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The Big East's Cruel Joke on Villanova

You have to feel bad for Villanova fans this week.

No, I'm not talking about their getting turfed in the 1st 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament in basketball by George Mason, though that was certainly not a day that Wildcat fans will wish to revisit anytime soon.

I'm talking about the delay of a much-anticipated decision by Villanova to vote on joining the Big East in football.

After exploring, fundraising, lining up plans and generally raising their fans expectations to BCS levels, Villanova has seen its plan shot down by the same body that seemed to be begging them nine months ago to join up as an all-sports member. (more)

It all started innocently enough back in August, weeks before the defending national champion Wildcats were set to play Lehigh in the Mountain Hawks' home opener.

Tacked onto 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, Big East commissioner John 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.

Soon thereafter, Villanova was devoting serious time and energy towards the possibility of Big East membership in football. Want proof? Look no further than a letter from Fr. Peter Donohue to Villanovans:

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.
These revelations, while seemingly tiny taken in isolation, shows something much more important: that Villanova only proceeded with their feasibility study, board of trustee meetings, and lining up of donors after the blessing from Mr. Marinatto.

****

For the next nine months, Villanova undertook their feasibility study with the occasional update from Fr. Donohue, with the clear understanding that they would be announcing the results of their study, and voting on FBS membership, in April.

Meanwhile, the Big East didn't just sit still. Hardly.

Ignoring geography and instead, apparently, eyeing the Dallas/Fort Worth TV market (the fifth largest in the US), they acquired TCU in what ESPN's Brian Bennett called the "a marriage of convenience".
There was no better, available football program than TCU, which just completed its second consecutive undefeated regular season and fourth top-10 finish since 2005. The Horned Frogs likely would have run away with the Big East title this season and figure to be strong contenders right away in 2012. The Big East could not have found a better addition that wasn't already playing in a BCS automatic-qualifying conference, and none of those teams is jumping ship to the lowest revenue-generating AQ league.

And even though TCU will go to its second consecutive BCS game, it needed the Big East just as much. Competing in a non-AQ conference means the Horned Frogs have to go undefeated to make a BCS game, and even then it's not guaranteed. Had Boise State not lost to Nevada, there was a chance that TCU would have been left out of the BCS picture this year. Meanwhile, Connecticut may go to the Fiesta Bowl at 8-4.

The Horned Frogs saw the writing on the wall, especially after Utah and BYU bolted the Mountain West Conference. As TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte noted, "the Mountain West is a great conference, but it's not the same conference we joined."

The Big East won't be the same conference, either, as TCU is probably not the final addition. Villanova is still on the clock, and the league wants the Wildcats to let it know whether they will move up to FBS by January. If Villanova says yes, that would make 10 teams in football and might be enough to satisfy this latest expansion push. If not, Central Florida becomes a prime target.

Again, it's only a sentence in an opinion piece on a different subject, but this accelerated timetable must have come as news to the folks at Villanova, who had said they needed until April to line everything up and, by Gosh, they were going to stick to that timetable.

****

January came and went, but not without frustration from Mr. Marinatto, expressed publicly on Mr. Bennett's blog:
I spoke with Big East commissioner John Marinatto on Tuesday about a host of topics, including expansion. I asked him if the league was waiting on Villanova to make its decision before it went forward with other options.

"We're not waiting for Villanova," Marinatto said. "It's their institutional decision to make, and they have a process set up to make it. They've got to determine what's in their best interest, and we've got to determine what's in our best interest."

I asked Marinatto if the Big East could decide to add another team before Villanova finalizes its plans in April.

"If the right situation developed in between, we would move on it," he said. "That's a very real possibility. We're not going to make a decision or not make a decision based on Villanova's study."

In the span of six months, Marinatto went from making trips to Villanova to sounding on the verge of a hissy fit.  No, really, the Big East was going to act in their best interest, not Villanova's?

Was Marinatto getting cold feet about the whole enterprise?  If so, why?

Initially, it's hard to see TCU's inclusion as a reason for Marinatto to suddenly cool to the addition of Villanova. Yes, TCU gives the Big "East" nine football-playing schools, but in a world with 12-game schedules, ten teams is an ideal number that would limit the number of out-of-conference games to three, an optimal number.  In isolation, ten football teams would appear to be prefect for the Big "East".

The key, however, isn't about football. With TCU, the Big "East" now becomes a seventeen team basketball monstrosity.

Given that reality, the Big East is almost required to expand by another school in order to break into nine-team divisions in all sports except football.  How do you even make a schedule for a seventeen-team conference?  You can't do a divisional format, it would be unbalanced.  How do you schedule?  Which team isn't playing a conference game at the end of the year, and who on Earth do they play?

Given that fact, the Big "East" should not be done expanding for basketball.  That opens up another problem.  What if that new school offers football?

Ten teams works well in FBS football: that's three out-of-conference games and nine conference contests. Twelve teams works even better: three out-of-conference games, nine conference games, and a conference championship game that lines the pockets of the Big East employees.

But the addition of an FBS school, TCU and a Villanova FBS upgrade puts Big East football at eleven teams.

It's the worst of all worlds. You either have to unbalance your divisions or cut back on your out-of-conference games.  And without the benefit of a championship game, it would seem like a conference commissioner would try to avoid eleven teams at all costs.  It's all of the headaches of a mega-conference, with none of the benefits.

Having become the Big "East" with the addition of TCU, now Marinatto faces a new reality. All of a sudden, a Villanova upgrade to FBS is a lot less valuable.

Suddenly, a month after TCU's announcement, Marinatto wanted Villanova to disclose their intentions early. In theory, this could allow the league to make a decision on which schools to choose for expansion, because realisitcally, they need to expand on the basketball side.  Villanova's decision means the Big "East" would expand with either schools FBS football (Memphis, East Carolina, Central Florida, Temple) or without (Xavier, Dayton, Richmond, UMass).

It is just a theory, of course.  But as Mr. Spock famously once said, "It's a theory that happens to fit the facts."  It also fits the timeline extremely well.  I don't think it's coincidence.

*****


Undaunted, Villanova forged ahead with their analysis, got some more alumni to pledge more money, and slowly, the pieces of their plan for upgrading became public.

Rather than expand their current on-campus home (a non-starter), somehow evicting Temple from the Linc (impossible), or play where Temple played their Big East games a decade ago (Franklin Field, home of the Ivy League's Penn Quakers), they chose to consider the newest stadium in town: PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer's Philadelphia franchise.

Everything was in place.  All that was left was to get the blessing from the league office - you know, the guys who got the ball rolling in the first place?  Was this acceptable to the football-playing schools?  Was this acceptable to Marinatto?

That takes us to today, when Villanova, seemingly certain to accept the league's invitation as their eleventh football member, was suddenly shot down by the same folks who were falling over themselves to invite them in September.

Villanova officials could not be reached for comment Sunday night, but a source within the Big East Conference said Villanova has decided to make the move.

"Villanova is all in," the source said, but it’s not a done deal.

...

When Villanova announced Monday that its Board of Trustees would not hold a scheduled vote on the matter at its Tuesday meeting, it was a clear signal that the school had received the message from the Big East that acceptance into the football side of the league was far from a done deal.

And the message appears to be quite simple: Find a more suitable place to play or the invitation is off.

"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. "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 expansion, but I happen to believe that's a line of baloney.

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.  It had been clear, after all, for months that PPL Park was the solution that Villanova was going with.  And if it was such a red-button issue, why not mention it in August, when Marinatto was wooing Fr. Donohue with flowers and chocolates?

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?

No, the best explanation is this is simply a delay tactic by the Big "East" conference, and perhaps Marinatto himself, to figure out how he will balance his non-football conference.  In my mind, a seventeen-team basketball conference cannot function effectively, even if they justifiably can call themselves the best college basketball conference on the planet.  They need another school to get to an even number.  And in time for the 2012 season, when this whole thing is supposed to come together.

(If, as I suspect, he signs up Memphis as an all-sports member in the next couple months, it will be interesting to see if Marinatto changes his tune in the next couple of months in terms of his enthusiasm for FBS football at Villanova.  My bet is that he will suddenly discover the benefits of playing in PPL Park and welcome Villanova as the league's 12th football-playing member, giving him 18 basketball schools and 12 football schools.  PPL Stadium might be small by some FBS standards, but no way he gives up the revenue of a championship game.)

*****

So where does this leave Villanova?  Even if Marinatto convinces the Tigers to join, not in a very good position.

After involving the Board of Trustees, lining up donors, negotiating stadiums, budgeting for increased expenses for athletics, and generally hyping up their fan base that a move to "big time" football was just around the corner, the Big East is (at best) delaying Villanova's announcing Big "East" membership in football over an issue that can be seen within five minutes of analysis as a the largest, overriding issue.

Now they have to decide whether to go ahead with the most ambitious plan for expanding their athletic department in history - with no guarantee that the league will accept the only realistic option for them in terms of a stadium, PPL Park.

If their FBS effort comes to a full stop, they face crushing the dreams of a lot of Villanovans who had designs of Big "East" football, not to mention a year of wasted time.

Yet if they go full speed ahead, there's no guarantee they'll be vetoed again by the stadium issue or the ever-shifting expectations of the other athletic directors and the league office.

And even if the landscape changes with a new football all-sports member in the Big "East", it's still not all that great for the Wildcats, either.  If FBS football happens thanks to TCU and another football school, Villanova's supposed crowning achievement will ultimately be third banana - the afterthought to the addition of TCU and (perhaps) Memphis.

No matter what transpires, the Big East - sorry, the Big "East" - sure has played a cruel joke on the Wildcats.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Villanova is dragging their feet, it's not the conference. It's more a case of a President of a university that has the same mentality as Lafayettes president which includes remaining in the stone age while the world passes him by. Nova could have signed and sealed it long ago. Don't take shots at the conference for moving forward with TCU when the shot should be directed at the Nova administration and their empty suits. Besides where are they going to play their home games? Not on that high school field thats for sure.
ngineer said…
Villanova's 'dream' of returning to the 'big time' is odd considering their nightmare of dropping the sport back in the 1980's. Short memories, indeed. Unfortunately, peoples' egos get in the way and they start thinking that they are bigger than they are. They can't even fill their current facilities of 13,000 seats. A ridiculous waste of time and money chasing such a 'vision.'
Gambling Rob said…
What's there to think about? I think it's plain and simple, and the Nova administration should take things into their hands and sort this out asap!
Anonymous said…
Nova has no fans to warrant the upgrade. It's foolish to keep pushing the Big East when the Big East is no loner interested

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