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Published:January 12th, 2007 05:09 EST
Big East Kicks Back And Relaxes After Huge Year

Big East Kicks Back And Relaxes After Huge Year

By Brad Davis

Anyone who said Big East football was doomed for the next several years was probably scratching their heads and looking to the person next to them in astonishment when the conference finished with a perfect 5-0 bowl record.

South Florida handled East Carolina 24-7 to win the PapaJohns.com bowl, Rutgers dominated Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, West Virginia rallied back from an 18-point deficit to beat Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl, Louisville outplayed Wake Forest to win the Orange Bowl and Cincinnati held on against Western Michigan to win the International Bowl.

Written off by many as left for dead in the world of big time college football after the departure of Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and Boston College, the Big East silenced critics in 2006 with one of the best years in its history.

It posted a 32-8 non-conference record, chalked up an undefeated bowl season and won a second straight BCS bowl. Three teams, West Virginia (#10), Louisville (#6) and Rutgers (#12), finished the season inside the Associated Press Top 15 and were in the top 10 at some point during the year. There is also a strong possibility all three could open 2007 inside the top 10.

“I just think that if we were to have said this would happen at the beginning of the year, I don’t think people would’ve believed us,” said Big East Commissioner Michael Tranghese of this year’s success. “It’s given us a real shot in the arm.”

The Big East also received tremendous national exposure when it took over ESPN’s Thursday night slot and produced three of college football’s greatest games this year. West Virginia at Louisville and Louisville at Rutgers the following week generated the two biggest viewer draws ever for Thursday night games.

When #13 Rutgers traveled to freezing cold Morgantown to take on the #15 Mountaineers with a shot at the Big East championship and a BCS game, the result was a triple overtime, Saturday night thriller that WVU ended up winning.

“It’s really captivated the interest of not only our fans, but national fans,” Tranghese said. For all the criticism the Big East took over the course of the 2006 season, it certainly proved itself to be a legitimate BCS conference. Most expected West Virginia and Louisville to contend for the conference title and possibly a national championship, but nobody thought Rutgers and South Florida would have the years they did.

Rutgers went 11-2, and their win in the Texas Bowl was the first bowl win in school history. South Florida upset West Virginia in Morgantown and finished 9-4 in just its second year in the Big East.

Not only has the success given the Big East more respect heading into next year, it’s made its coaches the most sought after when vacancies pop up.

Michigan State hired Cincinnati's Mark Dantonio in November, and Alabama almost pried away West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez with $2 million a year until he turned the Crimson Tide down. Rutgers’ Greg Schiano was approached by Miami and insisted he was not interested. South Florida’s Jim Leavitt was sought after by a handful of schools, but said he loves South Florida and wants to retire from it. Louisville’s Bobby Petrino initially said he was not going anywhere, but when the Atlanta Falcons waved $4.8 million a year in his face, he signed their five-year offer.

This does not worry the commissioner very much, and he is not surprised that other schools or organizations have to spend large amounts of money to get Big East people. “People should want our coaches, but if they want them, they are going to have to pay a hefty, hefty price for them,” Tranghese said. “I think our schools are doing the things that are necessary to make our positions more attractive.”