For the first time since 1990, a school that doesn’t play major college football won the title.
by John Furgele
Villanova Has Done It.
Those words were coined by Brent Musburger after Villanova’s epic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game. Let’s give the university credit; it took them 31 years to get back to another title game, but when they did, they treated the nation to a scintillating, thrilling contest. In 1985 they beat the defending champion Georgetown Hoyas 66-64 and Monday night the beat one of the blue bloods in North Carolina.
With their 77-74 triumph, Villanova now has two NCAA titles. The students are happy, the players are happy, as are the coaches, alums and administrators. But, nobody is happier than Big East commissioner Val Ackerman. This was a statement game, a game that had tremendous meaning even though most didn’t realize it.
When Villanova last won in 1985, college sports was just starting to really become big business. Even though UCLA won 10 championships in 12 years, that was before sports became a 24/7 obsession. College basketball became mainstream in 1979 when Magic beat Bird in what still remains the highest rated NCAA title game.
The original Big East also formed in 1979, and soon, it became the most talked about basketball conference in the country. I’m not saying it was the best conference, in the 1980s; the Big Ten won the most titles with three, while the Big East, ACC and the old Metro Conference won two each. But the Big East changed basketball forever. They received a major assist from ESPN. Timing is everything and the Big East and ESPN were born at the right time. The conference was looking for a platform to place their games and the fledging network was looking for alternatives to Australian Rules Football. Truly, a match made in television heaven.
Money. It is a word that has many layers. It can be good, it certainly is needed and it can also cause great suffering, and money is what eventually did in the old Big East. Well, money and college football. March madness is loved by most and its postseason tournament has always been better than that of college football. For years the two best teams in college football could never play each other because one had to go the Sugar Bowl, the other the Cotton. But in college basketball, there was always a tournament, a tournament that grew from 16 to 32 to 48 to 52 to 64, 65 and now, 68. Yes, the regular season gets lost by the bevy of games, but after the Super Bowl, sports fans start studying knowing that Selection Sunday is nearing.
And, as good as college basketball can be, they can’t put 105,000 people in a stadium six to eight times per year like the football heavyweights. Eventually, the football money got stupid and conference realignment began. The football schools wanted to be aligned with other football schools and the basketball schools wanted to be aligned with basketball-first schools. The Big East was formed as a basketball-first conference. The classic lineup featured nine teams and of the nine, only three played what was then called 1-A football (Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh). Three others—Villanova, Connecticut, Georgetown—played 1-AA football and the remaining three—Seton Hall, St. John’s; Providence played no football at all.
The Big East tried to placate the 1-A football members by adding more football schools and for a while it worked, but eventually, the friction began. When Syracuse played in the 1999 Orange Bowl, Seton Hall got a cut of that bowl payout. The league bloated to 16 teams and geographically, was no longer the Big East and as the major conferences raided the smaller to get to 12, 14 and even 15 members, the old Big East could no longer survive.
The new Big East is built on old Big East principles. There are 10 schools; none play Division 1-A football and even though there is a Midwest presence, most of the schools are in good-sized metropolitan markets. In fact, the league did a fine job of finding good metro areas in Cincinnati (Xavier), Indianapolis (Butler), Chicago (DePaul), Milwaukee (Marquette) and Omaha (Creighton) to complement the original areas of Providence, Washington (Georgetown), New York (St. John’s, Seton Hall) and Philadelphia (Villanova). The good thing about the current Big East is that none of these universities are thinking about playing 1-A football. Only three play 1-AA football and only Villanova awards scholarships in the sport, with Georgetown opting not to and Butler playing in a league (Pioneer) that doesn’t allow them.
Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Connecticut are missed let’s not fool ourselves, but last night’s win by Villanova sets a strong foundation for the future. This was a much-needed win for the schools that don’t play in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, and SEC, the so-called Power 5 conferences. This win sends the message that a high-class recruit doesn’t have to go to North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State to win an NCAA basketball championship. Schools like Duquesne can now approach a recruit, a recruit who is thinking Pittsburgh or Syracuse and tell him you can win here. And, when the kid questions him, the answer will be Villanova, 2016. Before that, it wasn’t true, because since 1991, schools that play 1-A football won all 25-basketball titles.
The Bowling Green football coach can’t tell a recruit that their goal is to win the College Football Playoff. Simply, it isn’t going to happen. But, because of Villanova Monday night, the Bowling Green basketball coach can tell a kid that. Sure, it’s a stretch for a Bowling Green to win the NCAA basketball title, but a Final Four is not impossible. Just ask Butler (before the Big East), VCU, George Mason and Wichita State. Butler was so good, they played in back-to-back title games and even though they didn’t win, they provided hope that the small schools–the basketball schools–could compete. Villanova proved that winning it all is realistic.
Basketball is different than football, but until Villanova, basketball looked like football with the power schools from the power conferences bagging all the titles.
Villanova changed the landscape by coming from the second group, proving that you don’t have to play major football to win the basketball championship.
And while we’re speaking of Villanova and football, the Wildcat football team opens the 2016 season….. at Pittsburgh.