By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) _ The Big East is a conference in which struggling programs can get well quickly, big turnarounds are common and every team can legitimately start the season figuring it has a shot to contend for a BCS bid.
The league’s members tout its competitiveness constantly. Five of the eight Big East teams have won a football championship since the league re-configured in 2005 –a fact brought up several times by Commissioner John Marinatto and his coaches during the conference’s media day.
“I doubt if there is anybody in this league that starts out with the idea that we’re just trying to get to a bowl game,”
Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson said. It makes for a nice talking point, but balance can be both a blessing and a curse.
With no perennial national heavyweight to fight through since Miami and Virginia Tech departed, good isn’t quite good enough anymore in the Big East.
Just ask Bill Stewart and Dave Wannstedt– if you can find them.
Neither was at the Viking Hotel in Newport on Tuesday, both having been replaced even though their teams had compiled winning records and multiple bowl appearances during their tenures with West Virginia and Pittsburgh, respectively.
Now Dana Holgorsen is running the Mountaineers and Todd Graham is in charge of the Panthers and neither is getting a grace period. In the Big East preseason poll, West Virginia was picked first and Pitt was second.
“The expectations are what they are,” Graham said “At the University of Pittsburgh, they’re about winning championships. Anything less than that is not going to be acceptable.
“You walk in our building and it says nine-time national champion, it says expect 10.”
For the record, the last time Pitt won a national championship was 1976 and the rest of those came between 1915-37.
But when Cincinnati reaches consecutive Bowl Championship Series games as it did in 2008 and `09 under Brian Kelly, it’s easy to see why athletic directors in the Big East lose patience with coaches who can’t seem to get their teams past the second-tier bowl games.
And with TCU set to enter the league in 2012, the competition is about to get tougher.
“I think we’re realistic in term of our expectations and we have historically given people time to establish their programs but if you look at the league everybody here wants to win,” Pederson said.
Pederson took a circuitous route to end up with Graham as his football coach.
He first hired Mike Haywood away from Miami, Ohio, but Haywood was fired after he was charged with domestic assault in South Bend, Ind. Prosecutors in St. Joseph’s County agreed in February to not take the case to trial and for the charges to be dismissed in a year if Haywood meets conditions set in place by the court.
After Haywood was let go, Pederson lured Graham away from Tulsa, where he had three seasons with double-digit victories in four years. Graham brings with him an up-tempo style of offense that has become all the rage in college football. In his first two seasons at Tulsa, Gus Malzahn was Graham’s offensive coordinator.
Malzahn left for Auburn, but Tulsa remained one of the most productive offenses in the country using the no-huddle that Pitt fans will see quarterback Tino Sunseri direct this season.
West Virginia AD Oliver Luck took a similar approach when he decided his program needed a jolt, bringing in a coach with an impressive offensive resume. And, just like Pitt, West Virginia’s coaching change was far from smooth.
Initially, Holgorsen was hired away from Oklahoma State to be West Virginia’s offensive coordinator and coach in-waiting behind Stewart.
But it was obvious from the start that arrangement was awkward. Eventually, Stewart was ousted with three 9-4 seasons to his credit.
Holgorsen, who learned his spread offense coaching under former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, understands that there will be no honeymoon for him in Morgantown, W.Va.
“Myself and my staff understand that,” Holgorsen said. “We’re working as hard as we possibly can. I can’t have a little staff meeting with them a say, `Hey guys, we got to work a little harder now’ because we’re already doing everything that I feel like we can to be winning that first game.”
After West Virginia and Pitt, South Florida was picked third in the media poll followed by Syracuse, which was last season’s big turnaround team in the Big East, reaching a bowl for the first time since 2004. Cincinnati, which slipped to 4-8 last season, was picked fifth.
Defending Big East champion Connecticut was pegged for sixth, followed by Louisville and Rutgers, which tumbled back to the bottom of the Big East last year after an unprecedented run of five straight bowl appearances under Greg Schiano, by far the longest tenured coach in the league at 11 seasons.
Paul Pasqualoni is back in the Big East, taking over UConn to replace Randy Edsall, who left for Maryland. Pasqualoni was coach at Syracuse for the first 14 seasons of Big East football and remembers the days when the rest of the league was chasing Miami.
“This league today is a very different league,” he said. Whether it’s changed for the better probably depends on who you ask.