The Astroturf Is Always Greener for Villanova

Instead of preparing for a move into the Big East, the Wildcats football program sits in athletic limbo

It’s Saturday night, and you and your friends are out for the evening. Within a half-hour of your arrival at a favorite club/bar/taproom, you connect with a stunning stranger, who is certainly more attractive, interesting and exciting than your recent company. You laugh. You talk. You find out that you have much in common. Things are going great, and it’s clear the night will be memorable, even though it’s still relatively early. But, instead of closing the deal, you decide to look around some more. Maybe somebody better will arrive. Maybe you can find a better offer, even if an honest look in the mirror would reveal a hard truth that would rule out such a scenario. Two hours later, the marvelous stranger has moved on, and you are left to contemplate what might have been.

Welcome to the world of Villanova football.

Last fall, news broke that the Big East Conference, of which the Wildcats are a member for all of their sports but football and women’s water polo, had offered the school a spot in its expanded gridiron configuration, provided ‘Nova was willing to make the step up from the I-AA level (now known as the FCS) to the big time.

The decision to include Villanova was born of the uncertainty that had prevailed last summer, when the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences had increased their memberships, and several other leagues—most notably the Big 12—had been exposed as vulnerable to the expansion lust of rivals. A larger Big East might just be strong enough to ward off the advances of future poachers that might be interested in the likes of Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Syracuse or Connecticut. The addition of Villanova to the football ranks wouldn’t be quite the equivalent of bringing on, say, Florida State, but since the league allowed Connecticut to make the move in 2004, it couldn’t deny the ‘Cats. And since Villanova had become an FCS powerhouse of late, it wasn’t ridiculous to consider the ‘Cats a strong candidate to become a viable I-A (now FBS) member.

With Texas Christian already scheduled to join the Big East in 2012, Villanova would give the conference 10 football playing schools, helping with scheduling and critical mass. The benefits for the league were obvious. Meanwhile, ‘Nova would gain by becoming a fully-made Big East member, providing protecting should the conference’s football-playing schools ever decide to make gridiron participation a prerequisite for membership. In other words, if the ‘Cats didn’t join for football, there was a good chance they would be searching for a new home in the next five years. That would be a crippling blow to its men’s basketball program, which has derived its identity from conference membership during the past three decades.

The beautiful stranger had beckoned. The connection was made.

And Villanova couldn’t pull the trigger.

Now, instead of preparing for a 2012 or ’13 move into the FBS ranks, Villanova sits in athletic limbo, not sure whether it will get the chance to step up. The Big East has questions about the Wildcats’ stadium plans and wonders whether another, established FBS school might not be a better football fit. ‘Nova has nobody to blame but itself for this turn of events.

Instead of making a swift, decisive move to protect its athletic program, Villanova fell back into the muddled world of academia, where committees, hand-wringing and fear of reprisal rule. The Wildcats surveyed every single possible constituency. They tried to assuage a faculty that voted 29-0 against increasing the school’s commitment to football. They worked to curry favor with local residents. They reached out to alumni. To students. It’s a wonder a blue-ribbon panel of custodians and maintenance professionals wasn’t formed to examine the decision. Faced with an opportunity to become a part of the 21st century college sports reality, Villanova responded with 20th century institutional waffling.

One weekend last winter, Villanova convened a summit of representatives from nearly every university community. The folks were broken into groups that included a member from each area and were told to discuss the football issue. At the end of the symposium, everybody reconvened and came up with four reasons why it would be a good idea to play big-time football and four reasons why it wouldn’t be so smart. Nothing was decided except that the university couldn’t decide. By letting the world of academia, which hardly operates on a get-it-done-now calendar, drive the decision-making process, Villanova hurt its chances.

While this grueling self-examination was taking place, doubt was germinating in the minds of athletic directors from other Big East schools. Would it make sense to welcome a member that would play—at least initially—in a converted soccer stadium (PPL Park) that holds just 18,000? Why, every single Mid-American Conference school has a stadium bigger than that. And even if the stadium were expanded to 30,000, a drastic move that would fly in the face of the successful, cautious business model created by the Philadelphia Union, PPL Park’s main tenant, its capacity would still be at the bottom of the Big East.

Now for a little full disclosure: I am an adjunct professor at Villanova, having taught a course there this term. I wasn’t consulted on any of this and have no illusions of understanding the school’s inner workings. But after speaking with some people in the athletic department and spending considerable time over the past several years reporting on the conference membership shuffle, one thing is extremely clear: Football rules college sports right now, and those schools that don’t have strong gridiron affiliations are vulnerable.

Some of you might think membership in a conference that includes Big East members St. John’s, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall Georgetown and Providence, along with perhaps Xavier, Dayton and Notre Dame would be pretty cool. The Vatican Conference would indeed be formidable on the basketball court, except that it wouldn’t have a football component to assure it a place at the NC2A grown-up table. What would that mean for Villanova? Well, its TV contract wouldn’t be so rich. Its recruiting leverage would be limited somewhat. And its coach could be far more willing to entertain offers from bigger schools, when they came knocking. Worse, if the big-time schools ever tired of sharing NC2A tournament revenues with their little brothers and formed a 96-school super federation, Villanova would be small time in everything.

There is still time and hope for the Wildcats, but their best chance for Big East membership is gone. By the time they decide to play FBS football, the league may tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

The offer was there. Villanova had a chance to accept but didn’t. It’s 2 a.m., and the pickings are slim. Looks like it’s going to be a long night.


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