"Our two great Philadelphia institutions are about 12 miles apart, I think that's about the same distance as Duke and Chapel Hill," Villanova President Fr. Peter Donohue said as he welcomed Temple to the Big East conference.
That was the first of a few references to college basketball's most storied and annually-hyped basketball rivalry. Duke-UNC, at its best, is perhaps the only regular-season college basketball game that can come close to the television ratings that college football games regularly attain. It is a lofty comparison for the Big 5 rivalry, which has never before been in a position to be bigger as a two-team rivalry than the Big 5 itself.
Duke and Carolina have been playing meaningful conference games since 1928, well before sports became a big-money business at American universities. That rivalry predates the Big 5 by 27 years, and while the sports are largely a "what have you done for me lately?" enterprise, rivalries are built on history.
Temple and Villanova wasn't always a heated rivalry, and when Villanova or Temple have been bad, the focus has often shifted to other rivalries. In fact, informally speaking to many Villanova fans over the years, UConn, Syracuse and Georgetown have always weighed more heavily on the minds of Nova fans than their local rivalries.
Does conference membership change that? Jay Wright believes that it can.
"I think it can [reach the heights of Duke-UNC], I really do," he said.
Philadelphia hasn't yet embraced the Big East in a way that Jay Wright would have liked, apparently.
"I think Philadelphia can be — I don't think you'd honestly say that Philadelphia is a Big East city, its more like a Big 5 city, an Atlantic 10 city, and there's a Big East school there in Villanova. So, I think it can really turn into a big time Big East city because everybody's going to be coming in there twice, and then Villanova and Temple are going to play, and I'm sure that the way scheduling goes we're going to wind up playing twice."
As college rivalries go, Villanova and Temple's rivalry, ironically one devoid of much brotherly love, has drawn enough interest to be regularly played on ESPN's networks in recent years. The Big East implications of the match-up will add some meaning to a series that previously only had a Big 5 title on the line — an honor that not all fans seem to give much interest to these days.
"It can be really exciting for the Big East and its a great college basketball town," Wright hoped. "I do think it could, because the rivalry has always been great, they always put the rivalry on ESPN anyway, but if now it means something in the Big East, if we can both be good enough that it means a Big East championship . . ."
That's a big "if" going forward, however, as nobody can say for certain what the Villanova program will look like in 2013-14, when Temple brings roundball to the conference. Assuming both programs can be that good in the future, Wright's assumption is more than reasonable. Villanova fans set their sights on Storrs, Connecticut when Wright's team was battling with the Huskies at the top of the league — and Temple would almost certainly get the same treatment.
Would it be the same as other rivalries though? Could it draw almost 20,000 fans to an arena when one or the other program was mediocre or bad, as Villanova's 90-year-old rivalry with Georgetown did this season? Those are the rivalries that mean something real and tangible, because they engage the fans and bring some needed funds to the schools.
To that end, Temple is a rivalry that isn't quite there yet.
Is this the best of a tough situation?
Ideally for Villanova, the Big East never would have added Temple. Ideally for Villanova, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia would still be proud and loyal Big East members and Louisville wouldn't be flirting with the Big 12, and all of those schools would have unconditionally voted Nova Football into their league. When schools began departing the Big East, however, Villanova's position for football became one of minimum leverage and the WVU departure forced the Big East to take on Temple, as the best addition that they could add for 2012.
With Temple's membership seeming more and more inevitable, Fr. Donohue and Vince Nicastro pressed hard for concessions despite negotiating from a position with little leverage. They ultimately got an "investment in exploring their FBS future," a football-centric concession that includes $1 million for football facilities and some additional financial support that potentially kicks in as the conference and Villanova continue to talk about football.
Jay Wright, who famously (and repeatedly) exclaimed, "Everything to do with Temple is great, just put Villanova in for football," at Big East media day this fall, seemed to accept the concessions.
"Given the situation, how things broke, I think its the best we could get," Wright said. "We certainly weren't ready. The Big East needed someone to be ready next year. We weren't.
"Temple fills that role, and its good for the Big East, and then we get our opportunity down the road. So it does work out best for everyone, and then the other part is that to get that, you have to share the market."
Wright didn't back down from his earlier statements in the fall, however, and would have preferred a situation that didn't involve a conference game on North Broad.
"As I said, there is no doubt earlier, if we could've been the football school, if we could do that, it would be great," he explained, noting that Villanova couldn't move to FBS quickly enough to fill immediate needs. "This is the next-best thing, because without the Big East —because Temple is going to help the Big East now, I think Temple football is going to help, having that market for football.
"If it helps the Big East it's good for us."
Temple does plan to play some of their bigger conference basketball games at the Wells Fargo Center in the future after a successful meeting with Duke earlier in this season. Under Villanova's current lease, which isn't entirely exclusive, Temple isn't given much access to the arena, but neither Temple nor the Big East will foreclose the possibility of that changing in the future.
If it does, Wright wouldn't be concerned about having a different logo on the floor a few times per season.
"As long as we can play there," Wright said about Temple using the Wells Fargo Center. "As long as we don't lose dates down there, I don't think its a problem at all. As a matter of fact, again, i think if they're playing there, you can probably have Villanova-Temple games there, it could be a pretty big thing in our city."
If Villanova isn't guaranteed a minimum number of dates in South Philadelphia, they could get bumped to accommodate Temple's expanding needs at the busy arena.