A question of faith: Catholic colleges face challenges, opportunities in new conference

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As a chunk of the Big East transforms itself into a mostly or even all-Catholic basketball league, the conference faces a choice: play up or play down its faith-based roots?

With Catholic higher education already struggling to strike a balance between faith and financial security, either course carries both challenges and opportunities.

On the one hand, the seven schools that announced Saturday they'll set off on their own — St. John's, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova — have already made clear they'll look to non-denominational institutions that otherwise fit their profile, such as Butler, to expand.

But even if they do so, the conference's identity will likely lie with its core of Catholic-rooted schools. To be sure, going overboard with that identity could harm recruiting of non-Catholic students — both athletes and non-athletes — and limit expansion. But a moderate embrace could help institutions reconnect their sports programs to their missions, and reinvigorate their religious identities at a time when important groups on campus fear it's slipping away.

Think of a non-secular Ivy League, but with much better basketball. It might take a leap of faith to believe these days, but the NCAA's musical chairs game of conference realignment isn't always just about money.

"Its' not all about revenue," said Warren Zola, an assistant dean at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, who follows college sports business issues closely. "It's partly about brand. I think the Catholic schools are looking at that and thinking, 'What do we have in common with the existing Big East and the future Big East?'"

It's not a coincidence that the seven schools that announced Saturday they're separating from the Big East are all Catholic. They're each part of a tradition that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — church institutions that sprang up to serve urban immigrant communities. Neither their demographics nor tightly-packed city campuses lent themselves to football players and stadiums (Notre Dame, with space to grow in Indiana, proved the exception to the pattern).

Basketball was a better fit for city schools, and each has done well with it.

The problem today is that college athletics revolves around big-time football dollars. That's left behind the niche these Catholic schools inhabit — basketball powers where football is either second-fiddle (Georgetown, Villanova) or not played at all (the others). So they're setting off on their own.

"If it ends up as all Catholic schools, that's the way we're going to talk about them," said Linda Burno, a former associate commissioner of the Big East and former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 conference, who now leads the Division III Skyline conference. But while it will be up to the school presidents to decide whether to market the conference that way, she's not sure that's the best course.

"Why box yourself in?" she said. "They're so much more than a Catholic basketball league. They're going to be a national basketball league."

So far, that seems to be the marketing plan.

"The criteria that we'll set forth will be non-denominational," Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro said Sunday, adding the group will be looking for schools that are committed to top-tier competition, are "attractive media entities," and "care about the holistic development of their student athletes."

"When you start to populate that matrix, you'll probably see some Catholic schools in there and see some schools that aren't Catholic," he said.

Still, it's also worth noting that five of the seven institutions now leaving the Big East are led by priests or members of religious orders. Seton Hall installed its first lay president in 2010, and it's widely believed that many such schools will soon follow, given the dwindling pool of academics from the clergy or religious orders.

That could encourage the current presidents to try to put a mission-related stamp on the conference, a way to distinguish the schools in this particular league.

What kind of stamp? One model is the Ivy League, which prohibits athletic scholarships (but awards them for financial need), and schedules league basketball games only on weekends (the Ivy League also doesn't allow football teams to play in the post-season).

The soon-to-be former Big East schools probably wouldn't go that route. But they could impose their own mission-related choices like public service requirements and higher ethical standards — practices that could be cast in non-sectarian terms that the likes of Butler might embrace.

And while Butler's two recent runs to the national title game make it especially appealing, there's no shortage of Catholic colleges with creditable basketball programs that might aspire to such company, and where the played-up Catholic identity would be part of the appeal. Gonzaga and St. Mary's on the West Coast may prove too far away, but Dayton, Xavier, Canisius and St. Bonaventure could all be potential candidates (as might St. Joseph's and LaSalle in Philadelphia, but for the fact nearby Villanova would be unlikely to accept expansion in its own market).

At the far end, one could even imagine a conference decision not to play games on Sundays — and a dramatic showdown with the NCAA over a request to be assigned only to Thursday-Saturday brackets in the NCAA basketball tournament.

"That would definitely be something meaningful," said Rev. John Piderit, president of the New York-based Catholic Education Institute, mulling the Sunday idea.

A few of Piderit's other suggestions, like "name that hymn" contests and saints trivia on the scoreboard of basketball games, likely wouldn't get past the schools' marketing teams.

But they speak to the kind of branding opportunity only Notre Dame routinely gets among America's Catholic schools. Notre Dame's slick "What Would You Fight For" campaign, boosted by this year's run to the BCS national championship, has become a marketing engine for the university and, arguably, the faith in the United States.

Another possible upshot of the new league: at a time when conference realignment has torn asunder so many natural rivalries that percolated for decades — Duke-Maryland, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Oklahoma-Nebraska — a conference embracing its Catholic identity could reinvigorate some natural ones. Imagine the intensity of Catholic high school basketball rivalries, but with 15,000 spectators instead of 1,500.

"A Catholic basketball conference could be a way back to the routes of why conferences came together initially," Zola said. "I think it's fantastic if some leaders in intercollegiate athletics can put the brakes on chasing every dollar out of their potential in athletics and refocus on their purpose as an institution."


AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report from Villanova, Pa.

Follow Justin Pope at http://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP