How Pitt Almost Destroyed The Big East

When the ACC announced that it was adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the fold in fall 2011, I was enraged and amused. 

I was enraged because Syracuse was on the verge of possibly destroying the Big East. Syracuse, along with UConn and Louisville, made up the core of the Big East’s national visibility. Though the football team had fallen on hard times, it still had the history of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Donovan McNabb to lean on – not to mention of the top 10-15 basketball programs in the country. I did not know if the Big East could survive the loss of the Orange, even if their claim of “owning” New York City was dubious at best. Syracuse was a brand.

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At the same time, I was amused the ACC would want Pitt. Everything Syracuse brought to the Big East was the opposite of what Pitt brought. They are a good basketball program that constantly fails to deliver in March – they look up at envy toward Marquette or Cincinnati. The Pitt football program, like Syracuse, has the ghosts of the past in Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett and a long-ago national championship. But Pitt football has never resonated like Syracuse. In short, Pitt brought nothing to the ACC and it was curious at best the ACC selected them*.

*Of course, we would learn later that UConn & Syracuse were the likely original targets before Boston College put its foot down. Florida State was also rumored to be against UConn, but based on FSU’s flirting with the Big 12; I don’t think they were happy with any of it.

My amusement at Pitt leaving the Big East resurfaced on Tuesday night when I turned on ESPNU to see if an accomplished Lehigh team – those Duke-beating Cinderella’s – was able to put a scare into Pitt. They were not. Instead, I saw Pitt up comfortably and its fans chanting “over-rated” at a Patriot League team. If that doesn’t sum up Pitt, I don’t know what does. Or is this where I insert a picture of an empty Heinz Field?

The truth is that Pitt’s incompetence throughout the past decade ultimately did far more damage to the Big East than the school actually leaving the conference. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the Big East would have been better off if Pitt was the 3rd team the ACC took during the first raid in 2003/04 instead of Boston College.

The Pitt problem started in 2004 when the Big East, in limbo after Miami and Virginia Tech left but before reinforcements for football arrived, produced a dreadful season. Pitt won the conference in 2004 and easily secured its place as the worst BCS team in the BCS era (UConn 2010, Wake Forest 2006 and Florida State 2002 are other contenders). Pitt showed up at the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s night and proceeded to get drilled by Utah in a game that was over from the moment it kicked off. Utah was coached by Urban Meyer and its QB would be the #1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. It didn’t matter – Pitt and the Big East had been put in its place by the non-BCS school. The descent of the Big East appeared to be underway without any end in sight.

For the next 3 years, the Big East did everything in its power on the football field to wipe the taste of Pitt out of everyone's mouth. West Virginia whipped Georgia in the Sugar Bowl the next year. Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers produced a 2006 season for the ages. In 2007, West Virginia and the Big East stood on the precipice of a national title appearance. Considering the opponent would have been Ohio State – it’s no stretch to think the Big East would have had a national champion in its membership come 2008.

Instead, Pitt spoiled the party again. This time, they did so by pulling one of the biggest upsets in recent college football memory. The only parallel I can think of is when Les Miles and a losing Oklahoma State team beat Oklahoma in Norman on Thanksgiving weekend in 2001 to knock OU from the national title chase. The Pitt victory was different only in that West Virginia would clinch with a win – the 2001 OU team still needed some help. The result, of course, was a whole lot of dominoes that included Rich Rodriguez bailing on West Virginia, Les Miles not bailing on LSU and the Big East losing out on a conference-changing national title contender.

In 2009, it finally appeared that Pitt was about to break through under Dave Wannstedt. The first week of December brought with it the absolute apex of Big East football. Undefeated Cincinnati led by Brian Kelly and a top 15 Pitt team in a de facto Big East championship game. Heinz Field was sold out. The game did a monster rating – proving that when the stars align, the Northeast corridor can care about college football. Throw in some snow and we were witnessing the future of Big East football.

There was only one small problem – the wrong team won. Cincinnati was always going to be a stepping stone job for Brian Kelly, though the program remains strong under Butch Jones. Cincinnati lacks the history of Pitt. The Big East needed Pitt to win. The Big East needed another football power – remember, this is a period during which West Virginia is weakened and Louisville has fallen completely off the map.

Imagine if Dave Wannstedt and Pitt pull off that victory. Does the NFL talent pipeline recruited to Pitt continue? Does the Big East revel in more relevance with a big-market team to hang its hat on? Does Notre Dame still go after Brian Kelly? Does Pitt not lose by a million to Tebow and a ticked-off Florida team in the Sugar Bowl?* Do the ratings carry over to 2010 and produce a better ESPN TV offer? Does the ESPN smear campaign of the Big East never happen?

*Okay, so I’m pretty sure that Florida team would have drilled anyone that night.

Instead, Pitt falls apart in 2010 and I believe they have gone through 6 coaches since, including Todd Graham’s one year, Mike Haywood’s one month and multiple dreadful bowl trips to Birmingham.

There are a lot of reasons the Big East has fallen from one of the power six conferences to the derided “Group of Five” term that I’m sure John Swofford and the ACC love trotting out there. But one huge reason is that Pitt never produced on the field. As a flag bearer of Big East football, Pitt failed almost every time it had the opportunity to succeed. The fact its biggest victory doubles as the Big East’s worst loss is comical.

This week, the Big East announced new football divisions along with the news that the top “Group of Five” champion would be granted an automatic berth in the new BCS. It essentially ended the conference realignment game – I think – as the near future of college football is likely secured. The Big East football teams will still be playing for a major bowl berth and a spot in the 4-team playoff, roughly the same status as if there were 6 power conferences instead of 5.

It will take time for the Big East to regain respect in football, though there’s a certain Blue Turf team in Boise that should help expedite that process. The money for Big East football from TV won’t match the ACC’s but, depending on the final number, the difference may not be that great.

In the end, Big East basketball will still be one of the top conferences – a conference that can trot out Louisville, Georgetown, UConn, Memphis & Temple every year will be fine. The football side of things is looking up and there is no doubt that an undefeated Big East champion in 2014 will be rewarded with a playoff berth.

The Big East will miss Syracuse. The Big East will not miss Pitt.

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