Consider Vince Nicastro the Big East’s volleyball czar, with all the rights and privileges that go with that honorific—not to mention the headaches. He has a league championship tournament looming, and someone has to assign the referees for the matches. Villanova’s athletic director loves all the sports his school sponsors, but he doesn’t know much about volleyball. “I’m hoping this is something that can be done in one phone call,” he admits.
There’s an awful lot to arrange at Nova these days, now that the Wildcats have joined nine other schools—with a couple more to come, reportedly—in the new and improved Big East Conference. The league must establish protocols for every sport, along with ways of conducting business on a presidential level. And it all has to be done by September, when the league begins operation.
Almost two years ago, Villanova was trying to figure out whether it should invest the necessary funds—estimated to be as much as $30 million—to play big-time football and become a fully made member of the Big East. Today, Villanova remains on the FCS (formerly I-AA) level on the gridiron and has joined a group of schools—Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler, Xavier—in a basketball-driven “new” Big East Conference that fits the school’s mission and tradition. It’s not what was expected, but it looks to be what’s best for the university.
“The best case would’ve been if everybody stayed together and the Big East remained the same,” says Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright. “There were a number of other scenarios, but this scenario was the best.”
When Dave Gavitt started the Big East back in 1979, he did it to allow Eastern schools to chart their own course, rather than being folded into a more unwieldy confederation by the NCAA. Villanova joined a year later and enjoyed the benefits of being part of what was arguably the nation’s top basketball conference for more than three decades. But football runs the show in college athletics, and that became evident during the past decade, as conferences scrambled to secure their membership bases by raiding other leagues for schools that could make them stronger.
Despite the Big East’s regal hoops profile, those looking to expand saw it as vulnerable, largely because its eight-team gridiron configuration lacked heft and national influence. From 2004-13, the Big East lost numerous schools. Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College were the first to go. Since then, West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Rutgers and Notre Dame (a Big East member for everything but football) have either left or announced their intention to do so. Texas Christian joined, then reneged before playing a Big East game.
The league scrambled to stanch the blood flow. In 2012, it announced several new members. None blended well with Villanova and its fellow private, hoops-first institutions. Faced with the prospect of competing in a conference that barely resembled its original league, Villanova and its brethren (“The Catholic Seven”) decided to form their own confederation. In less than two years, Nova has gone from a school considering a leap into the deepest football waters to one that seems to have found an ideal home.
“We were pretty close to playing [big-time] football,” Nicastro says. “At the time, the conference presumably wanted us to join. It was a BCS automatic qualifier; it had a TV deal on the table and ready to be signed [for a reported $130 million a year]. All things considered, if we got a formal invitation, we were ready to go to the [Villanova] board for a vote.”
Villanova had planned to use the Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park as its home, and work with the soccer team on expanding seating capacity from 18,500 to a number more in line with those of the other Big East schools. Villanova would’ve had to make major improvements to its strength-and-conditioning facility, its football offices and its practice areas to keep pace with rivals that have been playing at the highest level for decades.
Many Villanova fans and alums might’ve loved tailgating at PPL before a game against a first-rate opponent. But they have to admit that, even if the Big East had survived in its former incarnation, the Wildcats would’ve been at a huge disadvantage. The current Big East is a far better and appropriate home for the school. Not only are nine of the 10 schools private, Catholic institutions like Villanova (Butler is the lone nondenominational school), none is trying to build its football profile or is looking for a better home in another league. There will almost certainly be further shuffling of the conference lineups across the nation, but one can say with a relatively high level of confidence that the 10-member Big East as configured is unlikely to lose members.
“One of the things with us coming together with our basketball brethren and putting a new model together is that it buffers us from [future realignment],” says Nicastro. “It allows us to control our destiny and be buffered against the chaos happening around us.”
The Big East is a stable situation—and it has a reported $30-million-a-year TV deal with Fox. But there’s little doubt that it is no longer as impressive as its previous incarnation. As good as Creighton, Xavier and Butler are, they are not Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Louisville. But those schools are no longer available as partners, so the Wildcats must maximize their opportunities within the best framework available to them. They might have to beef up their non-conference hoops schedule to appeal to the NCAA tournament selection committee. They’ll have to create an image of the conference and program that’s top-shelf and national in nature—and those road trips to Omaha and Indianapolis for non-revenue sports will be long and costly.
“We’ve got tradition and philosophical similarities, but we give ourselves a chance to be a real powerful basketball conference, and we can commit all of our resources to basketball,” Wright says. “From basketball purists in the metropolitan areas in the Northeast, I do sense excitement, and it surprises me. They really feel it. In Jersey, New York, D.C. and Philadelphia, they feel it.”