Skip to content
College Sports
Link copied to clipboard

Another legacy of Villanova's championship

Until Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating shot went through the basket in Houston, it had been 31 years since the last time a men's basketball national championship was won by a school that doesn't play FBS football.

Until Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating shot went through the basket in Houston, it had been 31 years since the last time a men's basketball national championship was won by a school that doesn't play FBS football.

Indeed, not many such programs have even reached the title game since Villanova's epic triumph in 1985. The only ones to do that were Seton Hall in 1989 and Butler in 2009 and 2010.

Over the last few years, there was a lot of chatter within certain portions of the college basketball community about whether it was possible anymore. And I'm not just just talking about the community that formed around the now-defunct Mid-Majority website. Said chatter was heard loud and clear within the offices of Villanova's athletic department.

That's no secret, of course. The debate on the Main Line about whether to try to move the Wildcats' football team up to the FBS level played out in the public eye. Questions about money, scale, pride, competitiveness, and every other angle were laid out in clear view for everyone to see.

Among the biggest questions was whether the football team needed to move up in order to be in a conference that would bring in enough revenue to keep the basketball program nationally competitive.

I don't remember whether it was ever explicitly stated that Jay Wright backed the potential move for that reason. I did a search through our archives and found two great columns on the overall subject by Mike Jensen, but neither hit that specific point.

But in case you had any doubt, he did. And a decent number of people knew it, even if they weren't all willing to say it on the record.

The final decision was difficult. Ultimately, the key people that mattered - university president Father Peter Donohue, then-athletic director Vince Nicastro, Wright and football coach Andy Talley - decided to hold the line. Villanova didn't move up in football, and went with its Catholic school brethren to the football-less new Big East.

They won a basketball national championship anyway.

And they didn't do so as an underdog. The Wildcats were just as much a member of the establishment this season as North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kansas. But I don't think this little bit of history should be overlooked, either.

On Monday night, I got a minute of Wright's time at the Big 5 banquet amid the rush of fans and colleagues who swarmed him with congratulations. I asked him to think back to the debate about moving up in football, and what it now meant to him that he had reached the top of the mountain without needing football money to do it.

"I'm happy for the Big East, and I think we're finding our way in this new football world, you know?" Wright said. "I love the conference. I think it proves - Seton Hall beat us, Xavier beat us, Providence beat us. They are teams that are good enough to beat us too."

Later in the evening, I chatted for a bit with current Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson. He wasn't on the Main Line when the debate about moving up happened, and he came to the school from the University of Southern California - an archetypal football-above-all behemoth.

"There's no question that it can be done, and I think it's a testament to Jay," Jackson told me. "Jay is so sure of his philosophy and how to do it, and do it the right way - it was just a matter of time before it finally clicked for him, and I was just fortunate to be around it in my first year. But his commitment goes back to the commitment of the conference, the commitment of the entire university to understand that we're a flagship basketball program, and to put the right kinds of resources behind it."

Jackson added that he believes what Wright has done gives the basketball program "a blueprint that we can have sustained success" with. And as the football program prepares for Talley's final season before handing the reins to longtime top deputy Mark Ferrante, Jackson said he's quite happy with the state of things on the gridiron too.

"Football is important to me - it's kind of the foundation of my career," Jackson said. "But the idea of us moving up or going anywhere else just doesn't make sense on a number of different fronts. So I think we're content to stay where right where we are."

I wouldn't pretend to call this story a big one, or to even consider claiming that Villanova's basketball program lacks for resources in any way. It certainly does not. And as Bob Ford wrote on the eve of the title game, Wright has played a big role in convincing his athletic department's administrators to make sure of it.

But I don't think we should overlook the matter either. It may be a while before another school that doesn't play big-time football wins a basketball national championship. So it ought to mean something that Villanova proved it can be done.