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Friday Water Cooler: The Year of the Big Announcement

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What is it about the week before a Lehigh game that makes schools want to make major, earth-shattering announcements?

Ever since a tumultuous summer where rumors were flying fast and furious about the Big East losing schools because of football, another rumor has been picking up steam that the Wildcats, fresh off their FCS national championship, might consider joining the Big East in football as well.

The day before today's game at Lehigh, Villanova's president, Father Peter Donohue, sent out a letter that was reprinted by VUHoops that confirms that, no, Temple will not be the team to fit into the map of Big East football, and yes, a feasibility study is under way to determine if Villanova football is right for the Big East.

Just in case this game on Saturday for Lehigh wasn't big enough, it's now, suddenly, become about beating a team that might be going to the Big East.  All of a sudden, it feels like Lehigh is hosting an FBS team - well, a national champion, and likely future FBS team, anyway, in our place.  (more)

The "Villanova to the Big East in Football" didn't start out with fireworks and cookouts originally.  Tacked on to this report on the overall health of the Big East in August - by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - the context of the article was about how the Big East was going to survive after the "Summer of Blood" in college football, where Texas was supposed to move to to a Pac-16, Rutgers was supposed to move to the Big Ten.  The Big East survived - barely, in the eyes of big media - but they were going to do the "little things" in order to stay viable, like (surprise) create their own Big East Network, similar to the Big Ten Network.

But that report included this, too:

Beyond the creation of a network, Marinatto said the conference will continue to explore the possibility of adding more football members. But he said nobody within the conference wants to add teams just to get bigger, and any team considered must be the right fit.
"We've talked about it forever, and I think a ninth team provides a lot of opportunity, beginning with a balanced schedule," Marinatto said. "And when we rewrote our bylaws in 2004-05, we made provisions for that, but we've always said we would only bring in a ninth school if it brought value to our membership."
Marinatto again dismissed the Internet rumors that Central Florida and Memphis were going to receive invitations to join the conference, but he said that there have been some discussions about Villanova making the jump to Division I-A football and that could be one viable option for the conference to grow without upsetting its 16-team basketball alignment.

From there, it went to the world of message boards and leaky sources.  Sometimes it's hard to wrestle truth away from rumor, and facts from hopes and dreams.  But what was clear from this report and the message boards was that something was going on between the Big East and Villanova, and something was being discussed.

Until today, that is.

Dear Faculty and Staff:
I am writing to share with you some recent conversations that have taken place regarding the Villanova Football program and its relationship with the Big East Conference. 
The landscape of college athletics continues to face dramatic changes and there has been a great deal of speculation over the past few months regarding conference realignments nationwide. The Big East Conference has not been immune to such speculation and Villanova’s position regarding football has been frequently discussed on the internet, in the media, and among alumni around the country.
Prior to Labor Day, Big East Commissioner John Marinatto paid a visit to Villanova and reported that the football schools were interested in adding Villanova as a football member of the Conference. We currently compete in the Big East in all other varsity sports, however, joining the Conference as a football member would require that the program move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly known as Division I-A. This would represent a significant change for the University and its Athletic Department.
As part of the University’s Strategic Planning process, the Board of Trustees Athletic Committee has been studying all of our athletic programs. After consulting with our Board’s leadership and the President’s Cabinet, we have decided that the most prudent course of action is to expedite our timeframe and embark upon an in-depth and thorough evaluation of this opportunity presented by the Big East. This is a complicated issue with many multi-dimensional factors that come into play, and it is important that we investigate scenarios related to making - or not making - such a move.
More than likely, you will read or hear speculation from outside sources as we conduct this assessment. I ask you to consider it just that - speculation. As we undertake this evaluation, I can assure you that a decision will be made only after the Board of Trustees conducts a careful and complete analysis. We will do what’s right for Villanova and will not jeopardize our community-wide commitment to meeting the University’s strategic objectives.

This brings the discussion from "rumors and message boards" to "the Big East football schools are interested in adding Villanova" and they "are embarking on an feasibility study".  This isn't just speculation anymore.  This just became serious, and was also confirmed by the Philadelphia Daily News.

Certainly, Villanova's FCS national championship shows that they can field a great football team - something that five years ago, when the Wildcats started their series with Lehigh, was not at all certain.  Sure, they were in the CAA as an associate member with Delaware, James Madison, Richmond, UMass and all those powerhouses.  But they had never had sustained success in that conference - until two years ago.

For the Big East, the allures of Villanova as a Big East football school are obvious.  It pulls a ninth team from their "non Big East football" camp to the "Big East Football" camp of the teetering 16 team conference - thus tilting the playing field towards the teams that play Big East football, and almost certainly precipitating a split of the football and non-football schools.  It also probably goes a long way in insuring that the Big East keeps a lucrative BCS slot - and the money it generates for its mostly-public school teams.

For Villanova, too, the allure may be to stay in the Big East in all sports - including the straw that stirs the drink, basketball, with most of their historic Big East basketball rivalries.  They would become tied at the hip for a long way into the future with Rutgers, Syracuse and UConn if they all share football and basketball - which could be a good thing.

It also could be a defensive move for Villanova.  If, say, Memphis were to join the Big East, the conference could also split apart - and the Wildcats would be shunted into whatever is left with the "non-Big East-playing" basketball schools conference.  This is not without value - after all, Notre Dame would be in that conference, called the "Catholic Eight" on the message boards -   but it might come at a cost of declining basketball and national prestige, even with the presence of Georgetown and Notre Dame.  (Georgetown would ostensibly be a part of this conference, too.)

It seems odd on the face for Nova to act in football to keep their union with Big East football-playing basketball schools, but it does make some sense.  In the big-time college sports arena, BCS football can a cash cow that can smooth over a lot of problems, whereas relying on only basketball to pay the bills - especially in a conference without Syracuse or UConn - is a much more dicey proposition.

(It also opens a very interesting question - if Georgetown should consider the same move that Villanova is making.  Don't laugh - though, obviously, the Hoyas have not had anywhere near the same level of success that the Wildcats had in football, the same forces that make it compelling for Nova have to also be at least as compelling for Georgetown.)

But significant hurdles remain in order for Villanova to become a football playing Big East BCS school.

Start with the biggest issue, a stadium.  Main Line Villanova has an on-campus stadium that will work for FCS-level football, but Radnor Township has zero desire for the traffic and mayhem - not to mention the stadium expansion - that would be required for BCS-level football on campus.

That means that Villanova would need to get into the stadium rental business.  The Linc, already tapped by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles and Temple, is out.  But PPL Park in nearby Chester - with a maximum current capacity of just under 19,000 - could be used to host football games, working with Major League Soccer's Philadelphia Union to work out game days.

Could it work?  Well, in the past the NCAA has mandated a requirement that a team must average at least 15,000 a game to be considered for FBS membership.  That means that the Wildcats would need to average 80% of the current capacity in order to be even considered.  Considering that the FCS semifinal game against William & Mary last year had an attendance of less than 10,000 - including a decent-sized Tribe contingent - it's an open question as to whether they have the fan base to do it.

There are other options for a stadium.  Penn's Franklin Field used to also share a lease with Temple when they were in the Big East, and their artificial turf field would certainly hold up to multiple teams.  But Franklin Field needs some serious upgrading to become modern enough for big-time football - and it is not very tailgate-friendly as a venue either, which could really detract from the gameday experience that Villanova may be going for.

There's also Citizen's Bank Park, home of the Phillies.  But with the Phils playing through September, and (lately) October, you wonder if scheduling would be too big a hurdle to overcome.

So the stadium issue is a real one - and not one with one easy answer.  (Going back to Georgetown for a second, if they chose to play FBS football they would have not one (FedEx Field, home of the NFL's Redskins) but TWO (RFK Stadium, home of MLS' DC United) stadiums for consideration.)

And that's not even considering the issue of expanded scholarships for football and their equivalent Title IX women's scholarships that would need to be spent.

While not a perfect comparison, Syracuse, another private big-time football-playing school, according to their latest EADA reports, spent $17 million on their football program alone.  That's a lot of green by anyone's measure - and when you count the Title IX expense as well, it's easy to see why no private school in the last forty years has made the jump to "big-time" or FBS college football.  (From DFW Hoya on Any Given Saturday, the last private school to jump to FCS was the University of Tampa in 1963 - who ominously dropped football eleven years later.)

I'm not saying Villanova to FBS will not happen.  It's foolish to underestimate the powerful monetary forces that seem to be underpinning the decision-making process on both sides, and there are some compelling arguments for making it happen.  But there are a lot of issues to consider, which is why Villanova is rightfully undergoing an "in-depth analysis" of the situation.  (It also begs the question: if Villanova is getting consideration from the Big East for such a move - could Georgetown also, conceivably, get some sort of offer as well?)

For my sake, the Big East's movements are very interesting - but frankly, I just hope the Villanova players and coaches are doing an "in-depth analysis" of the Big East on their own - and forgetting their gameplans on how to beat Lehigh.


After this whopper from Villanova and the announcement last week of the first FCS game being played in Africa, it made me wonder: what other huge announcements might come before other Lehigh games this year:

Princeton: Ivy approves post-season play for 2011; formally ratifies existing de facto loan-to-grant process (thanks to Bogus Megapardus for that one)

New Hampshire: New Yankee Conference Forms, Six Team Conference With New Hampshire, Maine, UMass, Rhode Island, Bryant and Central Connecticut State; CAA's Tom Yeager Claims the CAA Is As Healthy As Ever

Fordham: Rams Join Yankee Conference; Force Conference To Adopt Patriot League Academic Index; Rhode Island Goes Back To NEC

Harvard: Crimson Go FBS Independent; Negotiates Ten-Year Deal with CBS To Televise "The Game"; Contract Worth 1/100,000th their Endowment

Bucknell: Bison Change Nickname to "Blue & White"; Sick of Being Called "Bison Burgers" Every Week In LFN's Football Picks

And finally: Colgate: Colgate to join NESCAC and re-classify to Division III; Ivy League to add Lehigh, Georgetown (thanks to Go...Gate for that one)


Have your tickets yet for the Villanova game?  If not, it's worth noting that the theme for the game this weekend is "Heroes' Day".  That means all members of the armed forces, local fire department, EMS, and law enforcement can attend the game free of charge.

Talk about a great game to see for free - the defending national champs, who could be on their way to the Big East in football!


ngineer said…
Heck, 'nova barely had more fans in the stands than Lehigh fans when we played on their campus. They don't have the fan base for FBS football, nor the stomach for the dollars that will be required. They're letting their ego over their current success warp their vision.

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