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What If? Five Big East historical counterfactuals

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If there's one thing this site is all about, even moreso than Rutgers athletics, it's historical revisionism. Rutgers started playing football in 1869, not 2005, and anyone who takes the latter is only doing themselves a disservice. If it takes inventing a time machine to make sure that Sportade crushes the Florida-produced knockoff Gatorade, so be it. Rutgers fans have the time and patience, and are determined to this through. That being said, it's once again time to rip off an idea from Marvel Comics, flagellate, and lament the lost opportunities of time gone by.

With the future of the Big East once again in flux, this is as an opportune time as any to take a few moments and consider five scenarios that irrevocably altered the course of Big East history. Crucial decisions were made at all of these junctions; ones that had, for better or worse, lasting effects. If Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't catch that train in Sliding Doors, do a generation of pop culture columnists still reference that movie instead of any number of alt-history literary tales?

The end results if circumstances had gone differently remain firmly in the realm of speculation. Although it sure is fun to try your hand at that, after examining the relevant historical context. In any case, please humor these five junctures that strike me as particularly interesting and worthy of revisiting.

What if - the Big East had assembled a dream membership roster from the start?

According to former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel, there were two major events that altered the course of the fledging Big East. Owing to a desire to stay more-closely aligned with Penn State (and Joe Paterno's plans for an all-sports Eastern Conference), Rutgers turned down an invitation to be a founding member of the Big East conference.

The appeal of Rutgers basketball was obvious, given the program's success under Bill Foster and Tom Young during the 60's and 70's. In their stead, the conference then turned to invite Seton Hall. As a result, an increasingly frustrated Tom Young eventually bolted for Old Dominion, and Craig Littlepage was handed the keys to drive the basketball program off a cliff. Rutgers wouldn't end up joining the Big East until 1996, while Seton Hall had a seat at the table of the single best conference decade of college basketball ever.

Not extending membership to Penn State continues to haunt the Big East to this day as well. As the day of the Eastern Independent came to a close, Penn State cast their lot with the Big Ten, forever denying the Big East its natural tentpole football program.

What if - Rutgers had hired different football coaches instead of Greg Schiano and Terry Shea?

The top candidate to replace Doug Graber as coach in 1995 was Kansas's Glen Mason (a New Jersey native). The unconfirmed urban legend was that Mason was insulted by having to interview for the job at a diner, although I'm not sure if anyone has ever confirmed that. It may have just been he liked the Georgia job better, as Mason infamously left for Athens before returning to Kansas five days later. He left KU a year later for Minnesota, and was seemingly always pining for the Ohio State job before getting the axe there.

Former BC coach Jack Bicknell and Frank Burns assistant/perennial Rutgers candidate Ted Cottrell both wanted the job, but university president Francis Lawrence and athletic director Fred Gruninger went with Terry Shea on the personal recommendation of Bill Walsh, who promised to speak at a football clinic if Shea was hired.

Greg Schiano only took the Rutgers job upon receiving promises of facility upgrades and upgraded academic support, preconditions that may not have been possible without the program bottoming out under Shea. While any of the candidates would have been better, what's really at stake is the program's long-term viability. Mason may have been somewhat successful, but who's to say he doesn't leave for another job down the line? If he leaves the program in better shape than when he found it, then perhaps Rutgers hires another good candidate. It wouldn't have been Schiano though, who likely takes over for a departing Butch Davis as Miami head coach in this scenario.

in 2000, Western Michigan coach Gary Darnell was reportedly at the top of A.D. Bob Mulcahy's list. Fortunately, Darnell was eying higher-profile opportunities at Virginia Tech (where Frank Beamer was flirted with UNC at the time) and Alabama, and turned Rutgers down. Mulcahy was forced to heed the will of New Jersey high school coaches promoting Schiano or Syracuse assistant George DeLeone, and Darnell soon flamed out as a flash in the pan. While Mulcahy's basketball coaching list months later looked pretty good, this was not his finest hour.

It's hard to say how the mid-90's would have went with a better coach, or how Rutgers would have fared hiring, say, Mark Whipple instead of Schiano. Darnell clearly would have been an unmitigated disaster though. His candidacy was solely a creation of a small sample size. Yes, Doug Graber was able to recruit New Jersey as a Michigan native, but after Shea local high school coaches were in open revolt, and it's highly unlikely they would have willingly sent any player to Rutgers. It would have been the death knell for the concept that Rutgers football could ever be viable, and to this day it's remarkable how closely RU came to total disaster.

What if - Pittsburgh doesn't blow it against Penn State in the last game of the 1981 season?

This may have been the most pivotal moment in Pitt athletic history. Flash back to 1981 for a moment. The Panthers were an undisputed national power under Jackie Sherill, sporting household names like Dan Marino, Rickey Jackson, and Hugh Green. Honestly, this may be the single worst loss in college football history, when you take into account the importance of the Pitt-PSU rivalry, the gut-wrenching circumstances of the defeat, and the last repercussions that still carry over to this very day.

Pitt raced to a 14-0 lead, and once again marched down the field, poised to make that margin insurmountable. It apparently wasn't meant to be, as, well, here's what SI had to say about the infamous sequence that was about to happen.

In the first quarter of the bitter intrastate rivalry, Pitt seemed intent on adding to that burden. On the Panthers' first two possessions, Marino got two touchdowns, both on passes to Flanker Dwight Collins. "I wasn't that panicked," said Paterno, who had every right to be just that at the end of the first quarter with Pitt leading 14-0 and having gained 164 yards to Penn State's minus four. "But I did know that you can't run three plays, turn the ball over to them at midfield and expect to be in it very long." Still, the very scenario Paterno described seemed destined to be played out when, on the Panthers' third possession—after three more plays and a punt by Penn State—Marino marched his troops to the Nittany Lions' 31. But he then threw a looping pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Penn State's Roger Jackson.

Penn State tied up the score 14-14 going into halftime, and what proceeded to happen can only be described as perhaps the most soul-crushing defeat in college football history. Pitt had gone into the game ranked #1 in the country, by far the most talented team, and was already circling a Sugar Bowl matchup with Georgia for the National Championship. They clearly didn't count on looking past Penn State on their home field. This wasn't just a loss, it was a 48-14 shot to the solar plexus filled with penalties and Marino interceptions that permanently altered the course of history.

Pitt fans still talk about that game to this day in hushed tones akin to the fall of Masada and the salting of Carthage, and honestly, those descriptions aren't too far off the mark. Let's quickly assess the damage. Sherrill and his unmarked suitcases full of cash left after the season for his old stomping grounds in the Southwest Conference. The Pitt program began a slow, precipitous decline throughout the next two decades; symbolically demolishing the old Pitt Stadium in 1999 to build a basketball arena on its footprint, and not reaching double digit victories again 2009. This game firmly established Penn State's suzerainty over Eastern Football, permanently squelching the insurgent Pitt as a viable threat.

What if - Bobby Bowden stays at West Virginia?

Rutgers fans usually have a cordial relationship with their counterparts who support West Virginia. Ask anyone who roots for say, Virginia Tech, Michigan, or Pitt though, and to say the least the Mountaineer faithful come off as rabid. You could even see they take pride in that status. Their fervency and enthusiasm with any program across the country, which is reflected by their strong traveling contingent at any bowl game.

Bobby Bowden's last few years at Florida State didn't have many pleasant moments. For nearly three decades though, especially a remarkable run of double digit win seasons from 1987-2000 cemented his legacy as one of the most successful college football coaches ever. His first major program job was at West Virginia in 1970. As successful as Bowden has been, can you believe that his likeness was actually hanged in effigy, owing to a less-than-stellar 4-7 record in 1974?

Bowden reacted about how you probably would have expected.

"What I did in ’74 was I saw how quick people will turn on you. I saw how quickly my friends would turn on you. How quickly people who used to invite me to their parties quit inviting me," he said. "I remember saying to Ann, 'If you and I ever get a chance to leave here, and not that we are, but we have every right in the world to because people are fickle and this is a fickle profession.’"

As the article notes, Bowden may have been looking to pack his bags anyway, and using his (entirely justified) indignation as retroactive justification. Following a rebound to 9-3 in 1975, Bowden departed to Florida State the following year and hasn't looked back since.

Things didn't up working out too badly for West Virginia. Frank Cignetti bombed as Bowden's successor, but they struck gold with his replacement in Michigan assistant Don Nehlen. Nehlen was the winningest coach in program history, who rode Major Harris to a 1988 National Championship loss against Notre Dame. They didn't suffer too badly in absence of Bobby Bowden, but his brief tenure in Morgantown remains one of the more interesting bits of trivia and speculation-fodder out there.

What if - Paul Pasqualoni had ever found a good replacement for Donovan McNabb at Syracuse?

It was not a mistake for Syracuse A.D. Daryl Gross to fire Paul Pasqualoni in 2004.

Of course, his replacement Greg Robinson ranks right up there with Terry Shea among the single worst coaches in FBS history. Every living second of the Robinson years had Syracuse fans yearning for the heydays of yore, when Pasqualoni or Dick MacPherson roamed the sidelines, and they actually had a chance to be a half-decent football squad. As terrible as GRob was though, his utter incompetency at every conceivable level doesn't mean that Coach P didn't necessarily deserve better. While Pasqualoni had enviable success during his first decade at Syracuse, his total accumulated record in the post McNabb years was 38-33. The rust was clearly starting to show, and a change was needed.

It's worth asking what exactly precipitated Pasqualoni's fall from grace. Syracuse fans lament Michael Vick spurning the opportunity to follow Donovan McNabb. That story has remained steeped in debate throughout the years, with various sources citing the loss of Syracuse assistrant Kevin Rogers, Vick preferring VT's offense and wanting to stay close to home, or just plain wanting to show up UVA. Regardless, the Orange/men offense sputtered over the course of the next decade with the likes of R.J. Anderson, Troy Nunes, and Perry Patterson at the helm.

Instead of Vick, or heck, Joe Dailey, Pasqualoni was forced to make due with Madei WilliamsAnderson, Nunes, Chad Elliot, and the vaunted dynamic duo of Xzavier Gaines and Cecil Howard. Actually, Howard is an interesting case, ranked alongside Joe Mauer and Matt Leinart as among the best quarterback prospects back in 2001. While he wasn't Vick, Howard represented the best hope for Pasqualoni's chances to right the ship and get Syracuse back on track. A despondent Howard instead transferred after his freshman season to Youngstown State, where he lasted all of six days before leaving campus and sampling three other schools, eventually landing at Northeastern.

Without a top quarterback, Pasqualoni and the Orangemen failed to build on their resurgent 2001 campaign (a.k.a., the "Dwight Freeney is killing everyone" year). The program continued its slow decline and fell into disrepair, culminating in a bad 2004 loss to Temple (the Walter Washington game) that cost them the Big East title.

While they rebounded with a Diamond Ferri-led drubbing two weeks later (fortunately denying the departing Boston College a BCS bid as a parting gift out the door to the ACC), a bowl drubbing against Georgia Tech ultimately ended up sealing Coach P's fate. Ray Rice then decommitted after the firing to join his high school teammates Courtney Greene and Glenroy Lee at Rutgers, and the rest is history.

The final irony was that the afore-mentioned Washington could have been the very answer to Syracuse's perennial woes under center. According to a Nov 9, 2003 article in the Post-Standard ("TEMPLE QB LIKES MCNABB; SYRACUSE COACHES AT ONE POINT SHOWED INTEREST IN WALTER WASHINGTON."), the Cuse staff vigorously pursued Washington, who grew up idolizing McNabb, before having to back away because of academics.

The sophomore said SU coaches lost track of him after he went to Dodge City. He said it probably wouldn't have mattered if they had stayed on his trail.

"I thought about it (going to SU) a little bit," Washington said. "Honestly, I don't care too much for the offense (at SU). The offense is not up my alley. I played the kind of offense (in high school) they run, but I really don't like their offense. I like more of a spread offense."

It's now over five years later, and Syracuse University football is still trying to pick up the pieces.