By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It’s strange how quickly things can change in the world of sports.
When West Virginia University joined the Big12 last year, it seemed that it was joining a football conference that was a good basketball league but not one you would call elite, despite the presence of an elite school in Kansas.
No, the Big 12 was not the SEC in football – no one but the SEC is – but it was not the Big East in basketball, either.
It is a conference that remained strong in the sport despite losing Nebraska, Texas A&M, Colorado and Missouri in recent years, hanging on to its two premier football franchises, Oklahoma and Texas.
Adding West Virginia and TCU to replace A&M and Missouri gave it creditability and held its spot among the elite.
But a year later, much has changed.
In football, this conference that seemed to be reinventing offense enters a new season without a proven quarterback star and with nearly all teams fielding unproven players at that crucial position. It is a league without a Top 10 team at present and with, in Texas, a very shaky favorite.
But take a look at what has transpired in basketball in the same time.
The Big 12 returns in Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State its player of the year from a season ago, a good-enough player surrounded by a good-enough supporting cast to be the preseason favorite over Kansas, which wins Big 12 titles the way the old New York Yankees used to win World Series.
Just to make sure that Kansas didn’t slip too far, which surely would hurt the conference’s creditability, Kansas simply recruited the nation’s top recruit in Andrew Wiggins, who if he half lives up to expectations will be twice as good as anyone but Smart in the league.
But beyond that, with Texas Tech adding Tubby Smith as its coach, you have an unmatched cast of coaches that make the league exceptional.
It was Bob Huggins, who understands what he is up against as he tries to bring WVU back to its glory days on the basketball court, to point out just how good the coaching is in the Big 12.
“It makes it hard. I don’t know if there’s ever been another league ever that had 60 percent of coaches that have coached in the Final Four,’’ Huggins said during Tuesday’s Big 12 coaches’ conference call. “That’s extremely impressive.’’
Indeed six of the 10 coaches have led teams to the Final Four, including Huggins. All 10 of them have led teams into the NCAAs while two of the coaches – Kansas’ Bill Self and Tubby Smith – have won national championships.
It is the only conference that has all of its coaches with NCAA experience.
In truth, it might even be better coaching as a whole than WVU walked into when it joined the Big East back in the 1995-96 season. True, there were three future Hall of Fame coaches awaiting them in Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson.
But there was also John MacLeod at Notre Dame, Ralph Willard at Pitt, George Blaney at Seton Hall and Brian Mahoney at St. John’s.
In truth it was a top-heavy league in coaching. But when it comes to coaching the Big 12 with Self, Huggins, Smith, Lon Kruger, Rick Barnes and Bruce Weber all having led teams to the Final Four speaks volumes of what any team is up against in the Big 12.
“It speaks well (of the Big 12),’’ said Kruger, who last season became the first coach to take five different teams to the NCAA tournament. He led the Sooners to their first NCAA tournament since 2009, Blake Griffin’s final season in Oklahoma.
“You have unbelievable coaches in this league. The records speak for themselves, what a lot of the coaches in our league have accomplished,’’ Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg said. “That’s an unbelievable stat, 60 percent of your league that have coached in the premiere event in college basketball.’’
Six coaches in the Final Four and five of them with 500 or more victories, headed by Huggins with 723. The other 500-game winners are Texas’ Barnes (560), Oklahoma’s Kruger (514), Smith (511) and Self (507).
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel