By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — The Golden Age of West Virginia University athletics has been tarnished.
See, the worst thing that happens when there’s no games to watch is you have time to sit back and think, and as you do a number of things begin to come together.
A column, authored some long time ago in another life that ended recently with an escape from what has become the Folsom County Penitentiary, Morgantown style, came back to me.
It was noted then that coaches at WVU had more job security than a tenured professor. At that time the Mountaineers had Don Nehlen coaching football, Gale Catlett basketball, Craig Turnbull wrestling, Linda Burdette gymnastics, Veronica Hammersmith volleyball, Martin Pushkin track and field and Martha Thorn women’s tennis, all of whom had been in their jobs for 20 or more years.
The only turnover you could find at the school was in the bakery or on the basketball court.
And it was little different in the athletic administration, where everyone was comfortable and went about his or her job just as they had for the past 15 or 20 or 30 years.
Oddly, it wasn’t the money that kept the group intact, as hard as that may be to explain to anyone just a short decade later. There were enough wins to keep the alumni and the fans happy, a few great moments dotted with national champions, if not national championships, and everyone went merrily on his own way.
Was this the right way to approach things? Probably not, if you wanted to play with the big boys, but there is something about being content in an atmosphere that by definition probably should lean more to the academic and less to the athletic anyway.
It all started to change when the athletic department decided to downsize, slashing five varsity sports to streamline expenses and bring the department more in line with Title IX requirements that dictate gender equality in the most unequal of situations, where the masculine sport of football is king in interest, participation and revenue.
What that decision did was put upward pressure on the remaining sports, for only their success on a national scale now could keep the donors excited and the flow of revenue coming in.
Athletics at the university grew into something bigger than those who were running it. The change was best seen when people came to realize there were fewer and fewer football weekends around which the state could gather.
Success led to increased interest which led to increased salaries which led to higher demands and more pressure and before you knew it, you were building new facilities, improving old ones, spending more and more and more on recruiting.
So it was, as you found yourself awaiting the Fiesta Bowl, where WVU is to play Oklahoma in what is supposed to be a prestigious BCS event, knowing that even a BCS bid was not good enough for either fan or athletic department employee. Fan indifference cost the school about $1 million in unsold tickets and Rich Rodriguez’s defection to Michigan cast not only himself but the entire operation into a bad light.
As you looked at the situation as a whole, not just as a battle between a headstrong football coach and an athletic department without vision, you realized a large number of key members of the West Virginia family have been jumping ship … or being pushed overboard.
John Beilein, who had rebuilt Catlett’s failing basketball program, had fled to Michigan despite a team that seemed poised to make a run at the NCAA title.
Whit Babcock, the prime fund raiser for the Mountaineer Athletic Club and was instrumental in raising the funds to keep Rich Rodriguez a year ago when he threatened to take off for Alabama, left for Missouri.
Sergio Garcia, fresh off winning the school’s first Big East swimming and diving championship, left for a job at a Florida prep school for far more money than he was making at WVU.
Shelly Poe, the long-time sports information director who had been elected to the SID’s Hall of Fame after having been responsible for bringing post-season honors to so many WVU athletes that they could not all be named, reluctantly quit and went to Ohio State.
Jeff Huntoon, the head track coach robbed of his men’s team, exited also for Ohio State, willing to take an assistant’s job to get away.
Marsha Beasley, longtime rifle coach, gave up her position to tend to her family; Nancy LaRoque, the rowing coach left; women’s tennis coach Dan Silverman was shoved out the door and men’s soccer coach Mike Seabolt was fired after a recruiting scandal.
What’s more, women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown just turned down an opportunity to join the rush to Michigan, but the school had to make a number of concessions to keep her, and now there are whispers that both Mike Carey, the women’s basketball coach, and Marlon LeBlanc, the men’s soccer coach, are exploring opportunities.
And, of course, there was Rodriguez’s shocking decision to leave a year after vowing undying love to his team, his state, his university and his job that sent off the warning sirens.
So, it seems, West Virginia has lost more than just Rodriguez. It has lost more than just Rodriguez plus a number of other key figures in its rise toward what was supposed to be the school’s Golden Age of Athletics.
It has lost a certain innocence that was almost unique in big-time athletics, the atmosphere and reputation of being a good place to work, a place where you could find some old-time values while still remaining competitive on the athletic field.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.