Does Villanova want to be big-time?
That's the real question before the university's board of trustees when that group of heavy hitters ultimately sits down and decides whether Villanova should move its football program to the Big East. Does the university want a big-time sports program?
By early next year, the board of trustees has to weigh the very real costs involved in such a move. The trustees know the faculty has lined up against it - solidly, we're told.
However, board members also must understand the entire changing college sports landscape and decide where Villanova fits in. They can't be naive enough to believe that where Villanova stands today - with the 12th-best men's basketball program in the country, according to this week's Associated Press rankings - will be the status quo. There is no status quo in college sports.
Anyone questioning that only has to look at this week's news. Texas Christian University, based in Fort Worth, Texas, decided that its best bet for the future is to join a conference that doesn't have a football team that could stay on the field with the third-ranked Horned Frogs and doesn't have another school within 760 miles of Fort Worth. Why did TCU do it? To protect its future by joining a conference that has an automatic Bowl Championship Series spot.
Either way Villanova chooses, it will be gambling. It's a monetary gamble to believe that future Big East television contracts, football and basketball, will bring more revenue. More than anything, the move is a hedge against being left on the outside.
The smart guys I know in college sports say that if the Big East splits, the football schools will have more money in the future. TV revenue may go down for Villanova basketball if it isn't part of the football group.
The best argument for the status quo is that a league with Georgetown, Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence, St. John's, and others who don't play big-time football - a league that could add the likes of Xavier or Dayton - would still be big-time, and be more of a natural and traditional fit for Villanova. That argument also is a gamble. Of the current AP top 25 basketball teams, only Villanova and Georgetown don't play I-A football. Of the current top 10, each school plays in a league that gets automatic invites to the bigger bowl games. (Only two top-25 women's teams represent schools that don't play top-level football.)
If Georgetown and Villanova could remain the outliers, that may be the high ground. But history suggests that is no given. The greatest professional basketball dynasty in history was anchored by a center and a point guard. The center for those great Boston Celtics teams, Bill Russell, also won two NCAA titles at the University of San Francisco. The Celtics' point guard, Bob Cousy, won an NCAA title at Holy Cross. For different reasons, those two schools, San Francisco and Holy Cross, chose to leave big-time basketball, never to return. The board should investigate the pros and cons of those decisions.
If anybody at Villanova wants to suggest that the rampant commercialism shouldn't be part of the equation, that Villanova must fight those forces, it's too late to make the case. Every chance the school gets, it sends its fans down to the CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia/Wells Fargo/Bank That Buys Wells Fargo Center.
The concern was expressed to me that if Villanova casts its basketball lot with the mostly Catholic schools that don't play big-time football, many of those schools would cut expenses. That doesn't sound like a bad thing. But the words used were "race to the bottom." That's not to say Villanova and Georgetown would downgrade. And you might think, well, OK, if other programs downgrade, then an NCAA bid will be even easier for 'Nova to get, and maybe cheaper. But it can't be a coincidence that Villanova is riding high while in the biggest-time hoop league possible, with maximum exposure.
The assumption that Villanova football can always remain at its current level also is a gamble. (It's also a money-loser, with the school losing more than $4 million a year.) It's possible that if Villanova doesn't go to the Big East in football, it eventually would have to downgrade its program. The smart guys in college sports say a lot of Division I-AA programs are looking at that, either moving up or cutting, since the status quo in the Football Championship Subdivision isn't great.
Villanova's Faculty Congress voted earlier this month on whether to support the move. According to several professors, the vote was 29-0 against going to the Big East in football, with one abstention. At two faculty forums held earlier this month to discuss the issue, faculty members "were all speaking with one voice" against the move, according to a biology professor.
"It's very difficult to get academics to agree on anything," said that professor, Michael Russell.
In an e-mail to Villanova president Peter Donahue, Russell wrote how a move to the Big East "would represent a black hole of resources . . . coming on the heels of salary and hiring freezes, as well as a gross inversion of priorities and mission."
History suggests that the faculty at most institutions rail against big-time sports, and Villanova's history suggests that the faculty won't necessarily be the determining voice when the board of trustees decides whether to move to football's top division.
A large portion of Temple's faculty was vocal in its opposition to expenditures being spent on football in the 1990s. The same was true for the faculty at Rutgers. Those opinions ultimately didn't carry the day. And academics have been against football at various schools for various reasons for more than a century. Harvard's arts and sciences faculty attempted to keep its students from playing football in 1895. They're still playing.
At Villanova, the decision to drop Division I-A football in 1980 was generally applauded by faculty, but the decision to bring it back five years later at the Division I-AA level, in addition to being against the wishes of faculty, was "strongly opposed" by Villanova's president at the time, John Driscoll, according to English professor Charles Cherry, who was an associate vice president of academic affairs at the time. The board of trustees made that decision.
Sociology professor Rick Eckstein said that when it comes to football, Villanova would mostly be competing against schools that have larger operating budgets and receive state funding. (TCU is now a notable exception.) Eckstein said Villanova's operating budget is $389 million, while the budget at Rutgers is about $1.5 billion and at Connecticut $2 billion.
Cherry questioned whether Big East football could even be considered big-time football right now, although he made that statement before the TCU announcement.
"It seems to me the Big East is struggling at this point and is mildly desperate," said Cherry, who estimated that at least 80 percent of Villanova's faculty was "strongly opposed" to moving up in football.
Even if money for a $35 million football training center is raised privately, as would be the plan, Eckstein said, "there's research out there to show, sometimes there's a trade-off dollar-for-dollar," with less money donated to academics and other campus needs if more money is donated for athletic purposes.
Russell cited research indicating that all but 14 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) lost money on the sport in 2009. However, former Temple president Peter Liacouras would argue - as he often did - that it is hard to place a value on big-time sports as a front door to the school. The folks at Boston College would make the same case.
Whatever the board decides, here's a prediction: Ithan Avenue, the street that separates Villanova's sports complex from most of its academic buildings, will soon represent a slightly greater divide than in the past. If Villanova passes on Big East football, there is a very real chance that the next Jay Wright will pass on coming to the Main Line, that the next hot coach will go for greater glory at a school that pays bigger bucks. If the big-timers ever come to their senses and institute a top-level football playoff, the pie will be split among the teams in play, while Villanova will be out of the loop.
The flip side: If Villanova makes the move, sports will gain another notch up over academics. And will students get on a bus to go see the big game against South Florida? Will campus life really benefit? Will other sports suffer to pay for this decision?
That's the way it works these days in college sports. There is no win-win solution. Welcome to the big time.