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July 18, 2007

Big East coaches happy with offseason choices

NEWPORT, R.I. Rutgers' Greg Schiano decided to stay. Louisville's Bobby Petrino suddenly left. West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez stuck around after reports had him heading out of town.

The status surrounding the coaching staffs at the top three Big East football programs last year turned into one of the biggest storylines of the winter. The only question that remains now is how the respective decisions of Schiano, Petrino and Rodriguez might shake up the conference standings this fall.

"You never know,'' West Virginia safety Eric Wicks said Tuesday during the Big East Media Day at the Hotel Viking. "Teams could be just as good (after a coaching change), or they could be worse.''

Wicks added that he doesn't expect Louisville to take a step back. History supports that assessment.

Louisville already has proved it can continue to thrive after a coaching change.

When former Louisville coach John L. Smith headed to Michigan State at the end of a successful five-year tenure, Athletic Director Tom Jurich responded by hiring Petrino, who took the program to another level by going 41-9 in four seasons.

After the NFL's Atlanta Falcons selected Petrino as their next head coach, Jurich immediately zeroed in on Steve Kragthorpe, who went 29-22 with a Tulsa program that had gone 2-21 in the two years before his arrival.

"I had a number of opportunities to leave Tulsa for some very high-profile programs, some BCS programs that I won't mention," said Kragthorpe, who worked as Northern Arizona's quarterbacks coach when Jurich was that school's athletic director in the early 1990s. "But when Tom called me and asked if I'd be interested in coming to Louisville, it took me about 2 seconds to say yes."

Kragthorpe already has produced his first big victory at Louisville by helping persuade quarterback Brian Brohm to return for his senior season. Brohm was a potential first-round pick if he had chosen to enter the NFL Draft this year.

Brohm instead enters his senior season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate who has offered his new coach his wholehearted support. Kragthorpe possesses a more accessible personality than Petrino without sacrificing the discipline his predecessor brought to the program.

"He gets to know every player as an individual and as a football player," Brohm said. "It's a little more laid back off the field than in the past, but when we're on the field, it's all business."

No matter how easily Kragthorpe adapts to his new job, however, it's hard to imagine that Louisville won't endure some type of feeling-out process in its first year with a new staff. West Virginia and Rutgers don't have to worry about such problems.

Schiano made sure of that at his school by wasting little time in withdrawing his name from consideration for the offseason vacancy at Miami, where he had spent two years as a defensive coordinator on Butch Davis' staff.

The New Jersey native has emerged as one of the more popular figures in the Garden State after leading Rutgers to an 11-2 record and its first bowl victory last year. Rutgers already has sold out every home game for the 2007 season, and Schiano said the waiting list for season tickets includes almost 5,000 names.

"This is my home," Schiano said. "The majority of my family still lives in New Jersey. My whole concern was as long as from the top down the state of New Jersey and Rutgers University were still committed to being the best there is, there's no decision.

"It's always good periodically to sense where everyone's vision is to make sure we're all having the same vision. I can tell you that from the governor to the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors, everyone was firmly behind building a championship program and doing it the right way. As long as that's the case, I'm all in."

Rutgers' players insist they weren't nervous about whether their coach might leave, but they still breathed a collective sigh of relief when he put the Miami rumors to rest.

Schiano's decision to stay for the long haul has the Scarlet Knights believing they're on the verge of establishing Rutgers as an elite program.

"I kind of think of him staying like (the way) Joe Paterno's been at Penn State for a long time," Rutgers running back Ray Rice said. "It's his vision. This is his home now."

Rodriguez also believes he's found a home, though Alabama gave him plenty of reasons to seek a change of address.

The Crimson Tide enticed him with a contract reportedly worth $12 million over six years. Reports out of Alabama circulated in early December that Rodriguez already had agreed in principle to accept the Tide's offer.

"It started getting crazy," West Virginia defensive lineman Keilen Dykes said. "You want to know, is he going to go or is he going to stay?"

Rodriguez admitted it was flattering to receive such a lucrative offer from such a storied program. Even though he didn't accept the job, he remains confident Alabama won't have much trouble re-establishing itself as a national power after struggling through a 6-7 season last year.

"They're going to have great success," Rodriguez said. "Nick Saban's an outstanding coach. They have a great commitment from their administration. You've got an outstanding athletic director and obviously outstanding fans. They've got a lot of resources, but so do we. We've worked hard, and right now I like where we're at."

Rodriguez is drawing from regrets about previous career choices to reaffirm his belief that he made the right decision.

Eight years ago, Rodriguez was working as Clemson's offensive coordinator when he took his name out of the running for the Texas Tech head coaching vacancy that eventually went to Mike Leach.

"I can remember having some quiet time in the summer thinking what in the hell did I just do," Rodriguez said. "Here's a guy who used to be at (Division II school) Glenville (State) begging for any job, and now you're turning down a Big 12 job. You've got to be kidding me. But this case here is different. It wasn't one where I had second thoughts or anything like that."

This recent experience has helped Rodriguez advise players who are getting ready to make their own life-altering decisions.

"At the end of the day, where are you going to be happy and enjoying your work?" Rodriguez said. "I tell my players in college when they're at the point where they're deciding what career they want to be in or what they want to study, my advice is to pick a job or profession where you don't have to look at a clock. Whether you're working 12 hours a day or two hours a day, you're not waiting for that thing to hit five (o'clock). If you do that, you'll probably have more passion and enjoy your job."

Rodriguez may need to glance at a stopwatch every now and then as he coaches arguably the fastest backfield in college football.

But he won't be staring at the clock.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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