IT WAS LATE November 1984, and Boston College had just made history.
The play is iconic. Doug Flutie has one last shot to beat defending champion Miami at the old Orange Bowl. He drops back — zeroes on the clock — and launches a Hail Mary toward the end zone. The Hurricanes’ defensive backs didn’t think he had the arm for it, and the pass sails over their heads, landing in the waiting arms of Eagles receiver Gerard Phelan for a touchdown. The moment instantly becomes part of college football lore.
When BC’s plane lands at Logan International Airport a few hours later, a crowd of hundreds of Eagles fans are waiting. For a moment, at least, Boston is a college football town.
“The excitement was real,” Flutie recently told ESPN. “People cared. It was a real thing where we were on par with the pro sports in this town.”
That was nearly four decades ago, and while BC has had its share of success since, it’s rare that the Eagles, or any of the other programs along the Northeast’s I-95 corridor, manage to crack the sports zeitgeist. That region — New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C. — is home to roughly one-fifth of the country’s population, yet the massive potential audience has rarely translated into financial, recruiting or on-field success for the 12 FBS schools that call the Northeast home.
It’s impossible to tell the story of college football without the Northeast. During its peak in the 1970s, northeastern schools made regular appearances near the top of the polls, averaging at least one team in the top 10 every week of the decade. But those numbers have dipped consistently since, with only Penn State cracking the top 10 in the past 13 years.
Syracuse was a national force in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Orange finished the season ranked in the Top 25 nine times between 1987 and 2001. It’s happened just once since.
Pittsburgh won the 1976 national championship and finished in the AP top 10 in six of seven seasons between ’76 and ’82. It hasn’t spent so much as a week in the top 10 since 2009 despite last year’s ACC title.
From 1973 through 1985, Maryland won eight or more games 11 times. It hasn’t won more than seven in a season in the past decade.
As a group, the 12 teams representing the northeastern states — plus nearby West Virginia — have a .466 winning percentage in the playoff era (just .427 in conference play and .404 in Power 5 vs. Power 5 matchups), represent three of the nation’s four teams without a future conference affiliation (the other is Notre Dame), have never sniffed a playoff bid, and account for 20% of the zero- and one-win FBS seasons over the past 20 years. Now new rule changes surrounding name, image and likeness and the transfer portal threaten to make the job of building a winner in college football’s least successful region even tougher.
“There are unique challenges,” said former Buffalo coach Lance Leipold. “We had to be good evaluators and find the right fit, but also take players that were going to take time to be developed. There are things that make that challenging with today’s portal world.”
Despite the trend lines, new coaches at UConn, UMass and Temple are eager to sell fans on a brighter future. At Rutgers, Maryland and Boston College, recent hires believe they’re building the foundations of successful programs, too. Pitt is fresh off an ACC championship and its second 10-win season since 1981.
Still, the question remains: Can any team in the Northeast beyond Penn State not just win, but win consistently enough to woo fans in big cities and recruits from across the country?
“Anybody can have a special year,” one administrator at a northeastern school said. “Does it happen on a regular basis? I’m not sure it does. It’s getting more difficult, and the game of college football is changing.”
Flutie remembers flipping through the newspaper back in 2008. Again, Boston College was among the nation’s best programs. The Eagles had another star QB in Matt Ryan, and they’d won their first eight games of the season. They were headed to Virginia Tech for a Thursday night showdown ranked No. 2 in the country.
It was the type of game that, in Flutie’s day, would’ve been front-page news.
“I couldn’t even find an article on the game in the newspaper,” Flutie said.
On Nov. 23, 1984, Doug Flutie heaves one up and his Hail Mary is caught by Gerard Phelan to lift Boston College over Miami.
THERE WAS A MOMENT, more than 30 years ago now, when Joe Paterno tried to secure the Northeast’s place in the college football hierarchy. Providence Friars coach Dave Gavitt had done it with basketball in 1979 with the formation of the Big East, but in football, most of the region’s top teams — Penn State, Syracuse, Pitt, BC — were still football independents. Paterno saw an opportunity to form an alliance, build on regional rivalries and make big games in the Northeast appointment viewing.
There were immediate problems, however. Syracuse, Pitt and BC were already members of the Big East in other sports, and they were reluctant to cast their lots with a startup. Penn State, too, was eyeing greener pastures, with overtures from the ACC and the Big Ten. And Paterno wasn’t interested in being an administrator and remained a coach. Eventually, the idea fizzled out.
“I still think if someone had been able to put together the right football league with the right concepts, it could’ve been done,” said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. “If there’d been a Dave Gavitt on the football side, there’d be an Eastern conference right now, and the whole world would change.”
Instead, a year after Paterno proposed the idea, Penn State landed in the Big Ten, and the Big East began sponsoring football but never fully embraced the sport.
It was a turning point. In the 30 years before Penn State joined the Big Ten, Northeast schools won 55% of their games.
In the 29 years since, they’ve won just 47%. The losing drove more realignment, and the Northeast moved into a seemingly endless chase of dollars.
During realignment in the early 2010s, the Big Ten and ACC, looking to boost their geographic footprint to help fund TV networks, were eager to add teams in the New York and Washington, D.C., markets. More cable subscribers meant more revenue, even if the majority of those TV sets weren’t tuned into college football.
Rutgers, Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia and Louisville all departed, with the Big East reconstituting as a basketball league and the football leftovers joining the newly formed American Athletic Conference.
Lost in all that movement was history and rivalries — games that mattered in a place where college football always had competition in the pro ranks.
ESPN tracks ratings share — the percentage of households tuned in for a given show — in 56 markets. For the network’s college football broadcasts in 2021, Boston ranked 54th. New York was 53rd. D.C. was 43rd. The only northeastern market to crack the top 20 was Pittsburgh (at No. 19).
The Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia — once one of the sport’s signature events — will be played this year for the first time since 2011. It’s just one of a host of northeastern rivalries extinguished in the race for more money.
“We live and operate in an event-driven area,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “We’re battling pro sports for entertainment dollars. When your game becomes the event, it’s packed out with ticket holders and celebrities and everything else. If you’re the event, everyone will be there. If you’re not, because you’re not winning, it gets hard.”
The on-field impact of realignment hasn’t worked well for the Northeast, either.
From 2006 through 2013, Rutgers was a legitimate contender, going 64-39 — better than Michigan, Florida State and Miami during that stretch. In 2014, it left for the Big Ten and has since posted a record of 29-66.
Maryland is 37-55 since joining the Big Ten.
Syracuse is 43-66 since landing in the ACC in 2013.
West Virginia, which had finished in the Top 25 in six of its final seven seasons in the Big East, has ended the year ranked just twice since, and is 44-45 in Big 12 play.
“If you look at how things have turned since the breakup of the Big East, I don’t know if that was a beneficial move for northeastern football for anybody outside of the financial aspect of it,” one AD from a former Big East school said. “From a competitive aspect, I don’t think anyone has been super successful. The loss of rivalries across the Northeast has not helped the cause.”
LEIPOLD ALWAYS KNEW the question was coming.
From 2015 through 2020, he was the head coach at Buffalo, and he engineered the school’s best era of football in its history. Still, from his first recruiting call, the same question always came up: What about the weather? Doesn’t it snow in Buffalo — a lot?
Leipold had his share of jukes. Preseason camp in August, he’d note, was far nicer than it was in Florida. Most games were played indoors. And didn’t playing in the cold weather offer better preparation if you’re drafted by, say, the Buffalo Bills?
“You say Buffalo, people think cold right away,” said Leipold, now the head coach at Kansas. “So you’re always talking around it.”
Yes, the winters are cold in Syracuse and Boston and Buffalo, but that’s just the beginning of the challenges to building a winner in the Northeast.
While the I-95 corridor is densely populated, it’s hardly a high school football hotbed for myriad factors, from the cold winters that impact offseason training to an increased emphasis on academics to high school calendars with classes that run deep into June.
“There were things just starting to come to western New York that they were doing 20 years ago in California,” Leipold said of the high school ranks.
The numbers illustrate the problem. The Northeast, which is home to more than 65 million people, has produced 171 four- and five-star recruits since 2014, with the vast majority coming from Maryland and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Florida (with a population of about 23 million) produced 464 blue-chip recruits.
“It’s about what’s ingrained into the population for what’s important when kids are growing up,” said UConn athletic director David Benedict. “What’s driving youth sports? If you look in the South, the interest in high school football is just significantly different than what it is in the Northeast.”
Even when quality players blossom at northeastern high schools, they’re far from guaranteed to stay close to home for college. Only about one-third of those blue-chip players went to FBS schools in the Northeast (most to Maryland and Penn State), while 38 of them (22%) signed with SEC schools, despite the fact the league has played just four true road games vs. northeastern schools in the past decade.
UMass head coach Don Brown found his share of diamonds in the rough in the Northeast — Kwity Paye, Andrew Stuber, Ben Mason — who lacked offers elsewhere but had NFL talent. The problem, of course, is Brown recruited all those players to Michigan, where he served as defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2020. The job of getting them to UMass might be tougher.
Flutie offers an example how one magical player — usually a QB — can reset expectations for schools in the Northeast, but it’s rare they stick around. Devin Leary (New Jersey), Tyler Van Dyke (Connecticut) and Caleb Williams (Washington, D.C.) all figure to be in the Heisman race this season. None are playing for schools in the Northeast. Indeed, of the 19 blue-chip QB recruits to come from the Northeast in the playoff era, more signed with Notre Dame (four) than with northeastern schools (three).
“I grew up a Notre Dame fan,” said Phil Jurkovec, a New Jersey native who signed with the Irish out of high school before ultimately transferring to Boston College in 2020. “Playing at Notre Dame was my dream.”
The pipeline Brown helped create from New England to Michigan during his time with the Wolverines shows how easy it can be to siphon off talent from that region, too. At NC State, QB Devin Leary — once a four-star recruit from New Jersey — chose the Wolfpack because another South Jersey native, Kelvin Harmon, had success there years before. NC State currently has four players from New Jersey on its roster.
“People I played midget football with that I haven’t talked to in years are following NC State, and that all started with Kelvin Harmon coming to NC State and creating that pipeline,” Leary said.
Instead, finding success in the Northeast is largely about stealing some unrefined talent from other areas of the country, something BC’s Jeff Hafley has made a priority.
“I always start locally, but because of our academics, I’m going national, and that’s different than what BC has ever done,” Hafley said. “I think recruiting regionally, I don’t think you can do that and sustain success. There’s more players playing football in Florida, Texas and Georgia, so why not go get them?”
But that leads to another challenge. One of Hafley’s best players, receiver Zay Flowers, is from Florida. Flowers has more than 1,500 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns the past two years, and this offseason, he had NIL offers in the mid-six figures if he decided to transfer elsewhere. He stayed — the value of a BC education mattered more, he said — but that won’t always be the case.
At Pitt, Jordan Addison won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver, and he helped the Panthers win an ACC title in 2021. Still, at the end of spring practice this season, he jumped ship for USC — a bigger market with more NIL money at stake.
“You’d always see guys getting drafted from all different schools, some you never heard of,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “I think you’ll see less and less of that with the transfer portal making it easy to pluck away talent.”
Hafley isn’t so sure. He believes places like Boston College have something unique to offer. It’s not for everyone, he admits, but for the right guys, it’s more valuable than any NIL deal.
And yet, money often talks the loudest, and that could leave schools like BC in a difficult space.
“If that happens, then no one’s going to have any chance, and that’s bad for football,” Hafley said. “If we’re going to start this where it’s OK if people can call my players and recruit them and pay them, then shame on those people.”
CONNECTICUT GOVERNOR NED LAMONT wanted to spend a few minutes engaging with voters on Twitter earlier this summer, so he started a Q&A with the hashtag #AskNedAnything.
Question: Will UConn join a Power 5 conference?
For anyone who doesn’t need to woo voters in the state, the answer seems obvious. In the playoff era, UConn is a woeful 21-76. The Huskies have exactly one win vs. an FBS opponent since 2017 (vs. equally awful UMass), and they last beat a Power 5 team nearly six years ago.
Lamont was undaunted.
They’re good enough to join any conference they want, unless other teams are afraid of them. https://t.co/V7kuOdUrRi
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) July 12, 2022
The replies were predictably hilarious. The UConn jokes mostly write themselves.
Since the program’s high-water mark in 2010, when it won the Big East and played in the Fiesta Bowl, the Huskies have been a national laughingstock, and after canceling their entire 2020 campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they withdrew from the American Athletic Conference and opted for independence, just so their basketball programs could have a better home in the reconstituted Big East.
This offseason, UConn hired Jim Mora to revitalize the football program, however, and he’s made a splash — by Huskies standards, anyway — in both recruiting and the transfer portal. But UConn fans (surely there are a few) have heard this song before. Coaches come, coaches go, and only the losing remains.
“It’s not easy to sustain a successful program year after year if you’re having to replace coaches every two to three years,” Benedict said. “Every coach has new ideas and different relationships and that compounds itself to make it more difficult.”
Even the successful schools in the Northeast tend to see coaches depart for bigger jobs. Temple rose from obscurity under Al Golden, who quickly left for Miami, then saw a succession of other successful coaches — Steve Addazio, Matt Rhule, Geoff Collins — all depart for Power 5 jobs, too. Paul Chryst left Pitt for Wisconsin. After four years at Syracuse, Doug bolted for the NFL. Ditto Bill O’Brien after two years at Penn State. Dana Holgorsen turned heads when he abandoned West Virginia for a Group of 5 job at Houston. Leipold built Buffalo into a contender in the MAC, and he still left for woeful Kansas.
Sure, the transfer portal might be upending rosters of late, but the coaching carousel has plagued the Northeast for years. The jobs are often either career-enders or stepping stones to something better.
“There’s got to be a commitment by the university that you’re at,” said UMass’s Brown, who coached the Minutemen from 2004 through 2008 and returned this offseason. “You have to have everybody pulling from the same rope and then as a head coach carry that message to families across the country.”
THERE IS, OF COURSE, a recipe for success in the Northeast, written by the Nittany Lions. While Penn State’s neighbors have largely ebbed since 2000, it’s continued to recruit at a high level, jam 100,000 fans into seats for every home game and contend for Big Ten titles.
So how has Penn State managed to succeed where everyone else seems to struggle?
“If you want to win at the very highest level, there’s really not one area that you can say, well, we don’t have to compete in that area,” Franklin said. “You have to compete in every area — facilities, recruiting, coaching salaries, staff size. Every single area. You have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and fight in every area.”
Temple nearly gave up on football altogether after being voted out of the Big East in 2001. The school narrowly voted in favor of continuing the program, choosing to invest more heavily in its success instead. Golden was hired in 2006, and starting in 2009, the program went on a run of eight winning seasons over the next 11 years.
UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford is actively working on finding a conference home for the Minutemen. The school upgraded its football performance center, and stadium renovations are nearing completion, too.
“We’re taking the steps necessary so that our players and fan base can have great pride in what our campus looks like,” Brown said. “We’re working at it, there’s no doubt about it.”
Schiano said one of the biggest reasons he returned to Rutgers in 2020 was the school’s commitment to football. During his first stint in the old Big East days, money was tight.
“There were times where I felt like we were building it with one arm tied behind my back,” Schiano said.
Now the Big Ten revenue is flowing, and Rutgers is all-in on football, he said.
So perhaps there’s hope that at least a few of the programs around the Northeast can join Penn State as genuine college football brands.
“College football needs the Northeast,” Hafley said.
Just look at the population, the potential audience, the money, Schiano said. The Northeast has it all — all but the product on the field. And maybe that’s the problem. If the past few decades have proved anything about football in the region, it’s that the dollars always seem more important than the wins.
Can that ever change? Could the Northeast revive Paterno’s dream and blossom into a college football hotbed?
“If you went to sleep 30 years ago and woke up today, you’d say, ‘What the heck happened?'” Tranghese said. “And I’m not sure you could explain it to people. Right now, with how it’s structured, I don’t see it happening. But I’ve learned to never say never.”