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Expansion Apocalypse: BIG EAST Responds!

(Updated 11/3) The BIG EAST meetings in Philadelphia ended with a result that had been highly speculated for the last few months. The BIG EAST presidents unanimously voted to add two more football-playing members -- a result that few might have foreseen a few years ago.

While many speculated that the eight Catholic (and non-football) schools in the conference would work to block any further expansion of the football side of the BIG EAST, it would appear that fear of a split has driven them to acquiesce to the football side's demands.

The planned expansion would add two schools to the FBS football conference, and may increase the all-sports membership to either 17 or 18 members -- depending on Villanova's decision next month. It is widely believed that one of those two football memberships is reserved for Villanova.

The other candidates that have been rumored are Texas Christian University (TCU), the University of Houston, the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Temple University. While some observers believe that the University of Memphis may also be considered, the size of their media market (48th) would not be helpful in launching a BIG EAST Network and any money from Fred Smith (the CEO of FedEx) that is offered is unlikely to outweigh the potential revenue from the other listed schools.

There has been no announcement of any invitations made at this time, and it is not clear if a decision to extend invitations to any particular schools have even been discussed at this time. What the conference agreed upon today is a "process to evaluate the terms and conditions for potential expansion candidates." What this seems to mean is that Commissioner Marinatto has been empowered to begin a process of discussion and due diligence regarding expansion.

For Villanova and Notre Dame, it surely means that the BIG EAST office will be sending out feelers. If 10 football members is the goal, the simplest way to get there would be for the two best football programs from the non-football schools to join: Notre Dame and Villanova. Of course, Notre Dame is a long shot to join the conference (or any conference) for football, and Villanova may not be prepared to make the transition to FBS football.

It is also unclear whether the Big East plans to invite potential new schools as all-sports members (expanding to 17 or 18) or to offer football-only invites like they once did with Rutgers, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Temple. Of that group, only Temple never attained full membership -- being blocked by Villanova. The conference previously began a move away from football-only membership in 1995, when it offered Rutgers and West Virginia full membership. Virginia Tech became a full member in 2001, while the conference began to take measures to force Temple out -- setting performance standards for them to maintain their football membership which they could not achieve.

If history is a guide then, any new members will participate in all sports.

Today's announcement provides little insight into Villanova's football status, however. While the vote to expand has made room for the Wildcats in the football conference, it also abates some fears of the immediate dissolution of the conference and may take pressure off of the trustees and basketball boosters to upgrade.

Athletic Director Vince Nicastro told Dan Gelston of the Associated Press:

Our football evaluation is ongoing. We are moving forward as quickly as we can, but not at the expense of being absolutely thorough. We still don't have a specific decision date, but it is likely to be resolved sometime during this academic year.

Lenn Robbins wrote in the New York post that upgrading Villanova football would require an initial outlay of around $30 million dollars. In comparison the Davis Center, which houses practice facilities for men's and women's basketball cost $18.5million. Villanova is capable of eight-digit expenditures for athletics, but an upgrade in football will likely depend upon the university's ability to raise a significant portion of that cost.

In the same vein, the expansion of the football conference may also make it more appealing to the Villanova administration. More schools may well mean more money is on the table for the football program should a move happen. The current state of FCS football as a hopeless money-loser may still leave room for the Wildcats to be wooed into the warm embrace of a BCS automatic qualifier conference and all of the TV and Bowl money that status entails.

The press release follows:

BIG EAST Approves Process To Evaluate Terms and Conditions For Expansion

PHILADELPHIA -- The BIG EAST Conference submitted the results of its extensive self-analysis and evaluation of the college athletics environment today at its annual Conference Board of Directors meeting. Based on those results, the BIG EAST presidents agreed that the interests of each of the conference’s 16 member institutions would be served by increasing the number of Bowl Subdivision football-playing members to 10. They unanimously approved the process to evaluate the terms and conditions for potential expansion candidates.

"Today, our Board of Directors affirmed a set of key strategic initiatives, including expansion, designed to enhance membership stability and maximize our value," stated Commissioner John Marinatto.

Marinatto said the conference will refrain from commenting further on the expansion process.

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Also notable today is this nugget from a Philly.com article about the Philadelphia Union's president stepping down:

From Tampa, Veit will act as a liaison for the Union in upcoming and ongoing deals, most notably talks of bringing Villanova football to PPL Park, the Union's 18,500-seat facility in Chester.

As Jonathan Tannenwald, who writes about Philadelphia college sports and professional soccer for Philly.com notes:

Why do I have a hunch that Tom Veit's last - and perhaps defining - move with the Union will be Villanova at PPL Park?

The way that story is phrased, it sounds more likely than ever that it's going to happen.

Tannenwald qualified those statements by noting that he doesn't know anything for certain about the issue and that he was speculating on Twitter about an article's wording.

UPDATE (9:09pm): The Boston Globe article on the subject contained the following claim:

Although no one would officially say specifically what this meant, sources at the Big East said that Villanova, which participates in the Big East in all sports but FBS football--where it is a member of the FCS Colonial Athletic Association--indicated it was ready to make the commitment to elevate itself from FCS level--the Wildcats are the defending FCS national champion--to the FBS level as the Big East's ninth team.

Meanwhile, the Newark Star-Ledger suggests that Villanova football is the top priority for this expansion:

With Big East presidents voting unanimously Tuesday to add two more football schools, the league’s first move will be to press Villanova to make the jump to the FBS level, according to someone with knowledge of the conference’s thinking.