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How Big East Conference Realignment Shaped Rutgers’ Present

Boston College, this week’s opponent, had a lot to do with the changes that occurred.

Boston College V Rutgers

Rutgers plays Boston College this coming Saturday, and if you’re of a certain age, you’re looking to this matchup with perhaps a bit more than the typical vitriol leading into a non-conference game with a Power Five football team.

I’m in my mid-thirties, which means I was an undergraduate at Rutgers when it all went down. Specifically, between 2003 and 2005, the Big East conference (which Rutgers, of course, belonged to at the time) underwent a substantial realignment, with Boston College (along with Miami and Virginia Tech) leaving the conference for the ACC, being replaced on a football basis by Cincinnati, Louisville, and the University of South Florida. This is how the Big East Conference stood until the more recent defections of Syracuse, West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers in the early part of this decade, splintering what remained of the conference into the AAC and the “new”, basketball-only Big East.

For more recent fans of Rutgers football (which I’ll define as fans who got into the team when or after they defied all expectations in their remarkable 2006 season), the past history between these schools is unknown and perhaps unremarkable. But it’s actually pretty interesting. Here’s a brief primer as to what went down, what it meant for Rutgers then, and what it means for Rutgers now.

What Went Down

According to this Boston Globe article from 2005, the Atlantic Coast Conference had been trying to raid the Big East Conference of several of its teams, including Boston College, as early as 2000. Their reasoning was likely built on the BCS-era rules of the time, which required a conference to have 12 football schools in order to stage a conference championship game. (The ACC had nine teams until they pilfered Miami, VA Tech, and BC from the Big East.)

Miami and Virginia Tech had their reasons to leave, which I won’t get into here. But unlike Virginia Tech and Miami, Boston College’s leadership was at the time saying one thing to the Big East about sticking around as a conference member, while accepting overtures from the ACC at the same time. As the Boston Globe article states:

At a Big East meeting in Newark Oct. 1 [2003], conference presidents asked BC president Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., about the Eagles’ intentions. Leahy squirmed, but conceded that the Eagles might indeed be leaving the conference. It was suggested that BC might have remained if the Big East had finally made the split with its basketball-only schools and reconfigured as an eight- or nine-team league.

’’If they had said we will stay if you do that, we would have approved it,” said a former administrator from a Big East school. ‘’But they never asked.”

A little more than two weeks later, the ACC voted, 9-0, to add BC as its 12th member for 2005.

’’If Boston College had left the first time, we would have been angry and hurt, but we would have understood,” said a former administrator from a Big East school. ‘’What irritates a lot of us is that they came back into the room and were making plans for the future in our league at the same time they were continuing talks with the ACC.”

Things got litigious after that, with then-Connecticut attorney general (later Democratic senator) Richard Blumenthal leading two lawsuits filed by the remaining Big East football schools – including Rutgers – one against the ACC, as well as one against BC more specifically.

From this article on BC Interruption:

“The lawsuit against the ACC was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, while BC was eventually exonerated by a declaratory judgment from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Even though the lawsuits were dismissed in court, a secret out-of-court settlement was later reached. It was disclosed that each remaining Big East school received $1 million, after the Hartford Courantfiled a Freedom of Information request to obtain the settlement documents. The $1 million figure hardly covered the plaintiff’s collective expenses incurred from over two years of litigation.”

Given the extent to which animosity existed between the two programs at the time, it is pretty remarkable they are playing each other out-of-conference as soon as 2019.

What it meant for Rutgers then

From a football perspective, starting in the fall of 2005, conference games against BC, Miami, and Virginia Tech were replaced with games against Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida. Fans of Rutgers football know the specific details of how the new arrangement went, and the results were for a while quite positive. Of course we beat Louisville, then ranked #3 in the country, in the classic November 2006 “Pandemonium in Piscataway” game, but followed it up immediately thereafter with a clunker of a loss at Cincinnati. The following year, South Florida was ranked #2 in the nation on October 18, when the Bulls visited Rutgers -- and we beat them in that game, 30-27. Two victories against AP Top-5 opponents in 11 months? Not too shabby.

One could argue, in retrospect, that neither the 2006 Louisville team deserved to be #3 in the nation, nor the 2007 South Florida team deserved to be #2 in the nation, at the times when Rutgers beat either team. Having watched Rutgers’ opponents change over the last decade from who we played in the 2005-2012 version of the Big East to the Big Ten teams we’ve played from 2014 on, it’s clear to me that Big Ten competition is on a different level, from both a pure athleticism and a size perspective.

But those were the rankings at the time, and those wins count – they are in the history books. Rutgers ultimately leveraged the 2005-2012 version of the Big East into multiple bowl-eligible seasons, lots of bowl victories, and the golden ticket, an invitation into the Big Ten Conference.

What it means for Rutgers now

In this week’s press conference leading up to the Boston College game, HC Chris Ash was asked whether Saturday’s matchup was a game he felt they needed to win to keep BC at bay. Ash’s reply:

“No. Our focus is on our improvement, that’s it. … I’ve said since we started, every game’s a big game for us and our focus is just on our process of trying to improve every single day. Every team we play pretty much recruits in the State of New Jersey. Boston College because of proximity, recruits here a little bit more because it’s so close. But every game is a big game.”

But in the minds of many old-school Rutgers fan, this game is bigger than most, for the reasons mentioned above. According to Vegas odds, Rutgers is about a one touchdown underdog in this game. One touchdown underdogs win outright about 25 percent of the time, historically. We could legitimately win this one.

And it’s not like BC’s been a world-beater, either. Since joining the ACC in 2005, Boston College is 98-81, and hasn’t won more than 7 games in a season since 2009. While they have without a doubt been more consistently successful than Rutgers football if you choose 2014 (when we joined the Big Ten) as a cutoff point, a longer-term view puts us pretty much at parity. Boston College has been consistent, but not remarkable, as a member of the ACC.

The loss at Iowa over a week ago was ugly, but Rutgers beating BC on Saturday would go a long way toward putting those bad memories to bed. Let’s hope for a solid performance on Saturday.