It’s one of the great ironies of life.
How did I, Aaron Torres, living in a region obsessed with baseball, in a college basketball crazed state, grow up to be such a big college football fan? It’s like the Bermuda Triangle, Jimmy Johnson’s hair, or going on a season of the Real World and being unable to hook-up. There’s really no answer.
But I did. And not only did I grow up to be one of the biggest fans I know, but I also sprouted my college football legs at a time where the conference I was most affiliated with, the Big East, was coming under its greatest fire.
Believe me, I was attending UConn right around the time that Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College decided to skip town for the ACC, and I heard it all about my beloved Big East football:
“Take away their automatic BCS bid!!”
“How soon until basketball season starts?”
“I’ve seen casts of Showtime late night movies with more talent than these teams!”
That last one especially stung. Even if I did just make it up.
But after all that, all the “Big Least,” remarks and everything else, I’ve got a dirty little secret for college football fans. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, and scholarship limits, weight training, nutritional developments and technological advances give this sport more parity than its ever had before, Big East football has actually become…pretty good. Quite frankly, it’s a lot better than you think.
Looking around the landscape of college football, this league has everything needed to suceed going forward. The conference’s facilities are all but caught up with the big boys (Seriously, do yourself a favor and see what UConn, Rutgers or Louisville are working with. They’re as good as anywhere. Believe me.). Athletic Directors like Tom Jurich (Louisville) and Jeff Hathaway (UConn) are as good as anybody in the business. And after years of watching guys like Jim Leavitt and Steve Kragthorpe pace the sidelines with expressionless, “I just saw my grandma naked,” stares, the league has finally caught up in the coaching department too.
No place is that more apparent than at South Florida.
In principle, the Bulls should be the flagship football school in this conference. They play in an NFL Stadium (Raymond James in Tampa). They have one of the largest undergraduate student populations in America (No seriously. Over 46,000 which ranks No. 9 in the country). And the school is in freakin’ Hillsborough county, whoever’s coaching there can’t throw a rock without hitting a Division I recruit.
Yet despite all those built in advantages, the program has eerily seemed to regress each and every season under Leavitt. Every fall was the same story: Jump out to a hot start, win a bunch of games, have the National media get behind you, then inexplicably lose a few games, start finger pointing and finish in the middle of the Big East pack. It was a fall tradition right up there with pumpkin picking, turning back your clocks and seeing your Uncle Rich get drunk at Thanksgiving. In other words, it was a certainty.
Over time the players lost trust in Leavitt, and who could blame them. He always seemed a little too emotional, yet often times coached like he had an early dinner reservation to catch. Much like the guy who marries out of college, becomes the CEO of a major company and then divorces his wife for a woman half his age, it was time for a change at South Florida. The program had simply outgrown the guy who’d been there from the start.
Enter Skip Holtz, for my money the perfect candiate for what could potentially be this conference’s best job.
He’s got a coaching pedigree (Although I honestly don’t know if he has a pathological, borderline uncomfortable disposition to Notre Dame like his father does. We’ll have to wait and see on that one), won the last two Conference USA championships, beat West Virginia and Virginia Tech in 2008 and nearly coached his team to an upset of Arkansas in this year’s Liberty Bowl.
More importantly, he’s shown to have an icy-cool demeanor, a guy who kept his players calm in the waning moments of that Liberty Bowl, even as a victory was slipping through their fingertips. Mark my words, after years of Leavitt’s in your face, Red-Bull-gives-you-wings, dog off the leash energy levels and temperament, Holtz will be a nice change of pace in Tampa.
When you couple Holtz with Charlie Strong taking over for Kragthorpe at Louisville, and Doug Marrone replacing Greg “Have You Seen My Baseball,” Robinson at Syracuse in 2009, that’s three major coaching upgrades in the last 14 months alone.
And with Randy Edsall seemingly hitting his stride at UConn, Greg Schiano continuing to clean up in New Jersey, and Dave Wannstedt returning Dion Lewis at Pittsburgh, by my math, six out of eight teams in this conference are on the upswing. The only uncertainties lie at West Virginia with Bill Stewart (Who I still say is passing up a lucrative career as a casino greeter to stay coaching at WVU) and with the new Cincinnati head man Butch Jones. (And I can’t lie, watching Jones handle himself on the sidelines during this year’s Sugar Bowl, he screamed “Superstar Head Coach in Waiting,” to me. Honestly, I wanted to grab my pads and go play for him right then and there, although it’s probably best for all parties involved that I didn’t).
Now with all that said, will the Big East ever be the SEC? Of course not. Will any school ever have the inherent built in advantages of USC, Texas or Ohio State? I doubt it. These are the realities of the Big East.
But at the same time, let me ask you this: Would you rather have Charlie Strong, with his ties in the recruiting and coaching circles (with the financial flexibility to bring in a pretty solid coaching staff around him) taking over your program right now, or Mike London, a successful (albeit in a short time) Division I-AA coach, that is taking over at Virginia? Would you rather have Holtz recruiting South Florida for you, or Turner Gill combing the plains of Kansas? Would you rather have Doug Marrone’s mess at Syracuse or Danny Hope’s at Purdue? Would you rather have Bill Stewart offering you comps at the breakfast buffet or…Wait never mind.
But to answer those first three questions, my answer to all would be an unequivocal yes.
Again, the Big East will never be the SEC in football, and that’s ok. The SEC will never be the Big East in basketball. That’s just life.
But for the first time in a long time, it looks like maybe, possibly, the league has caught up to everyone else.
It hasn’t happened overnight, and there’s still a lot to do. But believe me when I say this, the league hasn’t been in better shape overall since Miami and Co. were part of the action almost a decade ago.
And I’ve got to admit, it couldn’t have come any sooner. I could only hear, “How soon until basketball season starts,” so many more times.
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