Friday, July 31, 2015

A springtime healing

Given the many ways in which Jay Wright embraces his program's participation in the Big 5, is it time to embrace the Wildcats as a Philadelphia team?

A springtime healing

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The undercurrent started flowing Monday morning, and it has grown stronger amid all the hoopla enveloping Villanova's trip to the Final Four.

Given the many ways in which Jay Wright embraces his program's participation in the Big 5, is it time to embrace the Wildcats as a Philadelphia team?

In other words, is it time for Big 5 fans whose dislike of the Main Liners literally predates the birth of an entire generation of fans to get over it?

I will offer my opinion in a bit. But first, I'd like to take a moment (okay, maybe a few moments) to aggregate the commentary we've seen this week about how the region has warmed to the Main Liners.

It started Monday morning with Phil Sheridan's front-page column in the Inquirer.

"During his tenure, Villanova has returned to full and proud participation in the Big Five," Sheridan wrote of Jay Wright. "This may not be popular on Hawk Hill, or at Broad and Montgomery, but that makes this Villanova team a Philadelphia team."

Sheridan, who was a senior at Temple when the Wildcats won the title in 1985, admitted to celebrating the Wildcats' triumph over Georgetown.

"I believe John Chaney would have understood why I cheered at my TV," Sheridan wrote. "Reaching the Final Four - especially with wins over storied programs like UCLA and Duke, plus Big East power Pittsburgh - should transcend all local grudges and resentments."

Wright himself was quoted in Rich Hofmann's column in Monday's Daily News.

"I love it for Philly basketball," Wright said. "It’s done so much for all of us. That’s what I’m into right now... I'm proud that now we get to be a part of that lore, of Villanova at the Final Four, and the La Salle teams [in the early 1950s], and the other Villanova teams. I’m really proud of that, of that maybe more than anything.”

Now you can choose to believe, as Hofmann wrote, that Wright really does enjoy being able "to participate in something that is bigger than him," or you can choose to believe that it's just talk.

But I would think you have to listen in some form to the many people quoted in Mike Jensen's story from Tuesday's Inquirer, from Speedy Morris' son to the late Jim Boyle's wife.

"Those guys just get it," Tess Boyle said of Jay Wright's program.

The big thing Wednesday was John Gonzalez's column, of course, in which the La Salle grad went to Hawk Hill to see whether St. Joe's students have warmed up to their eternal rivals. The poll of 50 students ended 37-13 against the Wildcats, but if you ask me, a roughly 3-1 ratio isn't all that big.
       
If you read the comments both in and on the story, you can tell that there's at least a decent amount of respect in the rivalry. There's jealousy too, especially among fans of the Atlantic 10 schools that have been stuck at the Elite 8 for a long time. But it's way more tame than much of what I see from Eagles fans on a regular basis.

Thursday's addition was a story by The Inquirer's Frank Fitzpatrick about the differences between new and old Villanova alumni. I will return to that shortly, because once you read the story you'll know right away there's a point in there that needs to be discussed.

Finally, today's Inquirer includes an interview John Gonzalez did with Villanova radio color analyst Whitey Rigsby. The former Wildcats player embraced Villanova's role in the region and voiced his belief that the region is capable of embracing his alma mater.

When St. Joe's made that great run with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, I was the leader of the pack. They have to realize 'Nova is representing them whether they like it or not. They don't want to cheer for 'Nova when we're playing St. Joe's. I get that. But we're representing Philly and the Big Five and the area right now. Why would you root for Carolina? What positive vibes do you get out of rooting for a team from 500 miles away?

This change in mood at both ends of Lancaster Avenue didn't just happen because of Scottie Reynolds' picket-fence dash to glory on Saturday. The roots of this thing were planted much earlier, and now the time has finally come for the blossoms to flower.

I think there might be a generational aspect to this too. And by generation, I don't mean 20 years, I mean maybe half that at most. Take La Salle: the Rasual Butler generation of fans isn't the same as the Steven Smith generation, and won't be the same as the Aaric Murray generation if he turns out to be as advertised.

At Penn - and we'll get to the Quakers' situation after the season ends, but keep in mind what I'm about to say - there have been separate generations of fans centered around Jerome Allen, Michael Jordan, Ugonna Onyekwe and Ibrahim Jaaber. That's four in 15 years. I've come to know people from each one covering the team and they all see things differently.

At St. Joe's, you can argue that there are different generations for Marvin O'Connor, Jameer Nelson and Ahmad Nivins. You get the idea.

Regardless of when you came to the Big 5, I'm not saying you have to go out and buy a Villanova t-shirt because of this. And of course you shouldn't be any less throaty in yelling at the Wildcats when your team is playing them.

I'm just saying that it's okay for you to think about whether the Main Line is really as far away as you think it is, and to acknowledge that Wright has done a lot of work to get Villanova to embrace the culture of Philadelphia basketball. If nothing else, take a moment to think about why you feel the way you do about the Wildcats.

The reason why I say all this is that I worry sometimes about the future of the Big 5 round-robin. Not because of any information I have or rumors I hear, but because of how difficult it is to get the thing scheduled every season.

With a 16-team Big East and a 14-team Atlantic 10, the number of open dates for non-conference games isn't as big as it used to be before the conference realignments of recent years. But it gets done, and it gets done because all of the parties involved want to get it done.

I also wonder whether we might not be where we are now if Wright wasn't the coach at Villanova. Maybe we would be, and I'm not saying this to disparage the other schools and the many administrators whose work isn't as public as the coaches'. But it's not so hard to imagine things being different, because things haven't been as they are for all that long.

That brings me to my last point, which is to refute Fitzpatrick's assertion that the Palestra and Big 5 "don't mean what they once did."

Of course we aren't in the 1970's anymore, but I think that line overstates things.

The current generation and the one before it have only ever known a full round-robin. I've talked to students of recent vintage from all of the schools, and they all really enjoy the special atmosphere and culture of City Series games. That includes Villanova students, who've told me without prompting how much they love the Palestra. Some even wish they could have more games there.

As someone who first got exposed to the Big 5 in this decade, I fall into that category too. To me, the best way to ensure that we keep getting new generations of fans is to keep the full round-robin intact every year. It's a lot harder to learn about a tradition if you don't get to experience it yourself firsthand, from trips to the Palestra to throwing streamers.

(The latter of which could get an interesting twist when the soccer team comes to town next year, but that's a whole other discussion.)

So as Jay Wright prepares to step on to college basketball's biggest stage, we should be thankful for his belief in the value of the Big 5, and for his willingness to be part of a whole that truly is made richer by the sum of its parts.

Join me tomorrow night for live coverage of the Villanova-North Carolina game, starting at around 8:30. I don't expect the game to actually start at the listed time of 8:47, but we should have plenty to talk about before tipoff.

And if you're looking for a way to pass some time during the day tomorrow, the Penn Relays enthusiassts among you might want to swing by Franklin Field. Penn is hosting a track meet that will include 40 other schools, including Temple, Villanova and La Salle. More information on the meet, including the event schedule and a list of all participating teams, can be found here.

I'll be there to do some advance work for the blog's Relays coverage, which believe it or not starts in only 20 days. Yes, the time is going by that quickly.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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