By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
You might remember Rick Harshbarger. We introduced him to you almost a year ago as the guy driving the car parked in the Coliseum parking lot with the license plate: NO1WVFAN.
It’s there every West Virginia University men’s basketball game, be it sunny and 60 or snowing and 22 degrees.
It has been for every WVU game since Jan. 19, 1988, which is three years shorter than his streak of football games, but there are only six or seven of them a year.
We reintroduce you to Mr. Harshbarger today because he’s upset at what he’s seeing.
Not at the play on the basketball court, but mad at the number of empty seats and lack of enthusiasm he is seeing in the stands.
This man, who has attended every home game over the quarter century, was touched enough to send the following email:
I go to every home men’s basketball game ... every one, and I have for over 25 straight years, nearly 400 straight games. I don’t want a medal. I don’t want anything.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I want one thing. I want the Coliseum to rock again — to make my hour-and-a-half drive more enjoyable by seeing the place full, beach balls bouncing around the packed student section.
Chants and boos galore and to actually make the Coliseum challenging and yes difficult for the opposing team to play.
That was the norm in years past, but not for a while now. Some say it’s HD television. Some say it’s video games, and perhaps even being more likely to go to a party instead of the game.
We have one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game here, but only for a few more years. We play in a great conference and we play a nice out-of-conference schedule, none more so than coming up on Tuesday.
Gonzaga’s students camped out for a week before WVU played there last year. They destroyed us in that game right after knocking us out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
We owe them two.
Come on, students, pack the place and let the Zags have it with every ounce of your energy.
Non-students, you can get a ticket for $10. Ten lousy dollars to see one of the best teams in the country, not to mention our Mountaineers? Even the tightest tightwad can afford that.
If we don’t improve our home court advantage soon, I’m afraid we may never get it back. I remember the Coliseum being deafening and actually quaking when the crowd was wild and crazy. Lately it resembles a library more than an intimidating place for visiting teams to fear.
Let’s go, Mountaineers! Beat the Zags!
— Rick Harshbarger
This is a letter written from the heart, and it raises some serious questions.
Attendance is slipping at WVU sporting events.
This is how the average Coliseum attendance looks over the past five years:
2010 — 12,377; 2011 — 11,469; 2012 — 9,930; 2013 — 8,752; 2014 — 5,789.
Now, the crowds will grow and the average attendance rise as the season wears on and gets into conference play, but the truth is that WVU’s attendance was down from the Final Four team of 2010 to last year’s losing team with a 13-19 record by 3,645 per game, or 29.4 percent.
Certainly a good part of that is due to slipping from a Final Four team to a losing team, but it runs deeper. Ticket prices rise, and the administration changed the seating plan that required an increase in donations for the better tickets, a situation that bothered a significant number of donors, many enough to cancel long-held season tickets.
Public denials have come forth that the reseating plan hurt ticket sales, and claims were made that donations increased by more than a million dollars while season tickets to donators showed a miniscule increase.
This may be true, although long ago I learned to be leery of money and attendance figures, for there are many, many ways to make them come out the way you want them to come out.
But what has happened both in football and basketball is the image created is of nothing less than a money grab by the university’s athletic department (see parking fees, ticket increases, concession prices, Internet charges, even if not places on broadcasts by the university itself, etc.)
All of this has been coming at a time when the on-field fortunes of the teams are slipping and when the entire experience of being a Mountaineer is changing via the move to the Big 12 and change in style of play in both basketball and football.
It is difficult to make as many radical changes as WVU has made over the past couple of years in a losing atmosphere without suffering effects at the box office. That being said, the Gonzaga game coming up Tuesday is as attractive a non-conference game as WVU offers this season, so if you are going to experience WVU basketball, this is the time to do it.
You might even enjoy it and decide to come back for Kansas or Oklahoma State later in the winter.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.