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Pirate Notebook No. 392
Monday, Aug. 10, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Intriguing clash awaits in Morgantown

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Whether or not new Big East Commissioner John Marinatto and league athletics directors want to admit it, their conference has reached a dangerous competitive crossroads.

While other automatic qualifier leagues are inking blockbuster television deals and adding to already-impressive bowl portfolios, the Big East is witnessing its national relevance slip. Much of that can be attributed to the reality that much of the star power that carried the Big East post-expansion is gone.

Former Big East coaches Bobby Petrino and Rich Rodriguez packaged innovative offensive philosophies with bad-boy personas to generate bona fide stardom among the coaching ranks. Their departure for better gigs drove a rusty nail deep into the heart of the league’s national profile.

Brian Brohm, Pat White, Steve Slaton, and LaShawn McCoy provided the conference with legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz. With them now earning paychecks, the talent pool admittedly seems somewhat dry.

What is left — at least on the surface — is an eight-team league with an abundance of parity and a severe shortage of national contenders. It’s a significant drop from the peak of the new-look Big East — West Virginia’s convincing 48-28 victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.

That was a time when a showdown with the Big XII’s best marked a measuring stick match-up for the Big East. Now a date with the defending Conference USA champ represents a more accurate barometer for gauging where the league stands in the national pecking order.

And that generates a must-win scenario — for both West Virginia and the Big East — when East Carolina visits Morgantown September 12.

You’ll have a hard time convincing many that the Big East hasn’t already slipped behind the Mountain West Conference, especially at the top. If ECU were to make it two straight over the Mountaineers — and notch its first ever win in Morgantown in the process — C-USA could make its own case for at least being a competitive equal.

Even more compelling about this early-season match-up is how much East Carolina might benefit from a showdown with WVU. If the Big East is seriously considering adding a ninth football member (which is three too few if you ask me), then a win over the Mountaineers would make a significant national statement that last season’s victory in Greenville wasn’t orchestrated with smoke and mirrors.

Though winning isn’t the only qualification that a conference pursues when reviewing expansion candidates, it certainly weighs heavily in the process. It’s also the only one over which ECU has any control in Milan Puskar Stadium next month.

And it would send a sobering message to Big East officials, so sobering that it couldn’t be tempered by a bottle of West Virginia ‘shine.

Truthfully, it shouldn’t take another ECU victory over the league’s flagship football school to air-mail a message to the Big East office. By now it should be clear just how much the league is missing with its undersized football membership.

Sure, Big East officials can proudly proclaim that by including only eight schools there are fewer members to divide the wealth. There is no arguing with that.

But there also is no arguing with the fact that a conference with only eight members has limitations to its financial growth.

For starters, it eliminates the possibility of staging a lucrative conference championship game. While those aren’t unanimously favored by head coaches, administrators view them as opportunities for additional television and sponsorship money.

And in case you haven’t noticed, the smaller geographic footprint is growing increasingly unpopular to television executives seeking to stretch their coverage to as many homes and zip codes as possible. Not to be forgotten are the bowl executives who will confess unapologetically to desiring a bigger selection pool.

That marks three big strikes against the Big East.

East Carolina could deliver a fourth with a win over West Virginia in Morgantown. That would mark a significant step forward for ECU, while doing considerable damage to the Big East’s reputation.

It also might force Big East officials to realize that the solution to their current plight isn’t the status quo.

E-mail Denny O'Brien.

Denny O'Brien's Archives

08/10/2009 02:08:53 AM

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