Now that Jay Wright has Villanova headed to its first Final Four in 24 years, the old fault line that ran through the basketball program isn't nearly as visible.
That divide, which Wright, unlike his immediate predecessors, Steve Lappas and Rollie Massimino, has straddled successfully, has been present on the Main Line campus since even before the Big East's 1979 founding.
On one side are older alums, Philadelphia-area natives mostly, who attended in an era when Villanova was the college of choice for graduates of the area's many Catholic high schools. These people want to honor the school's basketball past, and preserve its rivalries and traditions, particularly its long ties to the Big Five.
They want to ensure that, in the words of Ed Hastings, an ex-basketball player and a 1972 graduate, "the tradition is bigger than any of us."
On the other side are younger and more geographically diverse graduates, the bulk of whom come from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They tend to view Villanova in regional, even national, terms.
For them, the Big Five is little more than a curious relic, an afterthought compared to the powerful Big East. Whenever Big Five games are blacked out beyond Philadelphia and they can't watch their Wildcats, they complain. Whenever losses to Penn, Temple, St. Joseph's, or La Salle threaten Villanova's NCAA chances, they howl.
"I've heard so much about the Palestra and the Big Five . . . but the reality is I think we are more focused on the bigger picture," said Dukes Wooters, a northern New Jersey native who graduated in 2005.
Massimino and school administrators nearly ended the debate in the 1980s, when Villanova's athletic and academic ambitions nearly destroyed the Big Five.
Over the years, the two factions have had their public and private disputes. Both have tried to influence coaches and athletic directors. But whatever animosity they might have felt for each other has been quieted by Wright.
Wright, who grew up in Bucks County and frequently went to Big Five doubleheaders at the Palestra, said in 2007 that he frequently felt the tug of war. As a result, he made reconciliation one of his first program-building goals.
Not long after assuming the job in 2001, he planned a Legends of Villanova Basketball banquet. At the event, dozens of former Wildcats, many of whom felt cast out during the tenures of Massimino and Lappas, mingled again with active players.
Those older players now return regularly for basketball banquets, where they are paired with a current Wildcat for Oscar-like award presentations. The retired numbers of past stars like Paul Arizin, Howard Porter, and Wally Jones now hang in the Pavilion's rafters.
And as Wright's 2009 Villanova team has made its surprising run to Detroit, where the Wildcats will meet North Carolina in a Saturday semifinal, Massimino and former players like Chris Ford and Tom Inglesby have been conspicuous by their presence.
"Jay reinforces those ties more than previous coaches," said Frank Dunne, a native New Yorker and a 1964 graduate. "The team is not exclusively 'Jay's Program' but a point on a continuum."
Most of whatever differences there were were driven by cultural and demographic changes that swept over the now 147-year-old institution. As Villanova's ties to Philadelphia became less pronounced, so did interest in the Big Five among students and alumni.
According to statistics compiled by Villanova, the number of Pennsylvanians in its freshman classes has dropped from 45 percent in 1978 to 20 percent last fall.
Freshmen from New Jersey (23 percent), New York (18 percent), and Connecticut (7 percent) now make up nearly half of the Class of 2012.
"But even back when the school's student body was much more local, there was always a degree of geographic diversity," said Steve Merritt, the dean of enrollment management.
There were 29 states and 10 foreign countries represented in 1978's freshman class, Merritt said. Now those figures have jumped to 43 and 35, respectively.
"Overall in our student body, we've got 48 states represented here now. The only ones we're missing are Alabama and Wyoming," he said.
The college options for Philadelphia-area students have increased exponentially in the last few decades with advances in transportation, communication, and marketing. The area's best Catholic students are just as likely to attend Georgetown or Boston College as Villanova. (The percentage of Catholics at Villanova has stayed remarkably steady - 82 percent among 1985's freshmen, 75 percent among this year's first-year students.)
Dave Miller, a 1970 graduate from Broomall who now resides in a Boston suburb, said his Malvern Prep class sent 27 of its 84 graduates to Villanova. That percentage, he said, has dropped precipitously since then.
According to Merritt, Villanova's building boom these last few decades has helped too. When he was a student, he said, there was little campus housing.
"Most kids didn't have their own cars," he said, "so they commuted."
The Rev. Edmund Dobbin, university president from 1988 to 2006, a period when the school and the basketball team increased their profile nationally, frequently said he saw Villanova as a national university and basketball as a means to achieve that.
"He believed that the exposure the school could achieve through nationally televised games could enhance that vision," Miller said.
So it's not surprising that the Palestra and the Big Five, a local confederation that Villanova's national ambitions helped permanently alter in the 1980s, don't mean what they once did at the school.
"There is a divide between the old and the new, but it's all about perspective," said Roy DeCaro, a 1971 graduate who also got a Villanova law degree.
"I was introduced to Big Five basketball when I was 10. Older cousins that went to Villanova and St. Joe's would take me to the Palestra. . . . How could nouveau Villanovans understand that?"