Cook: Rodriguez has staying power in Big East
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There is no real Big East football conference without Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. There never truly will be a legitimate Big East until Penn State comes home, back where it belongs. What there is now is a second-rate college football league ...
We interrupt this argument with big news from the weekend.
Rich Rodriguez took a big step toward staying at West Virginia for the long haul by agreeing to a three-year contract extension through the 2012 season that includes a huge pay raise to about $1.1 million per year, a sizable salary bump for his assistants and a university commitment to upgrade the football facilities.
That's not just good news for the Mountaineers and their fans.
It's great news for those of us who want to see the Big East jump back to first-rate status.
There is no guarantee, of course, Rodriguez will be at West Virginia beyond this season. There never are guarantees in the wacky world of college athletics, where coaching contracts seldom are binding. It is believed Rodriguez successfully negotiated a significant decrease in his $2 million buyout, which means he easily could be the next Florida State coach, presumably his dream job. That's assuming Bobby Bowden ever leaves; much like Penn State's Joe Paterno, he seems determined to coach until he's at least 100. That's also assuming Rodriguez is offered the position. It's a good possibility because of his ties to the Bowden family through Tommy Bowden -- Bobby's son -- his former boss at Clemson and Tulane.
No, it won't be surprising if Rodriguez isn't at West Virginia forever.
But -- here's the good news, Mountaineers fans -- it also won't be surprising if Rodriguez stays in Morgantown for 20-25 years.
That would be terrific for West Virginia for obvious reasons. Rodriguez is a big winner. His teams have won at least a share of the past three Big East championships, watered down as they might be. The Mountaineers also pulled off the league's most significant win in years, beating Georgia in the past Sugar Bowl to finish 11-1 and No. 5 in the Associated Press poll. The value of that victory in terms of respect for the conference is almost immeasurable.
Even more impressive is how Rodriguez has won. Every successful coach knows the secret is having great talent in your back yard. That's why Ben Howland left as Pitt's basketball coach for UCLA and its fertile recruiting ground of Los Angeles. Rodriguez has gotten it done in a small state that's not exactly known for cranking out great football players. He started only four in-state players against Georgia, no surprise considering there are just 140 football-playing high schools in West Virginia. There are nearly as many in the WPIAL.
There's every reason to believe Rodriguez will do incredible things if he stays at West Virginia. He would be just another coach at Florida State. But if he stays in Morgantown long enough -- he's only 43 -- he almost could have a Bowden- or Paterno-like impact. That has to mean something to him. He's from a coal-mining family in Grant Town, W.Va. He also played at West Virginia. There can't be anything better than winning at your home school. Rodriguez could even win a national championship, perhaps as early as this season. The Mountaineers, who will be a top-10 or even top-five team in the preseason polls, return 14 starters, including nine on offense, among them a couple of fabulous sophomores -- quarterback Patrick White and running back Steve Slaton.
That's why this isn't just a West Virginia story.
It's a big deal for the Big East.
Players win games, but, at the college level, it's coaches who give a school and a conference prestige and credibility. It was encouraging Bobby Petrino decided to stay at Louisville after flirting with Louisiana State. It also was encouraging Pitt hired Dave Wannstedt, who had NFL options, at least as a defensive coordinator.
Now, there's the Rodriguez extension.
That's great even from a selfish standpoint. Rodriguez already has a neat little rivalry going with Wannstedt. The two had a catfight of sorts over recruiting before and after their teams played last season. It was reminiscent of the snarling in the late 1970s and early '80s between West Virginia basketball coach Gale Catlett and Pitt's Tim Grgurich and Dr. Roy Chipman.
Man, those were the days.
Rodriguez easily got the better of Wannstedt in that first meeting last season, the Mountaineers crushing Pitt, 45-13, on Thanksgiving night, prompting an embarrassed Wannstedt to mutter to a national television audience at halftime something about his team needing to play faster, as if speed comes in some sort of pill.
Round 2 is Nov. 16 at Heinz Field.
It can't come soon enough.
First Published June 27, 2006 12:00 am