Villanova football has a long history prior to the revival of the program at the FCS level. In 1955, as College Football was just beginning to form the divide between the Haves and Have-nots that is growing bigger and driving a rapidly shifting landscape today, Villanova football was at a crossroads.
The Wildcats were an independent playing under the auspices of the loosely-organized ECAC (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference), which meant that scheduling was left to the school's ability to make individual contracts with opponents. The program had mostly played regional opponents prior to war, but football was becoming bigger and Villanova had to choose which fork in the road to take.
In the 1950s, like today, Villanova was a growing institution, hoping to translate athletic success into national recognition. Big-time football was the direction the program would head, but there were issues.
Villanova Stadium seated less than 10,000 fans back in the 1950's and the challenges of expansion were similar to today. By 1955, the administration had a growth plan in place that included a desire to build the stadium up to seat 25-to-40 thousand fans, but it was a low priority. Instead, in order to accommodate big time opponents, the 'Cats would play at Shibe Park when it didn't conflict with baseball, and would play early games at the cavernous Municipal Stadium in Grocery Bowls, normally against teams from the SEC or Southwest Conference.
Oftentimes, they would play on the road. In 1951, the 'Cats would play only one home game. In 1952 they would play three at home, but travelled around 25,000 miles in order to fill the schedule with far-flung opponents. Thanks to the miracle of air travel, the players would miss only five days of class with all of that travel.
"We don't like all this traveling that our team has had to do," Father Donnellon, then president of the university, told the Saturday Evening Post in 1955. "We want to bring the game back to the campus."
Playing on the road was not just a strain on the athletes, but on the football culture at the university. With so few home games, alumni and students rarely had the opportunity to see the team play. Games were rarely televised widely in those days either, so without many home games, a team would have trouble building a fanbase.
Despite those difficulties, Villanova football turned a profit in the 1950's, but the program struggled to be competitive as recruiting was not a strong point of the program. They were handcuffed by ECAC rules and suffered a constant turnover on the coaching staff, neither of which helped land the blue chip players.
Villanova had difficulty scheduling games as an independent. Some bigger schools would snub the Wildcats while others simply weren't interested in playing a game at Villanova Stadium. Big name teams required big-time guarantees to come to town, which couldn't be supported by the gate at (then) 9,000-seat Villanova Stadium.
The grocery bowls were a "measure of necessity," that helped Villanova through rough spots. In the same way that the university went out of its way to get Wake Forest to visit campus in 1988, when the FCS program was in its infancy to give the team a publicity boost.
The grocery bowl era was a period of great struggle for the Villanova program, trying to find a place for itself in the world of big time college football. Despite that, the university community supported the program. When alumni were surveyed, there was overwhelming support for keeping the program, with only 15 total alums supporting the idea of discontinuing the program.
"I'm in favor of football," Father Henry Greenlee, the Augustinian Provincial who headed the order in the western hemisphere in the '50s said. "I hope the time will never come when Villanova is forced to give it up."
Villanova dreamed of forming an eastern major football league, to ease the scheduling burden and to bring big name opponents to Philadelphia regularly. Villanova athletic directors of that era worked to try and broker that arrangement, to bring the major eastern independents together for that purpose, but there was little success to be had.
It wasn't until decades later that those schools would be ready to form a league. Penn State tried to build that league again in 1981, a move which also failed. In 1991, many of the last remaining eastern independents, finally moved to come together under the Big East umbrella.
By that point, it was a decade too late for Villanova. Father Edmund Dobbin was now president of the university and football would not be escalated. Villanova's dream of an eastern league came true 36 years too late.
Now the Villanova administration is again interested in being a part of big time college football. The eastern conference of their dreams finally exists, but their status with that conference is currently in a holding pattern.
Frustration, again, is the story of Villanova football.
*Special thanks to reader Sean Cox for passing along the following article:
Villanova's Big Time Football Blues