MIND AND MATTER: Stakes too high in upcoming FBS decision

Bryan Kerns

Needless to say, the column that appeared under this byline three weeks ago regarding the potential change in status of Villanova’s football program generated something of a tempest on the Internet, through e-mail and in person. Responses ranged from fully supportive encouragement to lukewarm “You’re right about this but wrong about that” to vitriolic screeds. 

Eight days after that column appeared, amid much speculation in many circles and perhaps in anticipation of a column written by Mike Kern in the Philadelphia Daily News outlining some of the discussions that had taken place to date, the University President issued a communication to all of the community’s constituencies. What was made clear in that communication is that there is a process underway for the consideration of entrance into the Big East as a football program. Further, this process is being conducted at the highest levels of University governance, overseen by the Board of Trustees and its Athletics Committee. 

It was the Board that made the fateful decision to drop football, at the time a full participant in the football bowl subdivision, altogether on April 15, 1981. It was the Board that made the decision a few years later to reinstate football. Again, it was the Board that decided on Oct. 15, 1997 to decline an invitation to the Big East. It will be the Board that makes the decision whether to accept the latest entreaty from the Big East to join its ranks as a football-playing member.

As Athletics Director Vince Nicastro said last week in The Villanovan, there are many facets to the consideration of this invitation. For starters, it would necessitate the expansion of scholarship funding by at least $8 million over four years — using today’s numbers — to ensure Title IX compliance.

Additional hurdles include infrastructure costs associated with training facilities and the subsequent upgrades for women’s facilities to remain in compliance with federal law, the cost of a stadium lease, the likely increase of the coaching staff, the expansion of recruitment costs and the necessary recalibration of recruitment strategy. 

The upsides include the protection of full membership in the Big East Conference that could result in a major bump in TV revenues and the potential for an increased national profile. The Big East’s days, though, may be numbered no matter what, especially if the Big Ten decides to expand further to 14 teams and pick off schools like West Virginia or Pittsburgh. With regard to an increased national profile, Villanova runs the risk of having its resources outstripped by its prominence. If Villanova suddenly experiences a jolt of exposure, it may become necessary that certain capital projects be expedited. That is a risky proposition for a school so heavily tuition-dependent and whose endowment was, when last officially reported, standing at $269 million. This becomes the case even more so when the University has been engaged in a carefully phased strategic plan designed to increase national prominence in such a way that its resources are vigilantly and safely utilized. 

In many ways, it’s hard for anyone to argue that this football expansion is actually about the game of football. In fact, it may be about everything but football. As has been said time and time again, the final authority to make this decision rests with the 33 trustees, of whom the University President is but one. 

One must trust that this will be a carefully administered process in addition to a transparent one. In its consideration of all aspects of the situation, the Board needs to seek the insights of the administration, faculty, students, staff and alumni. An ad hoc committee tasked with reviewing the options and making a recommendation to the Board that is composed of individuals from each of these constituencies might be a good place to start. 

This decision has the potential to transform Villanova and its culture in ways that will be perceived both positively and negatively. In that vein, the word “expedite” appeared in the President’s message to the community regarding the review process. Understandably so, in fact, given the speed with which college athletics is prone to change. 

That, however, cannot and must not preclude a measured, thorough review on the part of Villanova. The stakes are much too high, no matter what the eventual decision is.

Bryan Kerns is a senior honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].