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Big East's Near-Complete Coaching Purge Leads to Uncertain Future

Jan 4, 2011 – 12:30 PM
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Brian Grummell

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Rarely has a football conference undergone as much coaching upheaval as the Big East. Once the home to powerhouse names like Rich Rodriguez, Brian Kelly, Bobby Petrino and Jim Leavitt, unprecedented coaching turnover has reshaped the conference's football fortunes.

With Connecticut losing Randy Edsall to Maryland and Pittsburgh having terminated alum Dave Wannstedt only to turn around and fire his replacement Mike Haywood, a quarter of the league's coaching jobs are now vacant just a year after three new coaches were brought in. West Virginia's Bill Stewart is the second-most tenured coach with three years on his resume but he, too, will be gone to make way for Dana Holgorsen following the 2011 season.

This dramatic restructuring has, at least in the short term, been troubling for the league's football fortunes. Without a recruiting hotbed like Florida, Texas or California to commandeer, it can be argued that high-level success in the Big East comes with a certain amount of tenure and a steady hand. It is a different model from the rapid-fire turnarounds often enjoyed at schools like USC, Florida, Texas and Alabama.

Unfortunately, the last few years have seen some highly skilled coaches, as well as several tenured ones, head to the exits. What remains is a stunning display of inexperience.

Consider: Rutgers' Greg Schiano is the league's most-tenured coach, having completed his 10th season. After Schiano? West Virginia's dead-man-walking, Bill Stewart, with three years. Then Syracuse's Doug Marrone with two. Then this year's trio of rookie coaches -- Louisville's Charlie Strong, South Florida's Skip Holtz and Cincinnati's Butch Jones. Oh, and then the two vacancies.

What is revealed is a near-complete turnover of the league's football coaching ranks in a three-year window. As a Big East writer, I can't help but look at this double rainbow and wonder, 'What does it mean?'

One possibility: a mad scramble for overall control of the conference. For whatever reason, a certain amount of balance and parity emerged the last few seasons. Sure, Kelly led Cincinnati to a pair of conference titles but top to bottom everyone seemed to enjoy a certain amount of success. Kelly had nosed ahead, but essentially on any weekend Edsall's Huskies might trump Wannstedt's Panthers who might clip Schiano's Scarlet Knights the following week. Only Syracuse was mired in any kind of credible mediocrity, something Marrone may be well on his way to relegating into the dustbin of history.

With no clear pecking order, this rapid-fire turnover may cause a new race for power ahead of TCU's arrival in 2012.

Certainly that had to be on the mind of first-year West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck. Looking at his program, he had to have noticed a strong, talented defense that had one of the most consistently solid seasons in Big East history. He also had to notice that his offense with plenty of talent, lacking that same punch and consistency. With offensive guru Rodriguez, the Mountaineers steadily ascended, very nearly playing for a national championship as recently as 2007. Stewart simply did not have that offensive touch.

Enter the 'panic' move to snare hotshot offensive coordinator Holgorsen from Oklahoma State and install him as coach-in-waiting.

If he can recruit, the Mountaineers may be the most likely program to break away. Current Marshall coach and longtime WVU assistant Doc Holliday seemed to indicate as much following this year's 'Friends of Coal Bowl' between the in-state rivals. One of his first statements following the defeat was that West Virginia is the most talented team in the Big East. Only Pittsburgh can really make any kind of a credible rebuttal, at least right now.

How else to explain Luck saying of Stewart, "I didn't believe we had an opportunity to win the national championship"? With the Holgorsen hiring, now he does.

Elsewhere, Schiano has seen it all having taking over woeful Rutgers, driven it to the brink of a BCS appearance, and then seen it collapse once again to the bottom of the conference pile this year. He may soon be on the hot seat if things don't turn around.

If so, that sets up an interesting battle between the two as-yet-to-be-named coaches and Marrone, Strong, Holtz and Jones to catch up with West Virginia.

Jones showed promise at Western Michigan, following Kelly the first time around. This second visit had a rougher start, with the Cincinnati Bearcats falling well off pace despite returning most of the skilled offensive playmakers that helped put them over the top in 2008 and 2009.

Holtz inherited a talented but troubled program following the forced departure of Leavitt, the man who had single-handedly built the Bulls' program from scratch. This year, he emphasized team-building and getting to know his players and their wishes. Next year promises to be more results-driven, as he must find a way to coax some consistency out of talented but erratic quarterback B.J. Daniels.

And finally there is Strong, whose defenses at Florida helped the Gators win two BCS championships, particularly in 2006 when Urban Meyer's spread system was not meshing well with the talent he had inherited. The Cardinals surprised this year, digging out of the conference cellar to compete into the final weeks for a league crown. His undersized, youthful defense clearly overachieved, while his veteran offense faded down the stretch. If he can recruit, both sides could be rapidly patched up.

Speaking with many Big East followers, I get the impression that, before the Holgorsen hiring, many people pointed to Holtz and Strong as the future of the conference. With the Wannstedt and Edsall departures, the future may arrive sooner than anticipated.

That said, despite its troubles, the Pittsburgh job is one that could be a monster gig for the right coach. The Panthers have struggled to find that guy since the end of the Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill eras.

Things look grimmer for Connecticut. Despite their BCS appearance, the Huskies struggled for much of the season and were clearly outclassed by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. There isn't much football talent in the northeast and Connecticut football isn't anywhere near the national-level brand of a school like Syracuse, which can point to having produced Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Donovan McNabb. Connecticut's next hire will be crucial in determining whether the program can enforce continued parity in the Big East or if they fall behind the pack.

Long story short, there's a ton of new coaching blood in the Big East with a lot of sorting out to be done. A certain equilibrium had emerged of late, but the recent changes should certainly re-organize things. Whether that is for the better is yet to be determined, but at least a few programs may be looking at some kind of national prominence once again.
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