Coaching changes add air of mystery to Big East

After a couple of players skipped class earlier this year, new Cincinnati coach Butch Jones made the whole team show up at Nippert Stadium to run stadium steps one morning. It was 6 a.m., and the snow was falling.

Jones wondered how the team would respond to such a demand from the new guy in town. After all, the Bearcats have won the last two Big East titles. Maybe they felt they were too good for this kind of punishment.

Luckily, Jones said, that wasn't the case. After he pitted different position groups against one on another, the whole team attacked the steps like it was playing a late November game.

"I almost had to slow them down because of their competitive nature," Jones said. "Right then and there, I got excited because it showed me the type of individuals we're working with here."

There figure to be a lot of those discovery type moments in the Big East this spring. Three of the eight league teams -- or 37.5 percent for you math geeks -- changed coaches in the offseason. If you include Syracuse, half the conference teams have hired new staffs since before the 2009 season. So there's a general sense of change and perhaps a shifting of the power structure in the Big East.

"I certainly hope that's the case," new South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. "The only unfortunate part is I'm one of the transition guys. It might go a little better for me in a couple more years when I've had a little stability here and a chance to put it all together."

The key question is whether Cincinnati -- which has won its last 12 conference games -- can continue its domination after losing three-time Big East coach of the year Brian Kelly to Notre Dame. While Jones insists "I don't think we'll take a step back," history shows that programs find it difficult to maintain a championship level immediately after a coaching change.

That may mean a team like Pittsburgh, which could have won the Big East the past two years if it had beaten the Bearcats head-to-head, might be ready to step into the vacuum of power. Pitt returns the league's offensive player of the year in Dion Lewis and the co-defensive player of the year in defensive end Greg Romeus, plus star receiver Jonathan Baldwin and a wealth of other talent. But the Panthers will have to settle on a quarterback to replace Bill Stull between Tino Sunseri and Pat Bostick this spring.

Or perhaps West Virginia will reclaim its place atop the league. The Mountaineers have the fewest question marks of any league team this spring with 18 returning starters, though they'll need sophomore quarterback Geno Smith to shorten his learning curve.

Don't forget about UConn, which ended the 2009 season playing as well as anyone in the Big East and has 17 starters back. Randy Edsall's team looks poised to make a run at its first BCS bid with a few improvements on defense.

While several coaches are new, plenty of familiar faces will be back this spring. The league returns four 1,000-yard rushers -- Lewis, West Virginia's Noel Devine, UConn's Jordan Todman and Syracuse's Delone Carter. Young quarterbacks like South Florida's B.J. Daniels, Rutgers' Tom Savage and Cincinnati's Zach Collaros established themselves last season and look to build upon their early success. In all, 22 players who were named either the first- or second-team All-Big East are back on campus this spring, a far cry from 2009 when the league lost a plethora of stars to the NFL.

Every team has some reason for optimism this spring, even recent cellar dwellers Syracuse -- in Doug Marrone's second season -- and Louisville, which is excited about new coach Charlie Strong's arrival.

"The Big East doesn't have just one team carrying the torch," Holtz said. "I think there are eight really good football teams, and over a three-year period, probably anybody in this league is capable of winning it."

The question that will begin to be answered this spring is how quickly the new guys in town can get their programs up and running.