Louisville wins the ACC lotto, leaving the Big East reeling

Andy Lyons

Is it a surprise that the nation's best-run athletics department was finally able to move into the ACC? After over a year of efforts to leave, the University of Louisville found their golden ticket to the ACC.

It's Louisville. That is your ACC invite-lottery winner for the month of November, beating out Connecticut for the most recent golden ticket out of the once-gilded city that is the Big East. The Big East is stuck with the Huskies for now (along with the Bearcats and Bulls, etc.), as the ACC has reportedly voted not to expand to 16 teams at this time.

The Providence Journal reported that if either Louisville or UConn left for the ACC, the Big East basketball schools would be able to vote to dissolve the conference as an entity. That seems unlikely after the Big East puffed out its chest and announced that Tulane and ECU would both join the league.

Instead, the Big East will continue to fall apart and the Catholic basketball schools will continue to be helpless to improve their situation in realignment.

Sure, dissolving the Big East would flex a bit of muscle and allow the basketball schools to feel like they control their own destiny, but do they really improve their situation by doing it? Would a Catholic schools' league without major college football attract the television interests that drive college sports by offering exposure and money?

Probably not.

It isn't as if the current landscape was unforeseeable. Lew Perkins saw the writing on the wall in 1990, when he took the athletic director position at Connecticut. Even at a burgeoning basketball power, he knew that football was going to be the key to long term survival and success in Division I athletics -- so he moved his department toward FBS football until finally getting an upgrade approved at the turn of the century.

UConn fell just a few votes short of an ACC invitation this time around and will likely get there eventually, because like Tulane, they have made an effort to invest in their athletics department and build football -- even if their final product has been underwhelming.

What could Villanova have done to prevent being a sitting-duck like the rest of the Big East's Catholic member?

In the1980s they could have used their new friends in the Big East to arrange annual football games with Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to bolster a program that could have used some bigger names on the schedule. Instead, myopic Villanova administrators dropped the program from existence because Howie Long and his teammates got into a fight.

When alumni forced their hand, administrators brought Villanova football back to life only a few years later, but the bigoted fear of a "bad element" coming to the Main Line with a bigger football program lead administrators to hold the program back, culminating in another passed opportunity in the mid-1990s, when the Big East asked Villanova to join or decline football membership -- the Trustees were presented with a report that was favorable toward making the move, but according to reports, then-President Fr. Dobbin torpedoed the proposal.

In Fall 2009, shockingly, the Villanova Trustees were again asked to consider a move to FBS football, and after almost six months of deliberations, they were prepared to accept an offer -- but while they conducted what Athletic Director Vince Nicastro has referred to as the "most comprehensive" study ever on the issue, they didn't address the Big East's concerns. When Villanova hopped on an April 10, 2011 conference call to discuss specifics, administrators at the other Big East football schools declined the Villanova plan.

Any school that really, truly wanted to control its destiny and have a seat at the table in the future wouldn't have taken their foot off of the gas. Phone calls would have been made and conference affiliation sought -- at any level.

Villanova's problem in April 2010 was that they hadn't made a decision on whether or not FBS football was what they wanted or not. They considered only whether Big East football was an option.

They blew it.

After six months of studies, estimates, surveys and the like, Villanova still hadn't answered the only question that mattered.

When Temple was announced as a Big East member in March, University President Peter Donohue stood on the dais with Big East commissioner John Marinatto and a group of Temple administrators and football coach Steve Addazio, he smirked and talked about Temple's storm water engineering program. He sweated when asked about football.

Fr. Donohue was invited to the press conference, however, because the Big East also announced an "investment in Villanova's FBS future," a cash payoff in exchange for their vote for Temple's all-sports membership and a smokescreen to ward off alumni pressure to move the football program into what was then, still, a high-quality football conference.

When approached after the press conference to get into more specifics on the "FBS future" for Villanova, Fr. Donohue declined to offer much comment as he hurried off somewhere else in Madison Square Garden.

The schools that have made moves to improve their standing in conference realignment have all had strong and dynamic leaders at the helm. Like them or not, Rutgers' Tim Pernetti, West Virginia's Oliver Luck and Louisville's Tom Jurich are leaders and salesmen who moved their schools by sheer force of will, doing so with the understanding and approval of academic leaders as well.

While Jurich and the Louisville administrators have spent the past year securing a better future for their football and basketball programs, Villanova's leadership has spent the past year quibbling with Radnor township over building heights and spending over $22 million to move the Grotto and Oreo statues around campus.

Next up for the Big East? Probably more expansion in football -- but not with Villanova. Instead, the Wildcats will pine for a spot in the ACC, while wondering why their athletic department isn't valued by a conference that, like every other remaining power-conference, has never admitted a member without an FBS football team.

Athletics have sparked tremendous growth for Villanova over the years. Without 1971, 1985 and 2009, Villanova may not even be on the academic map. As the Big East's star rose in the 1980s, so did Villanova. Now, as it's star falls, Villanova seems set to go along for that ride as well.

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