By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Through much of its history, the Big East has been ahead of the curve, farsighted enough to see in its formation as a basketball conference that the sport, played in such a confined space, was little more than a nightly TV drama.
It was a drama that would be played out in the most populated portion of the country, the Northeast, an area that the new all-sports network, ESPN, needed to become a success. The two were wedded from the start and each catapulted into the nation’s consciousness.
It did not take long for the Big East to realize that it could also weave a football conference together, although anyone who has been in the conference for any length of time understands that even with the revenue produced by football at its greatest heights it was still playing little brother to the 14, then 16-team mega-basketball conference.
Things went along smoothly, West Virginia coming in and building itself into a national power at a time when Virginia Tech and Miami were riding high. It was really the best of both worlds, basketball and football, but as they say, times they are a-changing.
Indeed, in 2003 Miami, Boston College and later Virginia Tech climbed into the sewer and escaped out some manhole to the ACC, forcing the Big East to make some dramatic changes; changes that did not make it better.
Indeed, the trade of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech in football for South Florida, Cincinnati and Louisville sounds much like a trade the Pittsburgh Pirates would make. It is even hard to say that the basketball conference benefitted much — if at all — by adding Cincinnati and Louisville, two former national champions, because the league also brought in South Florida, DePaul and Marquette.
Marquette is the only prominent basketball program of that group.
After a couple of seasons of adjustment, the Big East football conference was shocked again as the Big Ten grabbed football power Nebraska from the Big 12, as the Pac-10 took on Colorado and Utah. Add the rise to prominence of Boise State and TCU and, all of a sudden, the Big East’s relevance in college football was being threatened.
Don't forget, either, the fact that two of the conference’s most successful coaches — West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez and Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly — defected to Michigan and Notre Dame, and all of a sudden you had a conference with no coaches who have had any real national football success.
The Big East, as one can see, is probably on the verge of collapsing as a football conference, neither of the major polls listing a Big East team in the Top 25, a neighborhood in which such outsiders and Nevada and Central Florida now reside.
To counter the trend that has the Big East football conference falling from power and public favor, the league announced that it is beginning to study expansion, probably an admirable goal but really two days and a dollar short as all the options that might have made sense at one time have been gathered up.
On Monday morning’s Big East coaches conference call, Pitt Coach Dave Wannstedt was asked about expanding, bringing in a TCU and maybe fledging Villanova Division 1-A program.
“My first reaction would be two-fold,” Wannstedt began. “Villanova makes sense because it is the conference. Other conferences have expanded and the playoff scenario has become so much a part of college football that I don’t see how we can not [expand]. I definitely think it will happen. When? Who knows.”
Asking Wannstedt about it makes sense because at present Pitt is the power team in the conference, even though it has three losses, paying the price for an ambitious non-conference schedule.
It also made sense to ask Randy Edsell of Connecticut about the future of the conference, for he has coached Connecticut into Division 1-A football and the Big East, much the way it will have to happen with Villanova, if the Wildcats decided to make the commitment.
“It doesn’t matter what my thoughts are,” Edsall said, quite pragmatically. “The only thoughts that matter are those in Providence (where the conference is located) and those who make the decisions. Whatever they decide, that will be best for our conference. Is it going to stay as an all-sports conference of is it going to stay as a hybrid?”
Read into that answer what you will.
The one thing that can’t be denied is that at present, the Big East is a bottom rung conference. Consider since 2000 the first-round draft picks of the NFL. Using teams in their current conferences, this is how that played out:
ACC 81 (a number of these came from Miami and Virginia Tech while playing in the Big East), SEC 79, Big Ten 59, Big 12 47, Pac-10 43, Big East 16.
Interpret that any way you want, but one of the reasons the Big East finds itself out of the polls is that the best talent is going to other conferences, both as players and, perhaps, as coaches.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at hotmail.com.