Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Football & The Big East (Part 1)

The lasting story of the 2012-13 sports year will be the headline that reads “Football destroyed  the Big East Conference. Which isn’t quite accurate, of course.

The Big East was (nearly) destroyed by greed, of which football was a symptom of a larger disease. No one can say without question that Rutgers is joining the Big Ten because of its football team. Nor is the premise of Syracuse and Boston College squaring off in the cold of a New England winter the sole driver behind the Atlantic Coast Conference’s predatory behavior.  Greed, or as I’ve described it in the past, "NCAA musical chairs", drives college presidents to throw reason and tradition right out the window when the music stops and one less beanbag chair sits on the Division I floor, which is why Maryland disposed of 60 years of ACC fellowship in just 45 minutes of a trustees meeting, or why Texas A&M gave up a 120 years old rivalry with their neighbors down the road in Austin.

The media, then, will tell you that football is dead, dead, and deader than dead in the new, basketball-friendly Big East. But six of the teams in the newest configuration of the league still have a football preference, even if they seem to be going in six different directions.

We start with Georgetown, where the Hoyas enter 2013 amidst a measure of institutional uncertainty about where the Patriot League is taking (or not taking) this team. A year ago, when six PL schools voted for full scholarship football and Georgetown cast a very public “no” vote, there was a sense from the league office that Georgetown would eventually go with the flow. That hasn’t happened.

The problem, of course, is that the 2013 recruiting cycle marks a visible divide between what the rest of the PL is selling (e.g., a guaranteed free ride to some of the better liberal arts schools in the nation) and what Kevin Kelly and his staff can sell (e.g., some grant, some loan, some guesswork but a great place to go to school, if you don’t mind the MSF.) The results from this year’s recruiting class reflect that Georgetown is already starting a lap behind in the recruiting race. What’s the prognosis when two, three, or four years of PL scholarship players start lining up across the field? The other coaches know but won’t say. Neither will Coach Kelly.

Football wise, Georgetown is an outlier among the other Big East programs at the University. The prospect of the increase in TV money from Fox Sports One could open up some money in the budget to better support the team, but it may be mitigated by a decline in ticket demand—because, after all, there is no Syracuse or Pitt on the schedules to spur paying extra for seats. If Georgetown reverts to the attendance patters of the late Craig Esherick-early JTIII years, when the Verizon Center upper deck was tarped off,  that revenue loss is going to impact a lot of sports, including football.

The next few years are vital for Georgetown to define what kind of program it wants to be and if it is willing to fund it to the degree necessary wherever it can compete—in the Patriot, the NEC, or an independent (since no one seems to want the frequent flyer club known as the Pioneer League). A successful Big East in basketball can only be a positive for football's roadmap, but the road is going to be rocky.

The road could be just as unsettled at Villanova, which was within a week of joining the Big East in football in 2011 before the University of  Pittsburgh tabled the motion, right before the Syracuse-Pitt skullduggery with ESPN and the ACC blew up the idea of expansion from within. Where would the Wildcats be today had that vote going through? Sitting alongside UConn and Temple in the American Athletic Conference (AAC)? Or would the ACC have reached out to capture the Philadelphia market? Whatever the scenario, reality is not so cheery.

Villanova spends approximately $5.3 million on its football program, and in 2009 it paid off with a Division I-AA national title. Its football home in the Colonial Athletic Association gives it a front row seat for an at-large bid, but the CAA is in its own turf fight over realignment. Massachusetts has left for the MAC, James Madison has eyed the Sun Belt, and the New England schools continue to muddle through an overall lack of facilities and funding relative to their southern neighbors.

The Wildcats get a Division I-A game nearly every year, an annual game with Delaware that always draw well, and more often than not, a ticket to the NCAA I-AA playoffs…but at a significant, multi-million loss to the athletic department’s bottom line. In the new conference order, can the Cats keep this up?

Head coach Andy Talley has been resolute to stay in the CAA, and the Wildcats may well do so. Some have floated the concept of the Patriot league, though the mere idea of taking a step down in the PL can lead to all sorts of consequences. Richmond learned this the hard way when its president, former GU provost William Cooper, was drummed out of his post a decade ago following his recommendation that Richmond consider joining the Patriot League. No one from UR has pushed it forward since.

And, of course, it’s not like the PL would save Villanova any money, as the 60-scholarship league is just as expensive, but with a major competitive firewall, namely the PL’s academic index (AI). It’s unknown how many of Villanova’s players would even meet the stringent requirements of an AI, but Talley is in no hurry to find out.

What was said about Georgetown could apply to Villanova as well: the next few years are vital to define what kind of program it wants to be. While it seems that I-A is off the table, a successful Big East in basketball can only be a positive for football, but the road to get there is not altogether certain.

A third intercollegiate team is now on the Big East landscape. A school which once played in Division I-A’s Missouri Valley Conference before 36,000 at its on-campus bowl, Butler settled into the small college ranks after World War II and remained there until 1993, when it joined the Pioneer League. For many years, Butler’s program mimicked the state of the Butler Bowl, which has slowly but inexorably been falling apart for years. By the mid-2000’s, the south stands (early converted to an amphitheater) had been torn down, the east side was bulldozed for apartments, and the remaining seating was just 30 yards wide.

The  renovated Butler Bowl now seats 5,600 and the Bulldogs have begun to reassert themselves in the Pioneer, which now holds an annual ticket to the I-AA playoffs. With a budget of  just $648,000, football remains a low cost option to maintain football at the campus, mindful of the national growth of the basketball program up the hill at the field house. With the move to the Big East,  Butler’s overall athletic budget will be the smallest in the conference at just $15 million, but an influx of TV money offers the opportunity to upgrade a number of sports. Is football one of them, or is increased football expenditures in conflict with the goal of upgrading teams playing in the Big East?

The three schools don’t seem to share much in common. But they are now part of a conference that, to date, has not embraced the role football plays at their schools.  And while the Big East isn’t adding football as a conference sport for a variety of reasons, is there an opportunity for these three schools to commit to a scheduling agreement?

For Georgetown, this would mean two new games on the calendar each year against their Big East brethren, with alternating trips to Philadelphia and Indianapolis. While trading Marist and Wagner for Villanova and Butler would probably not upset anyone on the Hilltop, Villanova’s situation is much more complex. The Wildcats are committed to eight CAA games a season, with a solid non-conference schedule that usually includes a I-A team like Temple, Pennsylvania, and a Patriot League opponent. Villanova would be initially unlikely to give up two local opponents to play schools like Georgetown or Butler. Yes, it would likely be two comfortable wins given the funding disparities, but Big Five rivalries are thicker than blood or water.

Butler would also have some decisions to make. The Pioneer schedule is now eight games as well—while Butler has started to add Ivy opponents (Dartmouth is visiting Indianapolis this season), it continued to schedule one or two games each year against smaller college teams in Indiana to keep travel costs down. Would it add another plane trip (to the four it must make in the Pioneer) to travel east each year?

But as we’ve all learned over the last few years, nothing is set in stone when it comes to football. While the three schools don’t figure to see each other right now, it’s worth a look down the road, one which the conference itself might want to tacitly promote. Obviously, the Big East cared less when Georgetown and St. John’s competed in the MAAC, but as these three schools continue to play football amidst a changing basketball landscape, it might be a further opportunity to enhance rivalries that will now extend into basketball season and beyond.

In part 2, three more Big East schools with football ambitions, but at the club level. What is the future of football at Marquette, Xavier, and DePaul?