Thursday, May 19, 2011

Signs of the Off season, 2011 -- Conference Realignment

Ahhhhhhhh...What Just Happened?!
Father Donahue's May 11 letter to alumni and students concludes the "quiet period" -- about a month in length -- since the April announcement that the Villanova Board of Trustees would not, as a result of a teleconference with the Big East football membership, take a much anticipated vote to accept an (apparently non-existent) "invitation" to join the Big East as an all sports member. This has been a very strange courtship. This marks the second time since 1996 that Villanova and the Big East have spent time and effort on whether Villanova should upgrade their football program to BCS level (the NCAA's FBS Division) and join the Big East football conference, thereby become an all-sports member. When parties engage in one round of failed negotiations, it is rare that they engage in a second round unless all are in agreement on the basic elements of the negotiation and are committed to a successful conclusion -- an agreement. When the resolution is uncertain, failing twice risks embarrassment, mistrust and ill will among the parties. That makes the twists and turns in this second round all the more interesting, for they seem to suggest that at least one, and possibly all of the three parties engaged (Villanova, Big East Commissioner John Marinatto and the football playing members who will vote to extend the invitation/accept Villanova's application) were either not in agreement at the start of the current process (then why make public announcements?) or missed (or misread or ignored?) critical signals given by the others over the past nine monthes. The awkward manner in which all parties have have muddled through the latest stages of this negotiation, coupled with a malaise that has settled over the Nova Nation as Villanova's review and planning has stretched into an eleventh month, have reminded me more than once of TS Eliot's poem on the melancholy of modern life...

The Love Song of Will D Cat
(with apologies to TS Eliot & Fr. Donahue)

Let us go then, you and I
Where the uprights split the autumn sky
Like a victor in celebration;
Let us go, through half-deserted hallways,
The whisperers having waylaid
Of restless nights over accounting ledgers
And huddled meetings with power brokers;
Using the numbers to shape an argument
Hoping with Luck others will relent
To lead you to an overwhelming question:
Oh, do not ask, "Are we in or not?"
Let us go and take our shot.

In the room the ADs come and go
Talking of John Marinatto.

The chili pot that bubbles and spills
The mesquite smoke that fills the kettle grills,
Finds the breech where lid and cast iron part,
Lingered, waiting for an autumn breeze
That carries it out to tease the revelers,
Slipped through the gap to stretch
And greet the October afternoon,
Or curled another layer on the cooking meat.

And indeed there will be time
To baste then barter burgers for dogs, ribs for pork
The simmering beans and cold hors d'oeuvre and beer
Will there be time? Will there be time?
To prepare the numbers to rally the faces you will face;
Will there be time to discard and revise,
And time binder the plan and present the options?
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for another hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred more visions and revisions
Before the calling of the question and yeas and nays?

In the room the ADs come and go
Talking of John Marinatto.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to tuck away spreadsheets, assume an indifferent air,
Resume the familiar company of frocks and kin...
(They will say: "He would not go all in")
My stadium deal, facilities construction up to my chin
My traditions, rich if modest, but punctuated with wins...
(They will say: "But how his endowments and margins are thin!")
Do I dare
Disturb the gridiron club?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I know them all already, known them all...
From the diamond, the hardcourt, the pitch, the track
I have measured out my life by the season ticket pack;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the whispers from a farther room,
So how should I presume?

So What is Next?
Father Donahue's May 11 letter did not mark a decision point or deadline date. The Big East Commissioner and Villanova President did not outline/define a next step in this process. Will the three parties simply wait and react to events in the conference landscape this summer? Each appears to have some thinking to do...

John Marinatto -- this negotiation won't be a bullet point on the Big East Commissioner's resume. The (from reports...) tepid reaction from football faction has been interpreted by fans (and general public?) as a fumble by the league office -- why did they not give Villanova a heads up on the plan's problems? The official "non-response" coupled with the ridicule offered by some fans suggests the basketball and football factions are farther apart today than any time since the somber days following the Raid of 2003 and Boston College's defection, a particularly bad state given the uncertainties ahead. The survivors of 2003 rallied around a strong conference commissioner and a couple of seasoned and respected Athletic Directors to forge a covenant and a plan that ushered in some of the conference's finest hours on the hardwood and the gridiron, but within the past year several conference members openly lobbied for consideration by the Big Ten, while the Athletic Director of a third member has repeatedly ignored a conference gag order on Villanova's application, disparaging the commissioner while discussing details of Villanova's application with local media. The Commissioner's ability to forge a consensus on a course of action for the entire conference will depend to a extent on his credibility and standing among the conference membership. And right now that has become one more problem to address.

The Nova Nation -- The dynamics of the parties to the negotiation and the process by which Villanova developed a plan to upgrade their FCS football program to the FBS level will make a good exercise for the VSB, but right now the requirement is to fix the problem, not fix the blame. The Stadium Question has been the first agenda item since the 1996-97 study on a football upgrade. Every discussion in the past 15 years has come to The Stadium Question...and stalled. The process to study and muster resources for an upgrade addressed everyone of the other outstanding issues (media market, practice facilities, scholarships/financial backing), but The Stadium Issue was the weakest part of Villanova's proposal and everyone knew that going into the teleconference. The Nova Nation can muster a bit of righteousness over how indelicately this may have been handled, but the 18,500 seat capacity is on it's face inadequate; and any significant rewrite of the plan has to include an action plan to bring Villanova into a home field that is comparable to the conference's inventory of playing venues. There may well be multiple agendas at work among the football membership, but presenting a small stadium with virtually no concrete plan for scaling up put the Wildcats into the position of relying too heavily on good will and a shared desire to stabilize conference membership as the argument that would carry the day. Instead, the Stadium Question only provided cover to any faction operating with an ulterior motive. The University will most likely not file notification to upgrade with the NCAA by the May 31 deadline. Villanova wants to build a national profile, and competing as an all-sports member in a BCS conference will help the University realize that goal. Villanova has developed and offers championship-level athletic programs for both men and women in a wide variety of athletics; it can do the same with FBS football.

The Football Schools -- a sampling from blogs and message boards around the conference suggests football-first fans are increasingly vocal in their unhappiness with the conference leadership and anxious about their (football membership) options. The 16 (soon to be 17) membership size of the conference however, with only 8 (soon to be 9) slots taken for FBS football programs, limits expansion opportunities. The football schools are anxious because...

1. They don't offer a particularly competitive product. Last per, per West Virginia Athletic Director Oliver Luck, was rock bottom for the conference football schools. No team finished in the Top 25; the conference was 0-6 against ranked opponents and 6-14 against fellow BCS opponents.

2. The lack of sustained success on the gridiron could well result in the loss of standing as a BCS conference.

3. The conference has no presence in the two largest media markets within it's footprint -- New York City and Philadelphia. Pretty weird, no?

Will adding additional all-sport members from a candidate pool of (largely) CUSA teams significantly enhance the conference's hand in TV revenue negotiations and boost the conference's football standing within the BCS fraternity? In the very, very unlikely event the Big 12 Conference implodes this summer the Big East Conference would have limited options -- adding 3-4 new members might bring the football membership to 12, but would push the basketball membership beyond 20.

The Annual Big East Meeting
The May 23-25 meeting will most likely have the football members' concerns very high on the agenda. If Oliver Luck's latest interview provides a clue, the football members will avoid the "Villanova pothole (6th paragraph of the story)" as they thumb through CUSA resumes, looking for that "right fit, provide revenue" candidate.


El Teddy said...

I grow old . . . I grow old
I shall wear my Villanova sweater rolled.

Shall Ollie Luck take it from behind? Do I dare to watch the Pitts?
I shall wear blue and white trousers, and walk to PPL.
I have heard the Cards fans singing, each to each.

I do not think they sing to V.

I have seen the Eers riding mountainward on their divans
Combing the flames that burn right back
When the couches burn both white and black.

VU has lingered in the chambers of DD
By stat-guys wreathed with Excels red and brown.
Till redneck voices woke them, and turned them down.

greyCat said...

Thank you El Teddy, I think you have outdone me on this.