We interrupt Florida Death Week for a story that kind of comes out of nowhere, but one we've thought about extensively ever since USF joined the BIG EAST. It looks like John Marinatto finally wants to tap Main Line Philadelphia and the gobs and buckets of old money it has by inviting Villanova to join the Big East as a football member. The advantages for the league are obvious (four home and four away games a season, not having to add an additional all-sports member, and the Philly TV market for football), but what are the advantages for the University? We have many, many thoughts:
First of all, I grew up in Havertown, and used to take my bike to Villanova games when the Blue Route was still under construction and you could just walk or bike on it. I got my passion for college basketball because of Rollie Massimino, Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley, Harold Jensen, and the rest of the miracle workers of the '85 national championship team. Since I was from Delaware County, and a white suburban kid, my Big 5 allegiance was of course with Villanova, even though I was very upset when they destroyed the City Series (which has since made a splendid comeback). I suffered through the Tom Greis era. I got sick of Steve Lappas pulling on his lapels to call for man-to-man defense and never adjusting offensively. Then I moved to Florida to finish high school, eventually enrolled at USF, and since I think sports bigamy to be a crime that should be punishable by prison sentences, was forced by the power of tuition to let the 'Cats go. Though I'd always pull for 'Nova on a neutral floor, when we joined the same league of course that went out the window as well.
The last time I was on the Villanova campus was last October when USF Volleyball played in the old Cat House Gym. Next door is the football stadium, and there is just no way to expand it to be a FBS quality facility. There simply isn't the room. And keep in mind this is a school so pressed for space that the baseball team plays about 15 minutes away in Plymouth Meeting on a field some little leagues would find wanting. Main Line Philadelphia real estate isn't cheap, so an on campus facility wouldn't seem to be an option.
The article above mentions the new MLS Soccer facility in Chester, but that only seats 17,500 right now. There's a difference between being barely acceptable (FBS teams are required to average 15,000 in attendance), and being in a position to succeed. I don't see how you can ask a team to compete in the BIG EAST in a building that doesn't hold at least 35-40k. That leaves The Bank (home of the Phillies, seats 43k for baseball) and The Linc (home of the Eagles, which is also already home to Temple). if NFL teams can share a facility in the Meadowlands, I don't see why college teams can't both borrow the same building. It would require cooperation between Temple and Villanova in terms of Saturday scheduling, but that's probably a small hurdle to overcome. And the thought of a football doubleheader with both schools, in the tradition of the great Palestra basketball doubleheaders, could be a legitimate city event.
More on what it will take to make a very large leap after the jump
But what seems to be the bigger issue is this: Trying to create a program from basically nothing, ask it to leapfrog all the non-AQ schools, and jump right into being competitive in a BCS league. That is a very tall order. I understand Villanova are the reigning FCS Champions, but attendance has actually slipped over the last few seasons to an average of around 7,000, and they drew less than 6,000 for the FCS semi-final on campus. Granted, it was pouring rain and freezing (I watched the game), but that still doesn't seem to indicate a great passion for college football. And a desperate passion, as well as lots of private major gifts (USF was asked by the state to raise $5 million before they could even ask for football, and that was 15 years ago) are the only things that will make a startup program succeed at what will be a very high level from the jump off.
We went through this at USF, though under slightly different circumstances. There was an unquenchable thirst from our fans and alumni for football. They wanted it more than anything. They were able to fundraise to make it happen. And it's turned out to be the biggest startup football success story in history. This is absolutely no knock on a champion FCS program, a tremendous accomplishment, but the resources and commitment needed to succeed at the next level isn't even close.
BCS quality football is the 800 pound gorilla of an athletic department. It takes over everything, and factors into every decision that gets made by an administration. It's not just another team on your program; it becomes the prism through which everything you do is filtered, even at a legendary basketball school like Villanova. There is no way to do this halfway and be successful. It's like being on the button with a short stack of chips... you have two options; move all-in, or fold.
USF's first ever football game in 1997 had 49,212 people that were more than ready for big time football. Would the 'Cats be able to even get close to that? The school is a fraction of the size of USF, though with a much older history and the area ties that come with that. I don't know what the answer is. I just know that WIP (the first ever sports talk radio station, and one that has an unusually large influence in the area) has a standing policy of not talking about college sports. I know that Philly sports fans don't have their lives grind to a halt on Saturdays the way we do here in the South, and that college football barely gets any coverage in the local media. From what I can tell on my frequent visits home, there isn't a great, overwhelming desire for big time college football. The city certainly hasn't embraced the Temple Owls in any great numbers, who have really begun to turn it around under Al Golden. But there's a difference between Temple and Villanova. Temple is a "city" team, whereas Villanova is not only the "suburban" team, it's also the "Catholic" team. That will make a huge difference when it comes time to sell season tickets.
There is no city in America that is more passionate about sports. I'd argue that Philadelphians live and die with what happens with the four major sports, particularly the Eagles and Phillies, moreso than the residents of any other American city. Minus a seven month stint in Dover, Del., I haven't lived full time in Philly in almost 20 years, and I still read the Philly sports pages every single day and live and die with the Phightins and the Birds. Being a Philly sports fan is different than anywhere else. It becomes a large part of who you are and your identity. The question for Villanova is can they get enough Philadelphians to add college football to their list of sports they already care too much about.
So as far as an idea, I am all for this. It's a win for the BIG EAST all the way around, but only if everyone at Villanova is all-in. If there is any reservation by the university, the community, or the administration, let's pick up ECU or Memphis or find another way. The last thing the weakest of the six major conferences needs is an even weaker member that isn't fully committed. But if they want to do this, I can't wait to be at every USF-Villanova game until I'm dead, and am very excited for what could be a great addition to the league.