by Art Stein
Football season is almost
upon us and like all other years we anxiously await the start of a new season
of Rutgers football. This will be the third year of the Greg Schiano era and
many are cautiously optimistic that this is the year that the program takes
a quantum step forward. Most of us expect victories over Buffalo, Army and Navy
but the true test of this football team will be whether it can beat Temple and
play competitively and win a few over the likes of Michigan State, West Virginia,
Boston College and Syracuse.
However, the start of this season is different than any that Rutgers has ever faced before. It is mid-July and the cacophony of articles and Internet chatter have slowed to a trickle. The University of Miami and Virginia Tech have left for the "greener pastures" of the ACC Conference. The Big East is left with seven schools, six if you don't count Temple. Most of the issues and perspectives surrounding this sordid affair have been put to pen and to rehash them all seems not only counterproductive but continues to breathe life into something that Rutgers needs to put behind it.
However, the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech challenges the future of Rutgers progress as a "big-time" football program, yet presents unique opportunities for the future. There are positives to take away from the exodus of Miami and Virginia Tech, which while not so apparent now, will become much more clearly in the years to come. While this has left the Big East in a precarious position from a BCS eligibility position, first and foremost, Miami and Virginia Tech never did fit geographically in the Big East. They now reside in the south where they always belonged in the first place. More importantly, the ethics and policies that were reflected these past few months by their leadership are also more readily compatible with some of the schools they now reside with. So, in a forward thinking sense, this is addition by subtraction. The way both schools have conducted themselves through their actions both past and present, only supports a strong feeling that Miami and Virginia Tech did not win seven of the past nine Big East championships by competing on a "level playing field." Both schools receiving sanctions imposed by the NCAA, athletes consistently being suspended or dismissed from their teams for criminal activities and low graduation rates, support this. As I sat each year watching these two teams from my tenth row seat behind the visitor's bench, I always came away with the feeling that a different type of "student athlete" occupied those benches than the other visiting Big East teams.
The answer to whether Syracuse and Boston College remains in the Big East will mostly have to do with the character and integrity of the people who run those schools. Whatever the Big East morphs into, it must start from a position of shared values, integrity and loyalty. If Boston College and Syracuse do not embrace these values, then staying will not help the Big East in the long run anyway. The whole point of what has transpired over the past few months is that, the success of the league is only as strong as its weakest link and that if we cannot build a football program, and a Big East based on those values, then the Rutgers 1000 will have proven their point.
Much of what has been written over the past few months focuses on the "revenue sharing" aspect of redefining the Big East and to that end there has been a great deal of talk about merging with Conference USA teams which would align Rutgers with schools such as Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi, Texas Christian and Alabama-Birmingham. Other scenarios talk about cherry-picking Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 of its best football and basketball programs. The obvious problems with both of these scenarios is the total lack of natural geographical rivalries, the exorbitant travel costs and repeating the same unethical behavior that the ACC did to the Big East.
But the bigger picture is the trap of the Big East focusing its top priority on expanding in order to meet the requisite number of teams to remain BCS eligible in 2006. The BCS contract expires at the end of the 2005 and there is no indication either way that the current system as it presently exists will be in place with the beginning of the 2006 football season. The events that have transpired between the ACC and the Big East may have inadvertently set off a movement that may force the NCAA to reconfigure the BCS system in 2006. One guess is that more schools would have an opportunity to compete under some sort of postseason playoff system. High schools have figured out ways to do it, why not colleges? In football, of the 117 Division 1-A teams, 63 schools reside in the six, BCS eligible conferences, leaving 54 schools or 46% without any chance of playing in a major postseason bowl game not to mention play for the national championship. The NCAA cannot have it both ways, inflicting stringent uniform standards that govern all 117 Division 1-A schools, while prohibiting almost 50% of those 117 schools from competing for the riches at the end of the rainbow.
To this end, it is important to consider loyalty, integrity, shared values and regional ties as the key tenants of any Big East expansion. Army has just left Conference USA and Navy is out there as an independent. Army has indicated a commitment to substantially upgrade its football program and Navy already fields a competitive football team. Bringing both of these programs into the Big East fold would meet all of the criteria mentioned above, but most importantly would produce terrific rivalries throughout the northeast. Temple an "existing" member of the Big East conference currently resides in the fourth largest television market in the United States. Instead of sitting back and waiting for them to meet a set of criteria set forth by the league, perhaps the time has come to be a bit proactive and have the league collectively help Temple solve its problems and secure that television market for the Big East. Temple also shares many of the values that Rutgers and the remaining Big East schools are looking to cultivate, besides it has a great basketball program. While there is no doubt that a Louisville or in particular a Penn State would significantly upgrade the Big East, if it is done at the expense of another conference or without that conferences consent, then the Big East should simply not do it. Because, maybe not today but down the road, either the system is going to have to change or there will be no need to sit here and debate whether it is better to bring in Louisville or Navy. We will be playing Holy Cross with non-scholarship players in front of 6,000 fans.
If the events of the past few months have proven anything, it is that people are sick and tired of everything being decided by the almighty dollar. When we read about corporate America and its excesses, we are disgusted, but most of us are not all that surprised. We, however, expect more from our institutions of higher education. One of the earlier articles that I read basically said, you go to school to get a good job and you get a good job to have the good life and consequently college is nothing more than a ticket to the good life. All one has to do is spend at little time on the internet boards or attend a few Rutgers games to realize that nothing could be further from the truth. Many of us consider our diploma from Rutgers University amongst our greatest accomplishments and being alumni fills us with enormous pride. I remember prior to receiving my Masters Degree and receiving an internship in Washington with the Department of Health and Human Services. There were about 40 of us around this long table and each of us had to stand up and give our name and what school we were from. I remember all the prestigious schools being named, Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, Michigan, and Yale etc. But what I really remember most was the look on people's faces when I said Rutgers. There was genuine respect and for the most part outside of the State of New Jersey, Rutgers is still considered in extremely high esteem.
The Big East has already
demonstrated a propensity to be reactionary and not visionary. It would be most
unfortunate if they made the same mistake again.