2012 is shaping up to be about as disastrous a year for Villanova athletics -- just as the Mayans predicted.
Villanova's flagship sport just lost to a team from a one-bid league, it's conference is crumbling and it's brand is suffering the negative effects brought on by both. It won't be as swift a destruction as hurricane, but have no doubt, the circumstances leading to the fall of Villanova's athletics program will be as damaging as any perfect storm.
The Villanova brand used to be multifaceted. The third-oldest college baseball program, a storied running tradition, a major football program and significant successes on the hardwood. The administration supported these athletic endeavors because they brought fame to the university that had long struggled to catch a main line train outward from Radnor Township and into the national consciousness.
While athletics generally were supported, football was the flagship, and as Bob Natiello explained, the Augustinians of the 1930s were enamored of the sport's potential. Before the era of big money or television games, the goal was to put a headline or a picture out to the wire services that would paint a strong and positive image for the university. In the 1950s, the Augustinians still saw the writing on the wall -- college football was the sport, nationally, even if Alexander Severance was beginning to build the roundball program into a notable one.
Then in the 1970s, Jack Kraft's Villanova battled John Wooden's dynasty UCLA program in a national title game, broadcast over the air on NBC. There would no longer be a question, Nova had football, but it was a basketball school.
The Wildcats wouldn't become a blue-blood like that UCLA team, like UNC, Kentucky or Duke. They could compete at an elite level, not annually, but often enough. Football became expendable to the Augustinians, who forgot the foresight that they had found in the 1950s, and shuttered the program after the 1980 season.
Things were fine for a while though. Kraft won well over 71% of his games at Villanova over 12 years at the helm of the program. When the university opted not to offer him a contract after his 1973 team failed to make the postseason (Kraft's only miss), they were able to replace him with an assistant out of the Palestra named Rollie Massimino.
It was a great hire for Nova. The 'Cats missed only one postseason berth during his era, made it to the Elite Eight five times and won the 1985 National Championship over a heavily-favored Georgetown. With interest in track and field declining, the university's eggs were all firmly secured in one basket.
Basketball's reach seemed national. UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana and Houston were all notable powers in the sport at the time -- maybe the interest would be there.
Villanova could scrape up the resources to field a winning team in basketball most of the time. Television revenue would help pay for it. The Big East conference would enable them to receive heightened visibility and achieve some of the effects that the Augustinians initially hoped would come with football.
In 2012, the national reach of basketball hasn't realistically panned out. Unless you are competing deep into March Madness, the exposure is minimal and worse so outside of the BCS football conferences that eat up the lion's share of television revenue.
As the Big East falls apart around the Villanova program, the basketball basket-of-eggs seems to be in grave danger. The Wildcats' brand is based on basketball success and exposure, but with the latest round of realignment making things look more and more difficult for a school without FBS football to stay in the national spotlight.
Xavier has success, but has never made it to the Final Four, and even the Musketeers have to spend around 30% of their total athletics budget on the sport just to remain competitive for an Atlantic 10 title year-to-year. Villanova spends millions more -- but will they be able to keep that up?
Alumni and fans dismiss Villanova football today because the Wildcats aren't playing the big names heard on ESPN every Saturday. The basketball program's season ticket waiting list is already starting to dwindle as the Big East prepares to lose some of its biggest brands and the program struggles to recover from one of it's lowest points. Neither is a cause for concern if television revenues remain strong -- the Wildcats' basketball budget is pushed higher and higher by Big East revenue distributions in recent years.
If that revenue source comes tumbling back to earth due to realignment and the basketball program continues to struggle, will the Wildcats be able to compete at a level that can earn 19 or more nationally-televised games as they have in the past?
That is perhaps the scariest part of the 18-point home-court loss to a Columbia program that rarely challenges for an Ivy League title. Another disappointing season and Jay Wright will be worried about his employment status, but the Wildcats may not have the big time basketball brand or TV-money resources to find a big-time replacement.
The eggs are starting to crack, and there is no other basket to look to. Villanova passed on that second basket in 1980 and again in 1997. In April 2011, the university was brushed off by a Big East conference that no longer felt a need to be loyal to a longtime member. It wasn't too late for a move to I-A football, but it was too late to make the big jump to the BCS (but realignment won't end for a while).
The Mayan calendar ends in 2012, leading many to predict oblivion and apocalypse. While the world may not end next month, the Wildcats' prospects as a force in college athletics could be heading that way. It isn't too late to try and stay afloat, but it takes difficult decisions (new conference?), a few risky moves (MAC football?) and without question an outpouring of support from alumni in favor of all of it.
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