Villanova president is key to Big East football bid

Posted: April 17, 2011

When all the Big East's movers and shakers gathered in New York in March for the conference's signature event, its postseason men's basketball tournament, the league's football members took time out from hoops for a progress report from Villanova on the school's exploration of a move-up to Division I-A Big East football.

According to one person in the room that day, the presentation didn't go well, for a very specific reason. Villanova's president, the Rev. Peter Donahue, gave more an explanation of where things stood than a sales pitch. If he wasn't going to be a real advocate, it was natural for his brethren to wonder where the former drama professor really stood. Were they supposed to get excited about 'Nova joining them if 'Nova's president couldn't?

That's not to say that Donahue blew the deal. More that he was being an honest broker. Multiple sources say that Donahue is fully on board now, with the strong backing of Villanova's board of trustees, in addition to pretty good-size checks coming 'Nova's way from backers of the move-up.

It's still murky why the Big East made informal overtures to Villanova last September about moving up and now is more hesitant. The arrival of Texas Christian University, a program that has risen to national prominence in recent years, obviously took some pressure off the league, allowing for eight conference games and a high-profile team. A down year on the field brought real hits to the league's image. Bringing in Villanova wouldn't turn that around.

In other words, Villanova might be viewed one way if the league needed a team and completely differently if the Big East had the luxury of deciding whether to expand at all right now.

One conference insider speculated that this whole episode could be a bellweather of the Big East's future, and not necessarily in the way people expect. The thinking: If Villanova goes up for football, maybe the conference could hold together a little longer, like for another TV contract cycle, in its present configuration. If the football schools decide Villanova's bid just isn't big-time enough and they'll look elsewhere, the breakup of the league could be accelerated, since Big East schools that don't play football in the league are unlikely to want more members playing league hoops. Football members may live with that, deciding the time is right for a split.

A number of Big East insiders believe that Donahue has the chance to sway a school or two into accepting Villanova's proposal, that it isn't only the specifics of the proposal in question but Villanova's commitment to it. By the way, none of this conjecture is coming from Donahue himself. Villanova's public-relations office has declined requests for interviews with Donahue throughout this process. We don't know if they've taken these requests to Donahue himself. (Father, the e-mail address is below.)

We'll see about that. The major factor going against 'Nova's proposal obviously is the seating capacity at PPL Park. For I-A football, that number of 18,500 doesn't just sound small, but small-time. Apparently, the stadium can go up to 23,000 right now with temporary seating (at some cost). That's probably getting closer to what the Big East could live with for the short-term. The stadium itself should be looked at as an asset. It's no high school park.

It seems there is a bit of a Catch-22 situation here, however. The Big East may not be ready to commit to Villanova if the school doesn't hold up a firm guarantee for stadium expansion. And how can Villanova give or get a firm guarantee if it doesn't know it's moving up?

There's also a bit of a delicate dance here that the Big East may or may not be respectful of - the Union has done the job of making PPL viable for MLS soccer. Automatically signing on for an expansion to 30,000 can't be done on a whim. That's bigger than the soccer team would do this quickly on its own, so there's got to be something in it for the Union. (Money sometimes works). That brings us back to: How far does Villanova now have to go without a commitment from the league, while simultaneously proposing an expensive on-campus training facility?

All this needs to get done by June 1 to get the clock ticking toward full Big East membership in 2014. The idea isn't dead on June 2; it just would have to be pushed back a year. Nobody I talked to seems to even agree on how many current Big East football schools are against it. I talked to one person at a clear anti-'Nova school who suggested as many as six others were clearly against it in March, but none to the point that the proposal couldn't be improved and objections dropped. Another Big East administrator said it was more like a few leaning against, but none being over-my-dead-body against. Villanova probably can't get in unless six of the eight current football members sign off.

So the most crucial role in this saga now belongs to Donahue. When it comes to conference shifts, presidents lobbying presidents is standard operating procedure. That's the level where sales are made.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen

at 215-854-4489 or


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