Big East football a hard sell for recruits

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college sports, and right now, Big East football is hemorrhaging.

The Big East’s link to college football’s national championship through the Bowl Championship Series is unclear, and the once-powerful league is in danger of dropping to second-rate status.

Uncertainty in the Big East is a result of the conference losing its top two football programs when Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for the more lucrative ACC. Those schools officially join the ACC next season.

Pittsburgh, as an example, returned its football program to Top 25 status, but will it have a future in a viable conference? It is one of five Division I-A schools remaining in the Big East asking that question.

“This has made recruiting extra tough because everyone wants to know that they have a chance to play for a national championship,” Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris said. “In my perception, we have gotten a tremendous amount of negative publicity and negative opinions about where the Big East is going.”

The first signs of cracking in the Big East won’t come on the football field or the financial front from shrinking television deals, merchandise sales or even at the turnstiles. The conference fracture will be felt on the road.

“I would like to go to a BCS conference,” said DeMatha High School wide receiver Derrick McPhearson, who has been offered scholarships to Maryland, Virginia Tech and Ohio State as well as Big East programs Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College. “As a person who likes competition, you want to go against the best.”

McPhearson, whose father, Gerrick, played defensive back for Boston College and in the NFL with New England, plans to research the academic sides of schools as well as football programs before making a decision. But if it is a close call, he said the conference could be the deciding factor.

The BCS guarantees champions of six leagues — Big East, ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 — berths in the top four and most lucrative bowls. The other two BCS bids go to at-large teams, but since the system began in 1998 all 10 of those selections have gone to BCS conferences teams.

The Big East could expand and perhaps retain its BCS status by adding programs like Cincinnati and Louisville. However, the conference still would be at the mercy of BCS organizers with big influences from television executives.

The BCS deal and consequent TV contract expire after the 2005 season. Without its two top draws, there are concerns the Big East may lose its automatic bid. Without BCS status, it could fall to the same level with Conference USA, the Mountain West, Western Athletic Conference, Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt.

The unsettled atmosphere in the Big East has made the recruiting trail steep.

“We will still recruit the same guy,” West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. “Will more say no? Yes.”

Selling a program with an uncertain future is new to the five programs — Pitt, West Virginia, Boston College, Syracuse and Rutgers — and poses serious problems for Connecticut, which will join the Big East football conference next season.

The situation is uncomfortably familiar to outgoing league-member Temple. When the Big East was a thriving conference two years ago, it voted to boot the Owls out of the league because of weak play, poor attendance and inferior facilities. Temple is ticketed to leave after next season, and knows the realities of recruiting in ambiguity.

“People recruit in this league by offering the chance to play Miami and Virginia Tech and to be on TV,” Owls coach Bobby Wallace said. “Now they won’t have that.”

Here’s a look at three programs coping with the suddenly less impressive Big East:

Pitt rises

In the Big East, Pitt is in the most uncomfortable predicament. The ninth-ranked Panthers will become the league’s flagship program next year.

Harris raised Pitt from obscurity to national power in his seven seasons. The Panthers have attracted top high school recruits and are rapidly becoming a player in the national title chase. Pitt’s history — including the 1976 national championship led by tailback Tony Dorsett — and recent success give it the feel of a program destined for bigger things.

The Big East debacle is now the Panthers’ latest obstacle.

“It’s been real difficult recruiting,” said Harris, whose team finished with a 9-4 record last season after throttling Oregon State 38-13 in the Insight Bowl. “I know that. And you can’t miss a year recruiting. As we found out, the young freshmen play when they are top-level guys. In order for us to challenge a Miami or Virginia Tech level, you have to have a lot of outstanding football players.”

The Panthers have secured a verbal commitment for next season from two top recruits in quarterback Anthony Morelli and running back Andrew Johnson. However, both recruits are from the Pittsburgh area. The question remains, will the Panthers be a national power if the league loses its luster?

Pitt’s success is the biggest thing the Big East has going for it in its effort to stay in the BCS.

“We were always losing [top recruits] because we weren’t a good enough football team,” said Harris, whose team had a 2-9 record as recently as 1998. “Finally we have improved ourselves perception-wise to where we are an outstanding football program.”

UConn built it, will they come?

Connecticut built a new stadium while upgrading its program to Division I-A to become a full member of the Big East football conference.

The Connecticut media guide bills the Huskies as the “New Dog in the Show.” The new doghouse was unveiled this month — the $90 million Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The state-of-the-art stadium seats 40,000 and includes 38 luxury suites and 600 club seats. It was to be the final phase in the Huskies’ climb to big-time football.

The field was christened as the Huskies trounced Indiana, of the Big Ten, 34-10. Connecticut already has sold 24,000 season tickets. The Huskies upgraded from Division I-AA to I-A last season, and had a 6-6 record with a win over the Big 12’s Iowa State.

They will join the Big East as a football member next season, a season earlier than planned. The moved was hastened by the league’s upheaval.

“I’m sure there are people in other conferences that might use it against us,” said Huskies coach Randy Edsall, who sells recruits more on the school and program than on the conference. “But the truth is nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Temple, not doomed?

One program that sees a upside to the Big East downsizing is Temple. The Owls, who have not had a winning season in the past 13 years, were voted out of the league in 2001. The Philadelphia program was given a reprieve and won’t be evicted until after next season.

The Owls hope that will change based on the current predicament of the Big East. Temple knows staying in a weakened league would be better than floundering as an independent.

“In less than a year we were voted out, then the next year, we were told we could stay for three more years,” Temple coach Wallace said. “Things change so fast now you never know what’s going to happen.”

The school hopes its location — in one of the nation’s largest markets — and its home stadium — new Lincoln Financial Field — make it attractive.

“That’s really the advantage Temple has as far as the shifting of the sands in [Division] I-A,” Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw said. “That is going to be an important piece of the puzzle for someone. You’re looking at the fourth largest market with 5 million TV sets.”

In the meantime, the Owls have become creative in their lame-duck approach. They abandoned the traditional building of a long-term program and are playing as if there are two seasons left in their football lives. The Owls are a who’s who of junior-college stars.

“They can come to Temple and play in the Big East their entire career,” said Wallace, who has an unheard of 19 JUCOs in the new class. “I couldn’t do that with a high school kid. … About a year ago, we said, ‘Let’s go junior college.’ We ended up signing eight first-team All-American junior college kids.”

The early results have been typical Temple: an 0-2 record after losing to Division I-AA Villanova.

The waiting game

Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said in July the Big East would have a plan for the future in place by the end of September. That deadline was pushed back to November. The league will decide whether to split into two conferences — one with Division I-A football programs and another with basketball-oriented programs — or expand as a coalition.

The latest delay won’t help shore up concerns by recruits.

“I don’t know how the Big East is going to be,” said DeMatha guard Edwin Williams, who was offered a scholarship to Maryland. “The Big East was good a couple years ago. They’ll be good this year. After that, I don’t know. They have Miami and V-Tech. After that … really.”

Doubt will be hanging over Big East recruiters until the league comes to some kind of resolution and the BCS decides whether it is still a worthy member.

“Now the situation is to find a way to play for a BCS,” Boston College coach Tom O’Brien said. “That’s what we have to find out.”

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