Daily Aff. 3/9: Is Villanova Next?
Matt Zemek's take on the college football world and the latest issues.
You now know that Temple will join the Big East in football this fall, but the Owls' move was accompanied by a lingering issue: Whither Villanova? At the press conference announcing Temple's return home to the Big East, a number of questions centered around Villanova's place in the larger scheme of things. Mention was made of Villanova becoming an FBS program, but that was more of a tease than anything else; the Big East made no commitments to Temple's Philadelphia neighbor, which has developed one of the strongest FCS football programs in the United States.
If, let's say, Air Force does not become the Western school the Big East is looking for (to provide some geographical balance with Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, and Houston), one wonders if Villanova will indeed become the conference's top choice to fill in for Louisville, assuming the Cardinals do take flight for another league. With Syracuse and Pittsburgh probably out the door before the 2013 football season, the Big East might need another football school in line should Louisville fly the coop. Does it want to place all its hopes in Villanova's ability to make the jump from the FCS to the FBS? That seems quite risky, especially since the Philadelphia market is not known for a robust embrace of college football.
Much of the Temple press conference was devoted to the attempt – and it was a vigorous one – to stress how much Villanova had cooperated with the plan to bring Temple into the Big East. This wasn't necessarily untrue, but Villanova had at times offered resistance to Temple. Villanova became more accommodating as the political calculus shifted, but the overall reality is very complex and hard to define in precise, narrow terms. Given that the landscape of college sports changes so quickly, it's probably wise for the Big East to be cautious about Villanova rather than bullish. Then again, seeking Air Force – and all the geographic distortions that would accompany the Falcons' entry into the league – doesn't seem like enlightened strategy, either.
The Big East might not be on top of the situation, but it's certainly a reliable generator of offseason drama and intrigue.
The Temple Owls were kicked out of the Big East not too long ago, but the conference that has tripped over itself a great many times in recent years found itself in desperate need of a football partner for 2012 when a Boise State arrangement did not emerge.
The Owls won't return to Veterans Stadium, their Big East-era home, but they will return to the Big East for football in just under six months (a year longer for other sports). Clearly, the Big East addressed an urgent short-term need, but the world of college sports realignment demands decisions that involve more (and better) long-term considerations. Does this deal measure up for the Big East and for Temple?
In basketball, the deal works for both parties. For football, it's difficult to see how it will benefit either party.
The basketball side is an obvious winner. Temple's basketball brand is considerable, and given the fact – it is a fact, not mere conjecture – that the Big East's identity has always been rooted in hoops, Temple's Philadelphia presence will nicely fill the gaps left by Syracuse and Pittsburgh… not just during the conference season, but also at the Big East Tournament (which happens to be going on right now). Temple has a big-league basketball coach in Fran Dunphy, and a history of high-level achievement. The basketball program will only become a more attractive destination for recruits, and the Big East will add a compelling draw to its regular-season slate.
In football, it's a different story. The Big East might take a lot of grief from the other BCS conferences, but it's a big step up from the MAC, the tenth-best conference in FBS competition (the Sun Belt occupying the cellar; the MAC usually beats the Sun Belt in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, formerly the GMAC Bowl). Temple would have been in a comparatively better spot if Al Golden had still been its head coach; Steve Addazio did well in his first season, but he benefited from the heavy lifting Golden did over a number of years. A move like this requires a star coach, not just a decent one; Temple might not have that in place.
The Big East is therefore taking a chance on Temple football; eventual (beyond 2012) members Boise State and Houston enhance the football brand, but Temple doesn't – not right now, and not in the future unless Addazio surpasses everyone's expectations to a considerable degree. Temple must wonder if it was really worth it to fork over $6 million to the Mid-American Conference in exchange for playing Big East football this year. Is Big East football sustainable under its increasingly fragmented geographic composition? Temple itself won't add to geographic or regional incongruence, but with Air Force (still) being coveted by the Big East as an additional football member, one wonders how sensible this kind of growth is for the league's football side.
Big East officials and Temple representatives are obviously brimming with hope and confidence, but big talk always accompanies new moves in the realignment chess game. Temple to the Big East is a sure-fire win in basketball; the clear lack of the same beneficial quality in the football realm throws this larger deal into question.
By now, you've likely heard about the story from Charles Robinson at Yahoo! Sports in which the Syracuse basketball program reportedly failed to follow the policies and guidelines of its own internal drug-testing program, allowing athletes to play when they should have been ineligible. This story fits under the larger umbrella of collegiate athletics in light of the recent drug bust (and subsequent expulsions of players) that took place at TCU.
On a smaller level, it's certainly worth noting that the continuing lack of both coherence and consistency in collegiate sports governance and compliance continues to be a source of embarrassment for the NCAA, its member conferences, and its individual member schools. The most pathetic part of Robinson's Syracuse report featured a revelation from Big East associate commissioner for compliance Joseph D'Antonio. Robinson wrote in his initial story Monday afternoon, "… D'Antonio told Yahoo! Sports that he doesn't even know what the drug policies are from school to school within the league."
Such a lack of both awareness and organization is par for the course in the administrative realms of big-time college sports. A number of media voices such as Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! and Dana O'Neil of ESPN have said that the main issue raised by the Syracuse story is that schools continue to break rules or overstep policies that they themselves agree to abide by. The establishment of NCAA rules or internal Syracuse policies is pointless if said rules and policies won't be followed (and won't be followed up with punishments). Scrapping the infrastructure of current rules and regulations and then building a fresh set of common-sense policies is certainly Wetzel's focus, and it's an appropriate one. This is why Robinson's reporting carries value.
Some people don't see things that way.
Tommy Craggs of Deadspin, in a piece widely circulated on Tuesday, lit into the Robinsons of the world for doing journalism that, in Craggs's opinion, affirms the NCAA's existence and modus operandi rather than undercutting them. The money excerpt from Craggs's piece is as follows:
" The NCAA sprouts rule after rule to disguise the fact that the entire organization is just a baroque workers'-comp-avoidance mechanism. And yet the association is covered by a lot of people who, by temperament and by professional custom, believe it's their job to report on the violation of those rules but never on their essential logic or legitimacy. The NCAA and its member schools get pettier and pettier with their athletes, and the media get pettier and pettier in sympathetic response."
I understand what Craggs is saying. He's half right. Craggs is spot-on in pointing out that nickel-and-dime violations of silly rules should not consume the time, energy and focus of reporters such as Robinson. The media should be dealing with far more systemic, structural and institutional hypocrisies that restrict the freedom and movement of players while denying them their legitimate place as entertainers in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
The reality of a college athlete smoking weed is not threatening or harmful to the larger society; the reality of the NCAA playing favorites with schools, coaches, athletes, and the communities affected by them is certainly far more of a stain and a source of injustice in our land. A focus on the waywardness of the larger college sports industry –and the forces
One of the better columns on the current college sports landscape was published Sunday in The New York Times. William Rhoden explored how the Big East Conference – long before being steered into trouble by its current leader, Commissioner John Marinatto – imperiled its future beginning in 1989. Rhoden talked to the Big East's former commish, Mike Tranghese, who had much to say about the ways in which the league ignored the urgings of its founder, the late (great) Dave Gavitt.
It was Gavitt who wanted Penn State – then an independent, of course – to join the Big East, but the league's membership voted no. Tranghese recalls telling Gavitt, "We will all rue the day about this decision." He elaborated on that decades-old statement by telling Rhoden, "I understood how big football was," as opposed to basketball, which has regularly dictated the Big East's decision-making process.
Tranghese didn't stop there. He went on to say that "At that point, the Big East had so much success in the '80s, everybody sort of forgot about it (the rejection of Penn State). But I felt looking back on the history of the Big East, that was probably the biggest mistake we made."
That's candid stuff from Tranghese, who presided over a period of appreciable prosperity for the Big East and was savvy enough to maneuver the league's biggest football games to Thursday and Friday night viewing slots in order to increase visibility (several years before Larry Scott embarked on doing the same thing for the Pac-12).
However, Tranghese wasn't just being open with Rhoden; his analysis is piercingly accurate. The Big East's embrace of basketball was apparent in recent years when Marinatto, Tranghese's successor, did not want to risk alienating the basketball schools in the league. Marinatto balked at a massive ESPN television deal because he wanted to wait for the right time to bring the basketball schools on board with a football-heavy package.
However, before Marinatto could create an acceptable league-wide consensus, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intentions to move to the ACC, creating the chaos that has pervaded the Big East over the past several months. The desire to avoid conflicts and clashes with basketball schools left the conference in the cold. The impact of football was lost on the league… just as it was in 1989.
Tranghese's comments to Rhoden are instructive because they show that long before Marinatto failed to unify the league's factions, the league's factions weren't willing to unite behind the cause of football… and the money it would bring to league coffers.
One can see, with greater clarity than ever, why the decision to reject Penn State more than two decades ago carried such negative consequences for the well being of the Big East Conference.
With the Southeastern Conference immersed in a world of change due to its new 14-team incarnation, it's time the league finally adjusts in one simple way: flex scheduling.
College football's leaders and power brokers need to embrace this concept as a way to keep the product robust and attractive well into the future while solving the "competitive fairness" problem brought about by a 14-team league. Georgia's ability to avoid the top teams in the SEC West – last year and this year – has understandably stirred a lot of emotions in and around the SEC, but the schedule is what it is. It's not as though Georgia can play the entire SEC West, and the Bulldogs beat the teams they were expected to beat. However, the question does linger, and it's worth confronting: How, indeed, should the SEC (and in the future, other leagues that cross the 12-team threshold) handle scheduling with 14 teams?
Let's say it again, nice and slowly: Flex. Scheduling.
One flex option: Do it the NFL way, in which first-place teams have to play better opponents the following season, while last-place teams play weaker opponents.
A second flex option: Give all SEC teams the one non-division rivalry they want to keep on an annual basis (Tennessee-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia come to mind here, for every obvious reason). Then schedule remaining cross-division games by giving the first-place team the pick of which team it would like to play. It's easy to think that coaches will want to schedule the weak team in the other division, but allowing one game to be up to the discretion of a program (specifically, the coach) would create an environment in which fans of that school might want their coach to show some stones and take on the big boy in the other division.
Flowing from these two different flex options, perhaps the SEC could find a middle ground between the two, requiring a team like Georgia to play a top-three SEC West team but giving the Bulldogs and Mark Richt the option of which school they'd want to play… and allowing that game to be played in Athens.
Really, college football. Providing smart, sensible scheduling options – and the frameworks within which fair scheduling can occur – should not be so gosh-darn difficult. Adults should be able to arrive at solutions that work for everyone.