NEWPORT, R.I. — At the end of the Big East’s summer kickoff Tuesday, a blue curtain, the size of a goal post, came crashing down just as Commissioner John Marinatto was finishing an interview with two news reporters.
As those nearby lunged to keep the contraption from falling, one wag cracked, “Was Jim Delany behind this?” a reference to the Big Ten commissioner.
After a summer of much speculation about conference expansion, the Big East is still standing. No “Curtains for you!” after all.
In his opening remarks, Marinatto said he asked his coaches to refrain from commenting on whether any schools would be coming or going anytime soon. “The Big East is stronger today than in any point in our history,” Marinatto said as the league enters its 20th football season.
At media day at the historic Hotel Viking, Marinatto hoped all the talk of pillaging and plundering would be put on pause as he rattled off the league’s accomplishments. (The past four years, the Big East has won 72.2% of its non-league games, trailing only the Southeastern Conference. League teams have also won 73% of their bowl games.)
This could be one of the more competitive seasons in league play. “The conference is truly up for grabs,” says Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, whose Panthers were picked to win the league in the preseason media poll. He says five of the Big East’s eight teams could contend for the league title, given all the inexperience at quarterback. Only three starting QBs are back.
“It’s a little odd,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano says. The Scarlet Knights have the league’s most veteran QB, sophomore Tom Savage, with 11 career starts.
“Having an experienced quarterback takes one big burden off your program,” Schiano says.
New coaches on the block
The challenge ahead for the Big East’s three new head coaches is as varied as their preseason expectations.
At South Florida, charismatic Skip Holtz hopes to heal a program after its architect, South Florida, was fired for allegedly striking a player. At Louisville, former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong hopes to restore a program that went from the top of the league to the bottom in just three seasons under Steve Kragthorpe. At Cincinnati, Butch Jones hopes to keep the Bearcats at the top after Brian Kelly, who won consecutive Big East titles, bolted for Notre Dame.
Practice begins Wednesday for the Bulls, projected to finish sixth, with plenty of team-building activities planned when the team heads to Vero Beach, Fla., to train. “They’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Holtz says. “There needed to be some healing when we first got there. We tried to keep it loose.”
South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels says he’s heard a scary rumor that there would be no cellphones, computers or TVs at camp. “Completely isolated from the world,” Daniels says. Even though Daniels experiences withdrawal symptoms when his phone battery dies and he doesn’t have his charger, he’s embracing it. “It will be a fun experience,” he says.
Strong was part of two national titles at Florida and is accustomed to beginning each season with national title expectations. At Louisville, he starts the season ranked last in the league. “I’ve been picked first a lot. I’ve never been picked last,” Strong says with a laugh. “It just shows us we have a lot of work ahead of us. You can take that and use it as a motivating factor.”
“Some of these guys were here four years ago when they went to the Orange Bowl then all of a sudden to drop. It happened so fast,” says Strong, who hopes to restore the team’s belief in itself.
At Cincinnati, the Bearcats hope history repeats itself. Kelly came following a successful stint at Central Michigan, and Jones follows after consecutive Mid-American Conference titles at the same school. The Bearcats are picked second, tied with West Virginia. “A lot of