In 1955, Villanova basketball was making what was just its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in the program's 35th year in existence. Basketball was growing quickly under head coach Alexander Severance, but it was overshadowed by the Wildcats' football program in the university's athletic aspirations. Since that time, a comedy of errors has held Villanova's athletics program back from ever submitting the mountain of elite programs.
The history of the football program and a series of fumbles and strategic errors can explain how Villanova landed in the precarious position in which it currently sits with the Big East conference. The story begins in the 1950s, but some of the universities' biggest blunders didn't come until decades later.
Coach Frank Reagan was in his second season on the Main Line in 1955, and hadn't seen much success. In 1954 and 1955, Reagan coached just five home games and brought home only two victories. He turned things around in 1956, putting together his first winning season, and would have his most successful year in 1958.
Villanova was still rebounding from the Sinful Seven scandal of 1950, which saw the university, along with Boston College, Virginia, and Maryland, come within 25 votes (out of 136) of being expelled from the NCAA — for essentially buying college football players. Prior to 1948, there were no rules against the practice of offering talented athletes money to come to a school and play football, but once those rules were in-place, Villanova and the other six hold-outs were not in compliance.
Villanova saw some tremendous football successes in the era before the "sanity code" of the NCAA began the process of amateurizing college sports. Then-coach Jordan Olivar never had a losing season from 1943 until he left the Main Line following the 1948 season, and in that span, he took the Wildcats from nowhere to two Bowl appearances, including a 27-7 shellacking of Nevada in the 1949 Harbor Bowl.
The Big-Time Dream
Maybe it was that Harbor Bowl win that filled the Villanova administration with piss and vinegar, but the 1950s like the present, were a time of massive growth in college athletics. More and more Americans were attending colleges on the GI Bill, and with the growth of universities, came the growth of their athletics programs.
College football was the sport that garnered the most attention, and the Augustinians that run Villanova could not have been more supportive of the game in the 1950s.
"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."
Eastern Conferences... (Error #1)
In any discussion of Big East football's path, there is always at least some mention of Penn State and Joe Paterno's "dream" of forming an eastern all-sports conference in the early 1980s. That dream really started in the 1950s, at Villanova.
The athletic directors at Villanova in that era tried and failed to broker an arrangement between northeastern schools participating in major college football, almost all of which were independent at the time, to form a new "power conference" that would unite them like the SEC and Big Ten schools.
Bud Dudley, famous for promoting Villanova's "Grocery Bowl" football games as well as with founding the still-extant Liberty Bowl game, lobbied for that eastern league as loudly as possible. Dudley had been compared by some to Major League Baseball's Bill Veeck, a quintessential promoter who once signed a dwarf, Eddie Gaedel, to a player contract in St. Louis as a promotional stunt. That personality may have hurt Villanova's chances of appearing as a solid ally to schools like Penn State and the US Naval Academy.
Many of the schools that would have been recruited to that conference were among the schools that ultimately became part of the Big East football conference in 1991, and it might have saved football at other schools like Xavier, Detroit and Marquette. Bringing schools like Penn State into the fold, however, would have been key to making a league work — and their lack of interest meant that independence remained the only course for Villanova football.
The Stadium Issue (Error #2)
In 1955, Villanova Stadium, then known as Goodreau Field, seated just 9,100 spectators and was far too small to meet the financial demands that major college football schools needed. Villanova began a policy of moving football games off-site, most often to Shibe Park (later known as Connie Mack Stadium) or to Municipal Stadium (later renamed JFK Stadium and ultimately the site of the current Wells Fargo Center).
For schools in more urbanized areas, moving games to larger off-campus stadiums was anything but unusual at the time. Archrival Boston College, played many of their games in the 1940s and 1950s at Fenway Park in Boston until the Red Sox owner, Tom Yawkey decided that college football wasn't good for the state of the grass and forced them out after the 1956 season.
Boston College fans and alumni felt that "a decision to drop football was imminent" when they played their final games at Fenway in 1956. There was nowhere else to play, and a stadium building project was a huge undertaking. At the time, Alumni Field on the BC campus held just 5,000 spectators.
Instead of dropping the sport, however, a massive fundraising drive was undertaken, and a 25,000-seat stadium was constructed on their campus, along with a slew of other facilities to follow.
Villanova, meanwhile, had long been considering plans to expand the on-campus Goodreau Field stadium to somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 seats, which would have allowed the 'Cats to play major opponents without leaving campus. It was an objective of the $21,125,000 expansion program (over $170million in 2010 dollars) that Villanova was in the midst of in the mid-1950s, but a low priority.
With Shibe Park and Municipal Stadium easily available, Villanova didn't need a new stadium like Boston College did, but had they built one, things might have been easier from there on. In 2012, the idea of building a 40,00o-seat stadium in Villanova, Pennsylvania is laughable as the infrastructure to support such construction just doesn't exist and local authorities seem poised to resist any such application.
The conference years
In 1976, Villanova finally joined a conference, in basketball-only, aligning itself with Duquesne, George Washington, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, UMass, and West Virginia. The conference was known colloquially as the Eastern 8, and would later transform into today's Atlantic-10.
Villanova joined as a charter member of the conference, abandoning independent-status in basketball and a year-later in their other sports. The move did not solve the football problem on the Main Line, but by providing for the Olympic sports with a home, it freed up more resources for the university. Besides, six of the eight conference members at that time were football schools, and five were among the group of "Eastern Independents" that Villanova often tried to schedule.
The move immediately helped to get West Virginia onto the schedule and Massachussetts would eventually offer Villanova a series between 1978 and 1980. Rutgers also joined the schedule in 1978 for the first time in 16 years.
With the Eastern 8, however, came the administration of Reverend John M. Driscoll, O.S.A., that would change the face of Villanova athletics forever.
Driscoll was wooed by the eastern Catholic schools like Georgetown and St. John's, who had formed a basketball-first conference that was perfectly-timed to take advantage of a new concept that was taking America by storm: Cable Television. With cable television came the foundation of ESPN, today's "Worldwide Leader," and in 1979, a fledgeling network that loaded up on college basketball content that was cheaper to secure than professional sports.
Villanova would join the Big East Conference for the 1980-81 season.
The dropping (Error #3)
With Big East basketball becoming a nearly-immediate hit, and Villanova basketball in particular blazing its way to the big-time, with Jack Kraft and then Rollie Massimino building on the foundation of success laid down by Alexander Severance, football was firmly in the backseat on the Main Line by 1980. Unlike the Eastern 8, only two other Big East members played big-time college football when it was founded, with UConn fielding a I-AA Yankee Conference team
Importantly, however, Boston College was in the Big East, and since 1945 the Eagles had served as Villanova's primary rival in football (and a strong rival in other sports as well). The Villanova/Boston College game had been played since 1922, and was played annually starting in 1926, with an 11-year break starting in 1935 and resuming in 1945.
A number of factors led Villanova to drop football after the 1980 season, the reasons cited were financial but, more importantly, it was a behavioral issue that pushed the last button. The Wildcats financial issues were still largely the product of not having a large enough stadium to bring major college powers to Philadelphia — that led to scheduling more regional programs and a tendency to play "road-warrior" schedules.
Villanova wasn't that hard-up for money, however, and in-fact, the new home for basketball and olympic sports took some pressure off of football to pay the bills. However, a series of behavioral issues in the late 70s coming to a head with a large brawl involving key players like Howie Long in 1980, helped sour the administration on football. Besides, the Big East firmly shifted the spotlight to basketball, and in 1981 it must have seemed to Fr. Driscoll like college basketball program could now provide the prestige and student morale that the school had pursued through football.
So in April 1981, led by Fr. Driscoll, the Villanova board of trustees voted to disband the football program in a move that would later be described by Driscoll as a mistake. In fact, it was, as the Big East conference, founded on basketball, would not be able to out-pace football interests forever. By dropping football, Villanova removed itself from the football discussion that started just 8 years later, when Nova's team was just a fledgeling first-year I-AA squad.
University leaders in the 1950s saw that football was the future flagship of college athletics despite their mistakes in execution, but by 1981, new leadership had lost that prescience.
Disrespecting Penn State (Error #4)
Almost immediately after the Big East was formed, Penn State began to realize that their own conference situation was less than desirable. The landscape was already beginning to shift away from one where independent programs could easily schedule and compete by 1981. To help rectify this, the northeastern superpower proposed something that Villanova had been waiting for since the 1940s — but now Penn State was finally interested a year too late.
Villanova was not a part of the Penn State conference proposal, how could they be after dropping football so soon beforehand. Instead, Joe Paterno wanted to form a league with Pittsburgh, Boston College, Temple, Maryland, Syracuse and Rutgers.
The problem was that Boston College and Syracuse had just just formed the Big East conference and were content to let their new creation play out a little longer under Dave Gavitt's leadership — Gavitt had shown them some early success, after-all. Maryland had been a member of an all-sports conference since joining the Southern Conference in 1921, and was a founding member of the ACC in 1953. They too were comfortable where they were, and so Penn State's proposal fell through.
That's where the details get a little hazy as most people re-telling the events today seem to disagree on some parts of the timeline.
From there, it got interesting. The Big East would offer membership to Pittsburgh around the same time, which the Panthers would accept, and the issue of Penn State joining the Big East also arose.
If you believe Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions were offered a chance to join the conference as a basketball-only member. Other sources report that Penn State applied for full membership and was denied.
According to former commissioner Mike Tranghese, who recently spoke of the issue again to the New York Times, Penn State was up for membership in 1989 (though it might have been 1982). At that point, the Big East had just three members that sponsored FBS football — all as independents. With Penn State, the Big East would still have needed about 4 more FBS-playing members to sponsor the sport. That fact was likely the impetus for the vote that resulted.
Regardless, Penn State would have the support of a majority of the Big East members, but not the super-majority that the bylaws required. According to the New York Times article, the opposition was led by St. John's, Georgetown, and Villanova, and like Villanova's attempt to join the conference in football last April, three votes were enough to end the discussion.
Penn State would go on to join the Big Ten conference in 1991, a move that set off a period of change in college athletics. The ACC and SEC began talking about their own expansion, while the Big East prepared to add five schools to start their own football conference.
Had Villanova voted in favor of Penn State, would things be different today? Nobody truly can say exactly what would have happened, but it would have altered the path of the Big Ten, ACC, and most importantly the Big East.
Failing to complete the comeback (Error #5)
Under tremendous pressure from student and alumni groups since dropping the football program, Fr. Driscoll and the Board of Trustees reversed course in 1984 and voted to bring the program back to campus, to begin again in the 1985 season. Andy Talley was hired after impressing school officials with his plan to build a program from scratch.
Most of the 21 recruits that had signed with Villanova for 1981 before the program was dropped decided to go elsewhere, but a few of them, with their scholarships assured, decided to attend anyway and those holdovers would join the program during its reboot years. Talley got off to a hot-start, going 5-0 against Navy's junior varsity, Iona, Pace, Catholic University and Fordham in 1985 and 8-1 against mixed-level competition in 1986. By their second season in the Yankee Conference in 1989, they were 8-4 and earned the program's first play-off appearance.
When the Big East football conference formed in 1991, the 8-team conference reached out to its FCS-playing membership to offer the opportunity to upgrade their programs and join the conference. Georgetown and St. John's, which both ran non-scholarship football programs at the time quickly declined, while Villanova and Connecticut began to give the idea some thought.
In 1988, Villanova had a changing of the guards. Fr. Driscoll, who learned the importance of football the hard way, was replaced by Fr. Edmund Dobbin, who was not impressed by the football program, especially not with the basketball team reaching lofty heights under Rollie Massimino, including the 1985 National Championship victory that brought the school tremendous regional and national attention.
Both Villanova and Connecticut began to look into the move to I-A football, but the results were predetermined in both cases. At Connecticut, athletic direct Lew Perkins had been positioning the Huskies program for a move to I-A football almost since his arrival in 1990, while at Villanova, Fr. Dobbin reportedly had no intention of ever altering the status of his football program.
In 1997, the Big East asked both schools to provide a definitive answer on the future of their programs by years' end. UConn told the conference that they absolutely wanted to join, but needed (and were given) more time to resolve their stadium situation.
Villanova produced a report that advised the Board of Trustees that a move was feasible and preferable, but the conclusions of that report were not adopted. It didn't help that then-AD Gene DeFilippo refused to endorse the report, he had seen the writing on the wall during the process that the university president at the time would never allow the upgrade to go through, and was on his way to a new job at Boston College. When the report was presented to the board of trustees, the feeling in the room was that there was no point in voting in the move if the university president offered no support or even lukewarm support, since he would need to execute the transition. The invitation was ultimately declined.
UConn transformed their university with the move and their athletics program has flourished in the years that followed. With a football team that has achieved moderate success in the Big East and reached its first BCS bowl game in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, the Huskies found their way onto the conference-realignment radar, this fall — though ultimately were not selected to join the ACC due to the strong opposition of Boston College.
Villanova, ironically, seemed like it would have had the support of Boston College, or at least the support of athletic director Gene DeFilippo, but the ACC generally wasn't interested in taking on a school without an operational FBS program.
Will Villanova go for an even 6?
Villanova, without FBS football, is a "bystander" in conference realignment. The options that the Main Line school has are limited — hold on for dear life in the Big East conference or continue a trend of ignoring the growing influence of college football in America (now the nation's #2 sport, tied with Major League Baseball).
The 6 power conferences control the money and the basketball power. Even the football-first Big Ten and Big 12 conferences have risen to basketball power, surpassing the Big East this season on KenPom.com and Sagarin ratings systems.
The success of relative minnows like Butler, who were national runners-up on two-consecutive years, gives some hope that Villanova could survive without being tied to a major football conference, but can Butler's success be manufactured? With their two NBA selections gone, they have fallen off this season and will miss the NCAA tournament. Butler had a perfect storm of good fortune that opened a door to that success, but they have not been an elite program throughout their history.
Villanova currently spends around $7million per year on men's basketball alone, and that isn't the top budget in the Big East conference. Bigger budgets mean more resources for recruiting, better travel arrangements, equipment, coaching, and even academic support. A big budget doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly makes it more likely.
Without a major-conference home, Villanova risks losing the revenue streams that support those budgets, as well as the budgets of 23 other sports that the school currently sponsors.
At five crucial points in Villanova's history, the university had opportunities to take actions that might have changed the position that the university currently finds itself. Had the Big East never faltered in football or if Villanova had maintained football at the I-A level or upgraded the program when they had the chance, the options in the current realignment scene might be rosier.