In an off-season where no conference was safe, the Big East somehow managed to not only lose any teams to the expanding Big Ten and the rumors of mega-conferences, but also add Texas Christian University, reigning Rose Bowl Champion, to its conference roster.
Couple this expansion with the conference’s fifth consecutive winning postseason record, and the Big East has every reason to be confident. Commissioner John Marinatto stressed this confidence and competitiveness Tuesday at Big East Media Day in Newport, Rhode Island.
“The Big East Conference is stronger and has more vitality today than it ever has in its 32-year history,” Marinatto said in his opening remarks.
The conference faces a landmark season in 2011. This is the last full football regular season before TV negotiations open up next fall. Marinatto called this time a “13-month runway to what I believe will be the most important television negotiations in our history on September 1, 2012.” The landscape of college football is changing drastically at the moment. Conferences are in an ongoing fight for the national spotlight.
In a conference with so much parity, anyprogram can legitimately call themselves a contender. Even a squad like Syracuse, who had not had a winning season since 2001, can make an unexpected rebound. Head coach Doug Marrone was clear that the school’s 8-5 record in 2010 was only a step in the right direction.
“We had great tradition at our school and we needed to get back to it,” he said in an interview with Big East TV. “We needed to get back to a bowl game, which we did. We needed to have a winning season, which we did. But now we need to be competitive year-in and year-out, so it creates a lot of challenges for us, and we’re excited for these challenges.”
While SU became a national darling, Greg Schiano and Rutgers fell far from their winning ways. The Scarlett Knights finished 4-8 last season, ending their streak of five consecutive winning seasons.
Schiano, the most tenured coach in the conference, believes staying close to home is the key for Rutgers to once again become a premier program in the Big East.
“I strongly believe that when you recruit around our school, you make fewer mistakes that way and the other point is you bring in a lot of fans,” Schiano said to Big East TV. “When Johnny from your town goes to Rutgers, now the whole town goes to Rutgers on gameday.”
Despite Rutgers off-year, no team had a worse change of direction than Cincinnati. In 2009, the Bearcats won 12 games and made an Orange Bowl appearance – losing monumentally in the process. But in Butch Jones’ first full season at the helm, the Bearcats won only four games, tying for last place in the conference with RU.
While experience is often thrown around in college football as a reason why a team succeeds or not, Jones doesn’t like that to use that as a clutch.
“We return all of our starters on defense,” he said, “And I told them, ‘It’s one thing to be older, but we have to be better. How are we going to respond when we give up that first score? How are we going to be able to handle adversity or sudden change opportunities?’”
Three subpar seasons followed, but last season, the Cardinals seemed to have found the head coach to return them to the top in Charlie Strong. Strong led the team to a 7-6 record in his first year, a mark he hopes to build upon in 2011 with defense.
“The whole game has changed now,” he told Big East TV. “You have to play defense. And if you can’t play defense, you will be giving up 60 points a game and you won’t be winning many games.”
Unlike Strong, USF head coach Skip Holtz came into a program already at its peak. While Strong had some wiggle room to show long-term success, Holtz took over a program that made five straight bowl appearances.
It was a challenge he faced when he first started, but he knew about the caliber of talent he had from the start.
“I told the players when I was first hired there, ‘You didn’t choose me, I chose you. It’s my job. I chose to be here…’” Holtz said at media day.
Media day also saw the debut of three new head coaches at the three schools that tied for the conference championship - Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia. Dana Holgosren at West Virginia, and Todd Graham at Pittsburgh.
Paul Pasqualoni returns to the conference after six seasons in the NFL by joining Connecticut.
They already have an impressive program in place, but Pasqualoni is confident they can build a winning tradition similar to the ones created by the other sports on campus.
“I think we have a chance to try to accomplish what Geno (Auriemma) and what Jim (Calhoun) has done, and what (baseball) coach (Jim) Penders is in the process of doing right now,” he told Big East TV.
New Pittsburgh head coach Todd Graham, however, joins a school with an extensive football tradition, which he’s already felt in his short time at Pitt.
“It’s just been humbling to walk into a situation, to be able to walk down the hall with places where people like Mike Ditka walked down that hall,” he said.
Pre-season rankings have Pittsburgh in second place in the conference behind bitter rival West Virginia and new head coach Dana Holgorsen. In a time in the Big East when every team is fighting for the limelight, WVU defensive back Keith Tandy welcomes the pressure of being the pre-season team to beat.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a bulls-eye on us,” he told Big East TV. “We’ve got to do everything we can in order to stay on top.”
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