Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Temple The Big East Domino?

I've tried to stay out of this FBS realignment talk.  Really I have.

Like many of you, I see the headlines scroll by on Twitter, and try to make some sense of it all - Texas A&M to the SEC!  Conference USA and the Mountain West merge!  Texas State goes to the WAC!  But in many ways, it's like Tibetan soccer to me: a foreign sport that has little to nothing to do with the goings-on in the league I care about, the Patriot League.

That all changed with talk that Temple could be joining the Big East.

These talks about Temple joining the conference - a school in direct competition for the heart and soul of the Philadelphia market with one of its current members - could be the move that destabilizes everything.



From CSNPhilly.com:

Temple University’s Board of Trustees will meet via conference call Wednesday afternoon to discuss the fate of the school’s athletic program and perhaps accept an invitation to become a member of the Big East Conference in all sports.
   
The Board has been briefed continually by members of the school’s administration about ongoing discussions with a variety of conferences, including the Owls’ two current homes, the Mid-American Conference, in which they compete on the football field, and the Atlantic 10 Conference, which houses everything else. 


The Big East this offseason could be renamed the Big Mess, the way things have turned out the past six months.

When I last left this topic last September - my gosh, it feels like a lifetime ago - Pitt and Syracuse had just jumped overboard to the ACC, and the status of West Virginia and TCU, their most recently announced member to that point, were in doubt.

"While most in the media were pooh-poohing the problems that arise from a seventeen-team megaconference in basketball - and the need to expand, possibly, with another non-basketball school to preserve "balance", apparently Pitt and Syracuse said, 'enough', and started to look into the ACC for membership," I said at the time.

The firestorm that ensued meant a flurry of improbable conference moves that will keep college football historians busy for years.

In October, with the loss of two football members, TCU backed out of their intended move to the Big East and instead decided to join the Big XII.

A few weeks later, West Virginia announced that they, too, were joining the Big XII, which is exactly 1,194 miles from the epicenter of the conference, the University of Texas, which set off a battle of lawyers between the Mountaineers and their former conference.

In December, after the conclusion of the season, it was announced that two football-only members and three all-sport members would be joining the Big East starting in 2013.

The fact that only one of the new members (Central Florida) was actually in the Eastern Time Zone was the fodder for plenty a joke in the aftermath: Houston, SMU, Boise State and San Diego State made it a bicoastal conference covering every time zone in the contiguous 48 states.

But even the addition of Memphis in all sports starting with the 2013 season, and the addition of Navy in football starting in 2015, missed one key problem: the 2012 season.

With West Virginia leaving immediately, the Big East, so far in 2012, becomes a seven team football conference - with a gap in the schedule for each remaining member.

Without an eighth member, folks were openly wondering whether teams might play each other twice to make up the gap - or, possibly, fill the gaps with FCS opponents, since nearly all FBS schedules are now complete.

It's in this environment where Temple has stepped into the picture.

*****

Temple, once named a football-only Big East member in 1991, was forcibly evicted from the conference in 2004 in an outcome that ought to be recalled for what it was:


At the meeting in February, Temple's new president, Dr. David Adamany, presented facts to the other presidents about the Owls' increasing attendance, a planned new stadium which it would share with the NFL's Eagles, and an improving football team. He then asked his fellow presidents for a long-term commitment from the BIG EAST. 
The presidents did just the opposite, voting to expel Temple from the league following the 2001 season. The decision essentially kills Temple's dream of being a major football power and potentially could mean the death of the program.


Eight years later, who comes out looking better?

After their eviction, the Owls hardly stood still, competing first as an FBS independent, and then joining the MAC in football, where they competed for the MAC championship during the last three years and played in two bowl games - more than in their entire history in the Big East.

Rather than being a death sentence, head coach Al Golden built the Owls into winners, which he parlayed into a head coaching position at Miami (FL).

But aside from the fact that the crippled Big East is coming back to Temple with their hat in their hand, desperate for someone to fix their problem this year, Dr. Adamany has to be smiling somewhere in regards to what could be the most crucial element to the entire invite eight years later: that deal they struck with the Eagles to play in Lincoln Financial Field.

In 2009, Villanova started a feasibility study as to what it might take to play Big East football in a BCS conference.

But the biggest public stumbling block was the lack of a "suitable place" to play football games.


"I think it was clear to everyone in the conference that at some point very soon Villanova was going to wind up hosting an important game late in the season,'' one league source said back in April 2011, concerning their plans for moving up.   "Imagine that a nationally ranked, perhaps unbeaten team plays Villanova on the road in November and the game is on national TV. And it's in an 18,000-seat soccer stadium [PPL Park in Chester].''


"Some think the stadium issue is indeed the only reason why the Big East is putting the brakes on [Villanova], but I happen to believe that's a line of baloney," I said at the time.  "After all, if I knew there was a stadium issue back in September, certainly some smart guy in the Big East conference office could have checked Google and figured out that there was an issue?...   It's hard to imagine the league forcing Villanova to spend all this time and energy on their move-up plan just to shoot it down over the stadium issue.  Marinatto was upset with Villanova that they didn't accelerate their timeline. Well, with the way the football-playing schools did a 180 on the stadium, can you really blame them?"



Looking back, it seemed like it wasn't so much that PPL park was inadequate, or even an ugly place to watch a game - I defy anyone to watch a Philadelphia Union game broadcast, or last year's Delaware/Villanova game, played in PPL park, and say that it would look bad on national TV.

It seems like it was just an ego thing - how can we, the Big East, play in that, when Temple - Temple! - plays in that football palace called Lincoln Financial Field?

In large part thanks to their foresight about their deal with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, it seems like the Big East - desperate to make the 2012 season work without losing any additional members - will be giving the Owls what they want: full Big East membership, or at least an aggressive timeline for all-sports membership.

But Temple's admittance to the Big East in all sports might be the final straw for Villanova - and that's where the effect on the Atlantic 10, CAA and conferences all up and down the East Coast come into play.

*****

Suppose you're Rev. Peter. M. Donohue, president of Villanova University.

In 2009, you were gently reminded that there's an FBS invite waiting for you in a BCS conference.

You were encouraged - nay, nearly forced - into the idea of starting a feasibility study to explore following the path of UConn from the FCS to the BCS.  After all, there are a lot of Sun Belt teams that would give several  limbs for such an invite - and BCS money can solve a whole lot of budgeting issues.

So you went through the process thoughtfully.  You weighed the options, and found out that, yes, it was possible to play FBS football in an Major League Soccer stadium - for a reasonable price.

But everywhere, it wasn't just outsiders sinking your FBS migration plan.

It was the representatives within your own conference, speaking anonymously, like cowards, that were trashing it.

Were they basketball-only schools, worried about the balance of power shifting permanently towards the all-sports/football schools?

Were they football schools, worried that Villanova in the Big East in football would make a championship game possible - and thus make it harder to leave later?

Or were they members in the league office, just unable to accept that Temple - Temple! - would have the better Philadelphia stadium?

It's no matter now, I suppose, but what ultimately happened was that the ground moved around Villanova.

While they were responsibly looking into the biggest athletics upgrade in school history, schools were abandoning the league they helped create.

It makes one wonder: if the Big East had the foresight to accept Villanova's bid to transition to FBS football, might all this have been averted?

(It seems to eerily mimic the short-sighted vote in 2004, where Temple had a plan to become competitive with a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles to use their stadium - and the Owls were evicted.)

Unfortunately, foresight is not what matters now to Villanova, or Rev. Donohue.

What matters is: What are they going to do now?

Can they really remain in a Big East without Syracuse, and with Temple - Temple! - competing head-to-head with Villanova for Philadelphian hearts and minds in all sports?

Can they really approach the ACC for an all-sports invite, without an FBS football program?  UConn was already rebuffed by the ACC, and they already have BCS football.

Can they really compete in the A-10 - replacing Temple in a 1-for-1 swap?  How could you ever live that down?  No Villanova alumnus would go for that.

Could they move to the CAA, uniting their football and the rest of their sports?  Again, even if the CAA were to manage an improbable move to FBS football, at a level at or below the MAC, how could you live that down when Temple - Temple! - is playing Big East football in the Linc?

Or could the oft-rumored-but-never-initiated split between the Big East basketball and all sports/football schools finally happen?

For many people, a Big East split was anathema because it was assumed that Villanova and Georgetown would never give up the classic basketball rivalries with football schools like UConn and Syracuse, and to a much lesser extent Pitt and West Virginia.

But three of those four schools are leaving.  And will a basketball rivalry with a fading UConn facing an NCAA suspension be a powerful enough reason to stay together?

Breaking off with Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall, Notre Dame, DePaul, and Marquette could make a lot more sense now that the non-basketball side consists of UConn, Temple, Rutgers, Memphis, Louisville, South Florida, Central Florida, Cincinnati,  Houston, and SMU.

There might even be some good revenue to be had with that core in basketball, with some forward-looking leadership and the right people negotiating the contract.

If it did actually happen - finally - it would allow Villanova to put football where it wanted - whether it wanted to follow Delaware wherever it ends up, FCS or FBS, or wanted to stay in FCS in, say, the Patriot League, should Delaware decide that the FBS is best for them.

It could also mean the oft-rumored raid of the A-10 might finally also be in the offing.  Richmond.  Fordham.  Saint Louis.  Duquesne.  Xavier.  All could be a part of a new basketball league - which would have its own ramifications for Eastern conferences.  Then, the A-10 might get in the act: taking Hofstra.  Northeastern.  George Mason.

*****

I don't know what is going to happen with Villanova in the future - whether they stay in the Big East, or whether they move.

But if the end result of this scheduling screw-up is Temple joining the Big East, if I'm Rev. Donohue, I' wouldn't be taking this sitting down.

I'd be calling up the commissioner of the ACC.

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