaginable prior to our inclusion. Some others havenít done too badly, either.

Four times in the ten years, a BE team has played for the MNC. Forty percent isnít too shabby. In the eight years of round-robin play, four different teams have won conference championships; few conferences have conferred championship rings during the same time period on half their teams. There have been bumps and glitches along the way, such as Miamiís probation, and a perception that the Big East is not that good, generally voiced whenever Syracuse wins the league.

The league is not without potential problems down the road, as membership retention remains an iffy proposition and the unwillingness of large numbers of fans from seven of the member schools to travel to bowl games, coupled with NCAA rules that only allow Tech to play in one per year, means that guaranteed BE bowl slots are going to be hard to come by.

All in all, however, and especially from Techís perspective, it has been a positive thing. What follows is a look at all eight teams, from the past to the future, going from the bottom (or in this case, booted) up, ending of course with the good guys.

Temple

The past: The Owls were reeling as the Big East began football play. Jerry Berndt was the coach, brought in to deal with the probation inflicted during the reign of former coach and former Hokie QB Bruce Arians (Arians was Tech's primary signal-caller in 1974). Berndt had somehow stumbled into a 7-4 record in 1990, which included a victory over Tech, but in 91 and 92 had begun what were to be the hallmarks of Owl football, the 2-9 and 1-10 record. He was axed and Ron Dickerson was brought in.

It was one of the worst coaching hires in the history of football. Dickerson took a bad program and made it worse, turning in a five-year ledger of 8-47; three of the victories coming in his last year, 1997, three times in five years going 1-10, and of his 8 victories, 3 were against MAC programs. In the Big East under Dickerson the Owls were a woeful 4-31, beating Pitt twice, Boston College once, and a Rutgers program that was being trashed just as badly by Terry Shea once.

Dickerson was unceremoniously fired after 1997, and Bobby Wallace was brought in. Wallace turned in a pair of 2-9 seasons in his first two years, spicing things up in 1998 with the biggest upset in the history of BE football, that stunner over Tech. Wallace got the Owls to 4-7 last year, wildly successful by Temple standards, and has done a rather remarkable job in taking what was truly a ground zero rebuilding job and turning the Owls into a fairly competitive team.

The present: An improved team and a weak out of conference schedule has Temple dreaming of a winning season and a bowl bid. Lots of luck. While new coaches at Rutgers and West Virginia might enable the Owls to manage a 6-5, their lame duck status means the only way they get one of the BEís bowl slots is if there is nobody else to fill it.

The future: Grim is an understatement. Temple will be booted from the BE after the coming season, and snatched away will be the lifeblood of their program, the fat television check. How a program that spends less money on football than many I-AA programs will replace that cash seems quite difficult. Also, Bobby Wallace, who has tried to parlay that 1998 win over Tech into another job, can be expected to soon be out the door. They are talking big at Temple, but for all intents and purposes, as a major football player, they are done.

Rutgers

The past: Things seemed bright for Rutgers at the dawn of the BEFC. Under Doug Graber, the Knights went 6-5 in 1991 and followed up the next year with a 7-4 log that included a thrilling last-second Hail Mary win over Tech. Things declined as the next three years produced records of 4-7, 5-5-1 and 4-7. The natives had become restless and Graber was fired. Brought in was Terry Shea; sheer disaster followed. In five years Shea compiled an 11-44 record that was deceptively good, as three of his wins came against Division I-AA teams, another over weakling Buffalo and three more against the service academies. Shea was a Dickersonian 4-31 in the Big East, half of the conference wins over Temple (even though Shea managed what would have seemed impossible, actually compiling an overall losing record of 2-3 to the Owls). Few coaches have ever been more deserving of being fired, which Shea was within seconds of the end of last season.

The present: Alumnus Greg Schiano becomes the latest to move into the coaching graveyard that is Rutgers football. He takes over a team that is the least-talented in the Big East by a wide margin. He recruited decently in his first year, and several of the incoming frosh should quickly be on the field, not exactly good news because a team that plays large numbers of true freshmen is a team that loses large numbers of games. Games against Buffalo, Connecticut and Navy are winnable; anything else and Schiano should receive Coach of the Year consideration.

The future: Rutgers remains the BEís enigma. They are a large university located in the middle of New Jerseyís huge amounts of high school talent, few who give their state university a second look. Rutgers should have been the school to accomplish what Tech did. They did not, in large parts due to lousy coaching and administrative indifference and in some cases hostility to the football program. No one in the Rutgers front office has given the high-profile boost to winning football that Dr. Torgersen gave Tech. Schiano will have to convince both high school seniors and a largely skeptical Rutgers community that winning football is obtainable and beneficial. It will be a daunting task.

West Virginia

The past: Don Nehlenís Mountaineers went 11-9-2 in the BEís first two football seasons before making a big splash in 1993, going 11-0 and winning the first year of conference round-robin play. Success generally followed, with winning seasons and bowl bids in 1994, 96, 98 and 2000, Nehlenís last, sandwiched around losing marks in 1995 and 99. They followed up their perfect 93 conference record by going 4-3 four straight years and 5-2 in 1998, operating usually just behind the top-of-the-BE pack of Miami, Syracuse and Tech, before slipping to 3-4 league marks both of the last two years. Nehlenís teams were always tough and physical, and he made up for the lack of in-state recruiting prospects by establishing a recruiting network that scoured the entire east coast for quality players, with much of Nehlenís success built upon Florida recruits.

The present: The Neers have replaced an established winner with an unproven coach. Rich Rodriguez, another in the "letís hire an alumnus and see if lightning strikes twice" method of hiring college football coaches made popular by Frank Beamer, takes over his alma mater. He has instituted sweeping changes on both sides of the ball, installing the run and shoot offense he and mentor Tommy Bowden successfully ran at Clemson and Tulane, and bringing in former Tech Defensive Coordinator Phil Elmassian to install Techís attacking defense. The problem is they are doing it with Nehlenís personnel, recruited for entirely different systems. It should be a transition year in Motown; Coach Rod will need time to match abilities to schemes. Matching last yearís 6-5 record should be difficult.

The future: Recruiting is the big thing here. West Virginia, the state, produces few quality college football prospects. Nehlen compensated through an extensive network of contacts, particularly in Pennsylvania and Florida. Can Rodriguez build a comparable network, and how long will it take? If he is able to have the same success in recruiting other peopleís back yards as Nehlen, records comparable to Nehlenís can be expected. If not, the BE will have another Rutgers on its hands.

Pittsburgh

The past: The glory days of Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, the MNC and national prominence were a dim memory when the BE began playing football in 1991. The dreary days of Paul Hackett were drawing to a close with a 6-5 1991 record and one of 3-9 in 1992, Hackettís last. Johnny Majors, who won big at Pitt in the Seventies before leaving for Tennessee, had been forced off the Vols sideline in a palace coup led by his assistant Phil Fulmer, and was brought back to Pittsburgh in the hopes he could restore the Panthersí fading luster. It didnít happen.

Things had changed in Pennsylvania, and Joe Paterno had moved into a dominant position that Majors could not crack. His recruiting was poor, and it showed in his four-year record of 12-32, 7-21 in the Big East. Majors gave up the ghost after 96, and Walt Harris, the star of John Cooperís Ohio State staff, was brought on board in 1997. He caught both Tech and Miami in down years and experienced early success, going 6-5 and sneaking into the Liberty Bowl. A rebuilding job that included ridding the program of malcontents recruited by Majors then began, evident in the 2-9 mark in 1998. Harris improved to 5-6 in 1999 before getting back to a bowl last year with a 7-4 slate.

The present: Pitt [I donít care what the Pitt[sburgh] administration wants to call them, the Panthers are still Pitt to me and virtually all of their alumni] seems poised to crack the top of the BE. Harris has followed the Frank Beamer blueprint of building a program, sans the scholarship-losing probation, and has gradually improved recruiting. The Panthers move into the cityís new football stadium, which they will share with the Steelers, and their early OOC of home games against East Tennessee State, DI-A newbie South Florida and UAB is designed to acclimate them to their new digs and establish some sort of home field advantage in preparation for what will be a huge game for the Harris regime, a Thursday night home game with Miami. If Pitt wins that one, and they just might, they could roll to a huge year, especially with Tech also paying a visit in November.

The future: Bright, as long as Harris sticks around. He was denied the opportunity to interview to replace Cooper at Ohio State, which probably doesnít sit too well, and a big year might have Harris casting around for the big payday that the financially strapped Pittsburgh athletic department probably couldnít match. There is opportunity in Pittsburgh, however. Joe Paterno at Penn State is coming to the end of the road, and the recruiting inroads already made by Harris could turn into a bonanza when JoePa finally catches the Bearís record and calls it quits.

Syracuse

The past: Syracuse was the prime mover and shaker behind the creation of Big East football, and at its inception in 1991 were a marquee team. Dick MacPherson built a fine program, taking the Orangemen to four straight bowls before tiring of winning games and heading to the New England Patriots. Paul Pasqualoni took over and the bowl streak reached six straight by 1992. It came to a screeching halt in Lane Stadium late in the 1993 season as Tech pounded SU 45-24 for an Independence Bowl berth in a game that marked the first in a series of bad losses suffered by Pasqualoni-coached teams in Blacksburg.

Syracuse finished 7-4 in 1994 with no bowl bid. Things perked up the next year with the arrival of quarterback Donovan McNabb, who in four years led SU to records of 9-3, 9-3, 9-4 and 8-4, two outright Big East championships, and a share of a third. McNabb could never get the Orange over the Top Ten hump, however, and Syracuse winning conference championships with mediocre records had much to do with the Big East being classified as a lightweight conference. The championships left with McNabb, and Pasqualoni has struggled to a pair of 6-5 records since McNabb's departure.

The present: Pasqualoni has been under fire, and this year probably will not help. Most of the offensive staff checked out with McNabb, and Syracuse has struggled on that side of the line ever since. The underpinning of the fine defense that has carried the Orangemen has also now graduated, just at the time the OOC has been seriously upgraded. Pasqualoni recruits fairly well, and there is sufficient talent to avoid a plunge to the bottom of the BE, but even another 6-5 record should be considered a major accomplishment. If Syracuse stumbles as expected early against that killer OOC, things could go sour in a hurry, and this year could be the beleaguered Paul Pís last running the Orange.

The future: Murky. If the season goes into the tank and Pasqualoni is fired, a new staff has to establish itself in a conference where the top continues to improve. Syracuse is always going to be tough at home due to the Carrier Dome, which provides one of the finest home-field advantages in sports. Syracuse is always going to have problems outside the Carrier Dome on grass, which means it will be very difficult to ever achieve the kind of success achieved by Miami and recently Tech. There seem to be problems on the horizon in upstate New York.

Boston College

The past: BC went 4-7 in 1991, before Tom Coughlin improved them to 8-2-1 in 1992, good for a Hall of Fame Bowl bid. The good times continued in 1993 with an 8-3 mark and a Carquest Bowl appearance. Coughlin then left for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and was replaced by longtime NFL and former Tech assistant Dan Henning. What followed was a case study in running a program into the ground. Henning did cop a third straight bowl bid in 1994, the Aloha, before dropping to 4-8 in 1995 and 5-7 in 1996. Henning also presided over a major gambling scandal, lost control of his program, and generally demonstrated why some assistants should stay just that. He was canned and former George Welsh assistant Tom OíBrien was brought in. OíBrien struggled to a pair of 4-7 records his first two years before breaking through in 1999 with an 8-3 mark and an Insight.com Bowl game. The record slipped to 6-5 last year, still good enough for the Aloha Bowl, which the Eagles won over Arizona State.

The present: BC has a pretty good offense, logical for a former offensive coach. The Eagles struggle defensively against good teams, however, and quite a few dot their 2001 schedule. They will be a dangerous team capable of beating anybody on a given Saturday, but lack the overall talent to win every game day. 7-4 seems like their level.

The future: Fairly solid. Boston College comes across as the quintessential middle of the pack team. There is enough talent to keep the winning records and minor bowl bids flowing, and OíBrien seems capable of keeping it that way. There is not, however, the financial backing or interest in the program for the Eagles to do much more than occasionally challenge the top of the conference. OíBrien seems to be getting dug in after being passed over in the confused search to replace his mentor George Welsh, and may be on Chestnut Hill for the long haul. This can be a good, but not great, program.

Miami

The past: Miami has one of the best college football histories around during the last couple of decades. They got the Big East Football Conference off to a rousing start by winning the MNC in 1991 and playing for it the next year, losing to Alabama. They were quite surprised in 1993 when West Virginia won the first year of conference round-robin play, but bounced back in 1994 to again play for, and lose, the national championship game, this time to Nebraska.

Following that season, Miami coach Dennis Erickson observed the NCAA wolves gathering around the Orange Bowl and decided to get as far away from Miami as he could while still remaining within the continental United States, taking over the Seattle Seahawks. After an extended search that found Miami administrators often being told "No" by coaches not wanting to deal with the impending probation and sanctions, the job went to former Canes assistant Butch Davis. He finished 8-3 in his first season before the NCAA hammer dropped and Miami voided its share of the conference title.

Another 8-3 and a share of the BE championship came in 1996 before the loss of scholarships hit with a losing 5-6 slate in 1997. Butch and the Canes rebounded quickly, however, going 9-3 in 1998 and 9-4 in 99 before re-claiming past glories and winning the BE last year. Davis, after loud and long claims that he was at Miami for good, then followed Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Erickson before him and bolted for greener pastures, heading for Cleveland and a $3 million salary.

The present: Miami once again found that successful coaches were not beating down their door for the job, in large part due to lousy timing by Davis in leaving just before Signing Day. The job went to Davisí offensive coordinator, Larry Coker. The big question mark concerning the Canes is whether Coker is up to the job. Davis was an excellent recruiter and Coker inherits one of the most talented rosters in the country; the Canes should be very good. How good depends on the abilities of Coker and the new staff. A killer out of conference schedule would seem to rule out national honors, and even a conference title depends on a December trip to Virginia Tech, where Coker will face a head coach and staff much more experienced and wiser than he and his.

The future: Good and fair. Miami is located in one of the hottest of high school football hotbeds. Location alone guarantees a lot of talent will continue to come into the program. The Canes should always be very good. The sort of coaching stability that has been a large part of the success at Tech continues to be elusive. The coaches leave because Miami, as a moderately-funded program at a private school, cannot provide the budget or the facilities found at rivals Florida and Florida State, or many of the heavyweights increasingly found on Miamiís OOC. They will always compete for the Big East crown, but a fifth MNC is going to be tough to come by, and conference championships are not a given. With a fan base as volatile as Miamiís, can any coach win enough to please them? Coker is now under the microscope. Can he succeed, and if he does, how long does he stick around?

Virginia Tech

The past: The creation of Big East football finally gave Tech its long-sought conference home, as the Hokies beat out Louisville and East Carolina for the eighth and final membership spot. Tech did not exactly set the world on fire in the first season of 1991, as the over-scheduled Hokies went 5-6. Disaster struck the next year as numerous second-half leads were blown by a depth-shy Tech team that ended with a 2-8-1 record and loud howls for the head of Frank Beamer. Athletic Director Dave Braine ignored them, keeping Beamer and instead ordering him to rid his staff of several assistants.

The changes worked. In 1993, Tech blew to a 9-3 record culminating in an Independence Bowl rout of Indiana. The good times were just beginning. A Gator bowl bid came the next year, and then Tech hit the big time, heading to the Sugar and Orange Bowls the next two years. The next two years brought two more bowl bids before Beamer escalated the program again, going 22-2 over the last two seasons, including a trip back to the Sugar Bowl in 1999, this time for the MNC.

The present: It is the Year After at Tech. The man on the spot is quarterback Grant Noel. How well he responds will be the key to sustaining Techís Top Ten run. While there are three well-regarded frosh quarterbacks on the way, Techís offense cannot be learned in three weeks in August. Noel will be given every opportunity to prove he can lead a team otherwise laden with talent. True freshmen quarterback teams do not win big, and if Tech starts one it will be a sure indication the staff has written off the season. The early schedule is perfect to provide experience and confidence for Noel and the reloaded offensive line expected to pave the way for what should be a devastating ground game. Experience means a lot, and the Tech defense will have more of it, and should be dominant. Special teams, as they always are under Beamer, are a given. The game at Pitt will be very difficult, but this team can easily go 9-2, with 10-1 a distinct possibility.

The future: Bright. The program is on solid ground and should remain there. Recruiting has been dominant in the state, and the staff is now starting to take it to the national level enjoyed by most top programs. Coaching stability, which has been paramount in Techís rise in the college football rankings, is now the envy of all other Big East programs. It will be key to Tech remaining at the top.

Frank Beamerís well-publicized dalliances with other programs have been an annoyance, which hopefully, as other schools become weary of being toyed with or used, will stop. An important question is can the funds be found to keep the senior staff so vital to the programís success intact, as Tech will remain for the foreseeable future a budgetary middle-of-the-pack program. The coaching staff must also deal with the huge expectations eleven wins each of the last two years has placed on the program. But, all in all, these are not bad problems to have. Few Hokies would trade them for those facing Temple or Rutgers, for instance, or most teams Virginia Tech plays.

 

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