Spring look around the Big East
As spring practices start, our Big East notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
This week's Big East spring notebook takes a look at the coaching situations at each school in the conference.
Third-year coach Mark Dantonio has a five-year contract that runs through the 2008 season. He probably has the most challenging job in the conference, too, given the relative lack of interest in college football in Cincinnati. The Bearcats easily had the Big East's lowest average attendance, drawing 22,423 fans per game to Nippert Stadium (capacity: 35,000). Dantonio is well aware that the only potential cure is winning. He had one of the younger teams in the country last season and still won a couple of conference games in the Bearcats' first year in the Big East. Cincinnati should be better this season, though this appears to be a long-term project.
Eighth-year coach Randy Edsall presided over a smooth transition from Division I-AA to I-A in his second season and another big move in 2004 when UConn joined the Big East a year earlier than expected. In September 2004, he was rewarded with a six-year deal reportedly worth $5.3 million. Though UConn is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season, Edsall should be commended for his work, considering all that has been accomplished under his watch. Football has become a hot ticket on UConn's campus. The key this season could be which quarterback Edsall chooses. Among the numerous candidates is standout redshirt freshman Billy Cundiff.
Fourth-year coach Bobby Petrino signed a six-year, $6 million contract after the 2004 season. It reportedly includes a $100,000 bonus if the Cardinals win a national championship. Petrino has been linked to every job but president of the United States since he set foot on campus, but he has yet to bite. The latest offer was worth $18 million over five years from the Oakland Raiders. Petrino, regarded as one of the top offensive minds in the country, turned down Al Davis for the third time. The Cardinals have both of the Big East teams that beat them last year -- West Virginia and South Florida -- on their home turf this season, so nothing less than a conference title will do.
Second-year coach Dave Wannstedt will have an incredibly young team that likely is a year away from contending in the Big East. Wannstedt has a long-term contract and the administration's backing on his rebuilding job. Some look at the fact that previous coach Walt Harris took the team to the Fiesta Bowl in 2004 and wonder why there is so much patience for Wannstedt. It's a good question, but it's also true that Harris' final team finished in a four-way tie for the conference title in a watered-down, seven-team Big East, barely beat Temple and Division I-AA Furman and lost to Connecticut and Syracuse. Athletic director Jeff Long braced for a drop-off last season -- though likely not a loss at Ohio -- and isn't expecting a quick fix.
Sixth-year coach Greg Schiano signed a new seven-year contract on Dec. 22, just six days before Rutgers played in a bowl game for the first time in 27 years. Schiano, who doubles as defensive coordinator, will make $250,000 in base salary this season and will make $625,000 in guaranteed income from private sources, according to the school's Web site. His next mission is to make the Scarlet Knights a legitimate challenger for the Big East title, but that might be asking a bit much this season. It's up to Schiano to shore up a defense that gave up 190 points in its final four games of 2005.
Jim Leavitt, who built USF's football program from the ground up in 1995, was signed to a seven-year, $7 million contract in November. He turned down a more lucrative offer from Kansas State -- an offer that inspired USF's administration to make a big-time commitment to Leavitt and his staff. Leavitt put the Bulls on the Big East map last season when his team crushed conference favorite Louisville 45-14 on Sept. 24. His first major task this season is to choose a quarterback -- Pat Julmiste or Carlton Hill -- and improve an offense that scored just 23 points over its final three games. It won't be easy without superb tailback Andre Hall.
Second-year coach Greg Robinson finds himself in a similar -- though more daunting -- situation as Wannstedt. Syracuse is coming off a humiliating 1-10 season, the first 10-loss season in school history. Like Wannstedt, Robinson appears to have the backing of his administration. He was handpicked by the school's new athletic director, Dr. Daryl J. Gross, who knew the program was in bad shape and spoke of a "long-term commitment" the day Robinson was hired. Still, the mood within a loyal fan base could get ugly fast if there isn't dramatic improvement on offense. Robinson, who made his name as a defensive coach, was forced to overhaul his offensive staff when his coordinator and quarterbacks coach bolted. That might have been a blessing.
Sixth-year coach Rich Rodriguez signed a new seven-year deal after the 2002 season but has become much hotter property since then. Coaches from far and wide visit Morgantown to learn the nuances of Rodriguez's no-huddle, spread offense. Rodriguez, the Big East Coach of the Year in 2005, has long held a fascination with the pro game and surely could have his pick of colleges, but has stayed committed to trying to win a national championship at his alma mater. He grew up in Grant Town, W.Va., only a half-hour from the WVU campus. He enters this season with lofty expectations, something the Mountaineers failed to live up to in 2004.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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