Big East Conference Football Decision for Villanova Edges Closer
It will have arrived at that decision thanks to an extensive open-ended process involving studies and wide-ranging discussions with invested parties. However open the process, it is anticipated in advance that the school will decline the Big East's invitation to become the 10th football member of the 17-school conference. Villanova currently is a member of the Big East in all sports except football. The Wildcats are defending FCS national champions and compete in the Colonial Athletic Association in that sport.
The Big East recently accepted TCU as a member in all sports effective in 2012, bringing the conference's football membership to nine schools. The conference had previously announced plans to expand to 10 football schools, with speculation that it would consider adding schools like Villanova, Central Florida, Memphis or former member Temple. TCU was a surprise addition, while Villanova has had an outstanding invitation.
Father Donohue's letter outlines the remaining procedural hurdles that need to be publicly cleared before a decision is announced:
January 2011: Continued community meetings, stakeholder dialogue and research and analyses
February 2011: Board of Trustees meeting; discussion of research findings-to-date
March 2011: Assessment of remaining research findings
April 2011: Board of trustees meeting; discussion of outstanding items; Board decision
Concludes Father Donohue, "Whatever choice we make, it is crucial that we have performed our due diligence and that our community is able to move forward with confidence. I can assure you that we will leave no stone unturned in this evaluation."
On the surface, Villanova's football decision seems an obvious one. However, the reality is that the school is unlikely to clear several significant hurdles.
The NCAA mandates that average attendance be at least 15,000 for FBS membership. The Wildcats' on-campus home stadium currently accommodates just over 12,000 people. Significant money would need to be raised to expand the facility, build a new one off campus or even become a tenant at any of several area stadia. For example, Temple calls the Philadelphia Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field its home. Some have suggested playing at the Phillies' stadium, Citizens Bank Park or even the "soccer-only" PPL park in Chester that is home to the Philadelphia Union.
Assuming Villanova could accommodate 15,000 fans, it is no guarantee it could consistently draw that many, on average, to remain FBS eligible.
Beyond that, the school has adopted a passive attitude toward football at various times in its history. Villanova was a football independent throughout its history, until voluntarily dropping football between 1981 and 1984. Football returned in 1985, at which point the school moved into Division III and later Division I-AA (now FCS) play as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. In a world of "big time" collegiate athletics, Villanova is a rare school to bypass the prestige of upper division membership.
Chalk that up, in part, to its Roman Catholic affiliation and academic commitments.
In speaking with several Philadelphia area reporters and writers at last week's Army-Navy game, it was rumored that the school's faculty are strongly set against advancement in football. Whether they have ultimate sway is unknown, but it certainly works against further ambition.
The real hurdle, though, is likely the stadium and financing issue. The Big East is a power conference but hardly the most wealthy and revenues are shared among a whopping 17 schools. That arrangement strengthens its geographic, academic and athletic reach, but dilutes the financial returns for members. Villanova would certainly be spending many millions of dollars to complete its ascent back into college football's upper division but at what cost and what return?
Only the school's highest leadership probably knows, with any certainty.
If the Wildcats decline the opportunity, the Big East must move quickly to capture a 10th football member. Recent speculation has centered around Central Florida, a move that seems in line with the recent grab of TCU well outside of the Big East's traditional geographic boundaries.
But, as commissioner John Marinatto and Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins noted at the TCU press conference, the new conference landscape is bound less and less by geography than other interests. Television deals and academic bridge-building are the new dealmakers and while Villanova's place in the impressive Philadelphia television market is notable, the Wildcats share it with Temple and several other colleges in a town dominated by its pro sports teams. So, even there, Villanova doesn't have as much prestige as we might believe, at least on the surface.
Bottom line: wait until April but our best guess is this doesn't go through.