Big East heads to uncertain future

Doug Marrone played at Syracuse. He has his dream job coaching his alma mater. And yet, when he is asked about whether he feels any nostalgia about the Big East now that his beloved Orange are set to leave, he shakes his head.

"Not really," he says. "I hope I don't sound like I'm a bad guy."

No. He sounds like a guy without many memories of Big East football. When he played at Syracuse, there was no such thing. Big East football only came to be in 1991, because there was little choice, really. Football was growing at an unparalleled rate, and the basketball-centric Big East needed an in.

Since that time, the Big East has been a league in search of its place in the college football hierarchy, conflicted about whether football or basketball must come first. In that respect, not much has changed about the Big East, despite massive realignment that has forced the conference to reconfigure itself not once, but now twice.

While the name remains, this truly is the last season for the Big East as you and I know it. When the calendar turns to 2013, six founding members in football will be gone. Five of them -- Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia -- all played in BCS games while under the Big East banner. Regardless of recent success, fans came to identify Big East football with those schools.

With them all gone, what is left of the Big East? Cincinnati has had its share of recent success. Louisville is on the upswing. USF and Rutgers are in major media markets. But the question is this: Does anybody outside the Big East markets truly know what the Big East will become?

While the Big East is adding seven new teams -- including recent BCS-buster Boise State -- those teams have about as much in common with the league as a football and an orange. The Big East believes it has added value in stretching from coast to coast, touting the ability to play football games on Saturday in every time zone. But the westward expansion has made the Big East the punch line of numerous jokes, not to mention immediately making its conference name an anachronism.

Its perception problem is worse than ever, and that is a major issue. In college football, tradition is power.
There are no traditional teams left in the Big East. There is no semblance of normalcy, either.

The surprise departures of Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia dealt a stunning blow to a league that had just gotten back onto its feet after the gut-punch losses of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2003. Commissioner John Marinatto ultimately lost his job because of the recent defections.

The Big East hired interim commissioner Joe Bailey, whose professional expertise is in pro football. This summer, the Big East was downgraded out of the top six conferences during negotiations for the coming playoff. With the loss of automatic qualifier status, the Big East has no bowl home for its conference champion past 2013. There still is no new commissioner in place, and high-stakes television negotiations begin in September, a critical make-or-break point for the future of the Big East.

"Everybody is excited to see what's going to happen with this television deal," USF coach Skip Holtz said.

"Because let's be honest, I don't think teams have left here because of the product. They've left here because of money. With the new television deal coming together, I think there's going to be a time when people are going to look at this and say, 'Explain to me why they left that conference. Explain to me why that made sense.' Because it's not about the product. It's about the finances. I think right now we've been easy pickings because there's been a lot of change. We've been unstable because of the unknown. With a commissioner in place, a new television deal in place … I think the future is extremely bright. … It's only going to be a wave of improvement."

Big East officials and coaches have repeated that mantra, pointing to the recent success of incoming teams like Boise State, Houston, UCF, SMU and San Diego State. They mention what Cincinnati has done in recent years -- an undefeated regular season in 2009 and Big East championship rings in three of the last four years. Louisville and UConn have BCS appearances as well.

They point to their bowl and BCS records. The Big East has the best postseason record of any FBS conference during the BCS era, at 43-27. They point to the competitiveness top to bottom. Last season, every Big East team finished with at least five wins. The only other time that happened was in 1904 and 1905, when every team in the Big Nine (now the Big Ten) finished with at least five victories.

Yet, most everybody thinks the Big East is on the verge of keeling over and screaming uncle.

"The national perception is wrong," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "People speak in generalities, and really they have to speak in the facts. You go back to the facts of our bowl record, our BCS bowl record. You could say a lot of those teams left the Big East. But they were still affiliated with the Big East conference. When you look at the programs we've added, I think you look at it and say this is going to be a really good football conference that will be able to compete with anyone."

Jones and his fellow coaches have had enough of this league being debased and degraded. But no matter how many times they shout their records from the goalposts, the perception remains stuck in muck. People want to see their leagues dominated by a national behemoth year after year, not a bunch of 8-4 teams happy to be competitive.

That point is not lost on at least one Big East coach. While Louisville's Charlie Strong praised the competitiveness of the Big East, he also noted that the league needed separation at the top.

"What's going to be critical now, for this league to really become what it needs to become, we need to play better football," Strong said. "It needs to be where somebody can step up and have a good year or maybe one or two teams. We need to become a league where there are two or three teams people are talking about every year."

Perhaps the Big East gets there. Perhaps that changes perception over time. But there is more to this than wins and losses. If membership stabilizes, if the new commissioner is a dynamic, charismatic leader, if the new television deal exceeds every expectation and gets its member schools riches in the $10 million-plus range, if there is a national championship contender, the Big East stands to look like a newly crowned homecoming king to its harshest critics.

The sad truth is none of the other leagues have to deal with ifs right now. For all the uncertainty of the past two years, expansion talk has quieted. At least for today. Despite its maneuvers to make itself whole, the Big East remains the most fragile of every conference save the WAC, ripe to be picked off whenever the next round of realignment strikes.

"I keep saying, the biggest thing about this league is whether or not we're going to write about the image or the product," Holtz said. "Because the image is not where we all want it. When you look at teams that have left, our television product is not as good as some of the other leagues. A lot of that is going to come to pass when the commissioner is put in place and the television deal is done. Right now, if I had a choice of saying I'd rather be strong with our product or our image, I'd rather have our product. Because our image will catch up to our product."

It may not this year. Not for a league living with its past and its future side by side.