The Times West Virginian

Sports

May 8, 2013

Luck revives baseball at WVU

MORGANTOWN — When Oliver Luck was a quarterback at West Virginia University, back at the time when Don Nehlen took over the football program, he suffered an injured ankle that required surgery.

Looking for something for him to do while he recovered, they gave him a job.

“Eddie (Pastilong, who became athletic director) told me, ‘Make sure no one steals Hawley Field,’” Luck recalled the other day, ironically realizing that it turned out that the man who made the decision to do away with Hawley Field, West Virginia’s baseball field, in favor of a new, $16 million stadium, was the man who once was assigned to look after its existence.

In truth, the seed for the changes that have come to West Virginia’s baseball program over the last year were planted way back there in the days when Luck was a football hero. He was there when old Mountaineer Field gave way to the new one, saw how a new coach and a new facility can put life into a program on life support.

He saw, too, the treatment the baseball program was given at that time, and when he became athletic director, one of the projects he wanted to undertake was upgrading the program, one that was no more alive now than it was when he was a student at WVU.

“First, baseball is a great game,” he answered when asked why he selected baseball as a target program for improvement. “It may not be America’s national pastime like it was through the last century, but it is a great game with tremendous fan appeal. I can tell you, during my four years here there was apathy among the students toward the baseball program, and I thought that was a shame.

“Everybody always told me how good of a baseball community this area, this region was, but the only way it ever got manifested was people going up to the Pirates game.”

Luck, like someone who has been raised in Pittsburgh these past couple of decades, had never really been around a baseball-mad community, not having grown up in Cleveland and having spent a decade of his life in Europe.

But he felt that Morgantown and the area, which does offer strong support to the Pirates, could be attracted to a good baseball program.

So he set out on upgrading the program, something that has been accomplished more rapidly than anyone had imagined.

As West Virginia goes into its final two weeks of the regular season, this team that was picked for last place in the Big 12 is tied for first place, despite playing a conference schedule that has it on the road, even for its home games.

Attendance records are being shattered with games in Charleston, more than 3,200 fans attending one of the dates in Charleston.

How did Luck put this all together?

First, he was amazed to see that baseball was not fully funded when he came in, just as the rifle team that year won the NCAA championship also wasn’t fully funded.

“It didn’t take much to fully fund baseball, just like it didn’t take much to fully fund the rifle team. I don’t know why it wasn’t fully funded, but it wasn’t,” he said. “The incremental dollars it took to fully fund baseball wasn’t very much, five figures, that’s all it was.”

That was the first decision, to put the money into the program.

Then he decided that he couldn’t reach the level he was hoping to get to with longtime coach Greg Van Sant.

This was before the decision had been made to move to the Big 12, a much stronger baseball conference than the Big East.

So it was a coaching search began, but how did he wind up with Randy Mazey, an assistant coach at TCU?

“I try to do as much homework as I possibly can. I researched coaches, talked to as many people as I could,” Luck said.

He had some parameters in mind for what he wanted in a coach.

“I limited my search to guys who understood our climate. I wanted someone – they didn’t have to grow up in this area, Randy is from Youngstown – but you had to be familiar with the challenges this climate presents in baseball,” Luck said.

He also wanted someone with a proven track record.

“Randy had had three unbelievable years as head coach at East Carolina before he became an assistant at TCU,’ Luck said.

Indeed, Mazey had been head coach from 2004 to 2006 at ECU, winning 120 games and losing only 63, getting them to the NCAA Super Regional in 2005. That season his team won 51 games.

“He’s been a head coach. He was not just an assistant coach, and that was important. In Fort Worth, he got to understand Texas baseball and that sort of thing,” Luck said.

What, though, sold Luck on him when he came to meet with him face to face?

“He has what I call a quiet confidence. He’s not the most demonstrative guy. He’s pretty even keeled. I was told by people who worked with him at various places that he somehow finds a way to bind with kids,” Luck said.

“The other piece, and this was very important in my search. He is a pitching guy. That was important. I don’t profess to know a whole lot about baseball, but I know enough that if you have quality arms you are going to win some games. It’s the equivalent of a quarterback in football. Over the years, our program hadn’t focused on pitching enough.”

Before he could get a coach, he knew something else was necessary.

Hawley Field had to go.

“I had come to that conclusion before the Big 12 move. I felt we needed a new direction in baseball in terms of our coaching staff. I knew the only way I could attract a quality coach, a guy like Mazey, was to have a stadium plan in place,” Luck explained.

“Without a plan for a new stadium or a totally renovated Hawley Field it would have been terribly difficult to recruit a quality coach. Just like student-athletes, coaches look at the infrastructure.”

Mazey admitted the stadium plan played a big role in his decision to come to West Virginia.

“It was very important. You look across college baseball the last 20 years and every time a program has built a facility like we’re talking about it has made an immediate jump and gotten a lot better,” Mazey said. “That’s almost without fail. Kids want to play in nice facilities. Fans want nice facilities. That was definitely an important factor.

“Now it looks like we are going to have one of the nicest facilities in the nation.”

As the plan went in place, the move to the Big 12 occurred, magnifying the need for a new stadium.

“That became more obvious when we made the Big 12 move. We didn’t have a good stadium even in Big East terms,” Luck said. “Louisville has a very nice ball park. South Florida has a nice park. UConn has a nice little ball park, and their weather is worse than ours. Notre Dame has a good park. It was clear to me, even in the Big East, we needed to completely upgrade the facility.”

But the route Luck took was a bold one, bringing together the university, the city, the county, the state and a minor league baseball league to relocate a franchise in Morgantown.

“You know me,” Luck said, with a laugh when asked about the move. “I’m a big believer in partnerships. This is almost exactly what I did in Houston with the soccer stadium.”

After being president of NFL Europe, Luck came back to Houston, where he had played with the Oilers in his NFL days,

In 2001, he became chief executive officer of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, overseeing the development and management of the $1 billion professional sports and entertainment complex for the city of Houston that included Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros; Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans; the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets, Comets and Aeros, and the Livestock Show and Rodeo.

In 2005, Luck was appointed the first president of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamos and secured the funding for an $80 million soccer complex to house the Dynamos.

“I worked with the city and the country, the two big political entities. Like I worked to bring a minor league team from the New York-Penn League to town in the stadium, I brought Texas Southern to play their football games at the soccer stadium. People liked that idea because it was collaborative,” he said.

“I had experience putting these types of deals together, and thankfully the people, the University Towne Centre, who own the property up there, liked the idea.”

They opted to go for TIFF funding of the project, which met with some resistance. The bill was originally introduced in 2012 but got nowhere, winning a hard battle to be passed in 2013.

Luck sees it as far more than just a bill to build a stadium.

“It was one of these things as we put the thing together that this was win-win-win across the board —- a win for WVU’s baseball program, a win for the county with the interchange, a win for North Central West Virginia with a New York-Penn League team agreeing to come down,” Luck said.

“The stadium was really a secondary part of that whole TIFF. The main infrastructure that is going to be funded is the interchange off the expressway. That’s going to benefit the county,” Luck added.

Luck sees the addition of the interchange, the stadium and development of the 1,400 acres of land as a boon to the entire region.

“You have three communities along I-79 – Clarksburg, Fairmont and Morgantown – all three, because of the topography, are 3-4 miles off the freeway. It’s hard to develop more in central Morgantown or central Fairmont because of topography and the river.

“But you look at what Clarksburg has done and Bridgeport, developing out to the freeway, and that’s really helped Harrison County. And Fairmont built the connector to get to the freeway and that’s really helped Marion County.

“I think it is going to be good for the university, good for Morgantown, good for the county.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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