By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
You might have said, when Oliver Luck replaced Ed Pastilong as West Virginia University’s athletic director, that there was a new sheriff in town, and that would not nearly have been as much of a cliché as it seems.
He came out of the West, from Texas, to be exact, and he came to clean up the town — or, at least, the university’s athletic department.
And since he’s been here there has been nothing but gunfight after gunfight as the landscape changed from the hills of West Virginia to the plains of the Big 12.
Luck came in with big ideas and was quick to incorporate them, as much a victim of circumstance as anything else, but ready and willing to take bold and swift action that forever alters athletics at WVU.
“I’ve always sort of believed, and I think this is true particularly of people who cut their teeth in competitive sports, that fortune does favor the bold,” he said. “I have always been taught as a player that you have to anticipate the throw, you have to anticipate the coverage, if you throw to the guy after he gets open it’s too late ... you have to be ahead of the curve.”
Luck, of course, is a former West Virginia quarterback.
“Most coaches would tell you sitting back and waiting for things to happen is the recipe for failure,” Luck said. “It has been a busy 21 months. I’ve tried to anticipate things that were going to happen eventually, with or without us.”
He was looking at conference change before walking in the door, noting that it really didn’t begin with Pitt and Syracuse announcing they were going to the ACC but with Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College going there a decade ago.
Change was in the wind
On the day he was introduced as athletic director he talked of conference realignment, and while everyone spoke of WVU and the ACC, Luck had his eye on the Big 12. In the question-and-answer period after he was introduced, he admitted that he had been working for a couple years on realignment.
“With all the talk of conference realignment, I think our university has a tremendous opportunity because in times of uncertainty there is also tremendous opportunity,” he said. “We’d love to see the status quo continue, but like every other university we will be smart and strategic and try to figure out if x, y and z happen, what our alternatives are.”
And one of those alternatives, if you knew then what you know now, certainly was the Big 12, for Luck had been located in the heart of its territory for some time.
“Hard to say what the University of Texas may do or not do,” he said, the conference at the time being in a state of upheaval. “I’d love to see them try to rebuild the Big 12 and maintain that status as best they possibly could.”
The realignment talk began long before Luck was ever mentioned as a candidate to take Pastilong’s place.
“I remember when we (the board of governors, on which he served for two years) interviewed Jim (Clements) for the president position. Much of the talk was about conference realignment and how important athletics is to WVU and how we can’t wake up one morning and find ourselves in a second-tier conference playing second-tier teams,” Luck recalled.
“It’s been something on my mind for the two years of the board of governors, so this was nothing new.”
The hiring of Clements and Luck
The candidates for president all understood the role athletics play at WVU and how important a decision was approaching, but Clements had something extra that sold Luck.
“What Jim said, he’s pretty bold, he’s a doer, he wants things to happen. That came through in his interview. Obviously, over the last 20 months he’s encouraged me to get things done,” Luck said.
The tables were turned not long after that when Clements had been president for a while and Luck was a candidate for the athletic director’s job.
“I remember Jim and I had breakfast at Blaney House and him telling me, ‘I really want you to take this job’ and ‘I know it will be hard to move from Houston’ and blah, blah, blah. That stuff,” Luck said.
“We talked then about conference realignment. My sense was something big was going to happen — and that could be positive or negative. It was my sense in the first three or four years here that something would happen because of all the stuff that was going on,” Luck continued.
“I knew it was something the university and this department would have to tackle. I didn’t think it would be that quickly, to be honest.”
Making a move from the Big East to the Big 12 was thrust upon Luck. While he felt that the old Big East was a good fit, it was crumbling from within and the opportunity he spoke of beckoned. He was ready to move.
What drove all of this, in my first 21 months, was this looming specter of conference realignment, this constant concern of where WVU fit in because, let’s face it, we’re not Ohio State. We’re kind of a tweener. We’re good, we’re big, we’re a flagship, but we’re not Texas.”
That is an honest assessment, which was necessary at the time. Too often, at West Virginia, it believes it is something it is not, and that can hurt when you are looking at yourself on the national stage.
“My sense was something big was going to happen in the first three, four, five or six years when I took over,” he said. “We needed to be as shipshape as we could as a department.”
‘Football is king’
That began with football.
“Football is king. No question about that, but the Olympic sports do matter. Volleyball matters, men’s and women’s soccer matter, swimming matters,” he said, adding, “I thought we really had to make sure we had the best coaches we could, that we were focused on those sports. I felt improving in all those sports would help us navigate in all this conference confusion. I didn’t know where we were going to end up. It’s like making sure the company you want to sell in three years from now is tip-top, you’ve gotten rid of all the problems.”
And so it was a number of coaching changes were made, including the biggest one, firing Bill Stewart and bringing in Dana Holgorsen.
“Football drives everything and football is big in Texas,” Luck said. “It just dawned on me (how big). Sports Illustrated had a picture of the top four quarterbacks in the draft ... Andrew (his son, of Stanford, who will be the first pick in the NFL draft), Robert Griffin III (the Heisman winner from Baylor), Ryan Tannehill from A&M and Brandon Weeden, the Oklahoma State kid. Tannehill is from Abilene, Griffin is from a little place near Colleen, Andrew cut his teeth in Houston and Weeden is from Oklahoma,” Luck said.
“It’s not just a coincidence that three of the top four quarterbacks are from Texas. It’s serious football. High school, college ... they take it seriously. It’s Friday Night Lights; it’s a religion.”
And that will give a higher profile to WVU’s football program and help players like Geno Smith and Tavon Austin in bids for top national awards, WVU never having produced a Heisman Trophy winner.
Things will change
The entire athletic department at WVU is facing a change. Rifle and men’s soccer will not take part in the Big 12 as it does not offer those sports, and WVU will add another sport, either men’s golf, men’s track and field, or men’s tennis, but the biggest change will be in baseball.
“Baseball is a project,” Luck said. “Big 12 baseball is clearly good.”
It is a major sport in many ways.
“I went to law school in Texas, and the baseball field is 400 or 500 yards from the law school and I used to go over and watch a game or two. There were 6,000 people there. It’s gotten even bigger since I was there,” Luck noted.
At WVU baseball has been an afterthought. Poorly attended and with an inferior facility, Hawley Field.
“We need to upgrade the infrastructure. Hawley Field is not adequate for that,” Luck said. “If Texas or Oklahoma kids came to Hawley Field they would roll their eyes and say, ‘Coach, really.’
He is planning to play conference games at first in cities in the state that have a decent facility like Charleston, Beckley and Princeton, while at the same time he is pushing to get a TIF (tax increment financing) through that would build a stadium at the University Town Center that would also be used by a minor league baseball team.
“The TIF makes sense,” he said. “It’s also a great move for this community ... and I would include Fairmont and Clarksburg in that. Already there are minor league teams knocking on the door.”
Big man, big ideas
Luck admits that he’s happy with his situation.
“It’s been very satisfying,” he said when asked if this is just a stopping point on the way to Big 12 commissioner or some other job of that sort. “It’s my alma mater. I want to see WVU take its rightful spot in the college sports hierarchy. I also enjoy challenging the status quo. If you don’t do that, you remain mired in mediocrity. Woe is us; we can’t do any better. That’s not us.”
Luck feels as though he is just in the beginning phases of a much bigger job.
“There’s still a lot of things we have to do. Our athletic department has always been healthy and solid, but times they are a-changing. As we go into the Big 12 we have to figure things out. I’m still enjoying every little challenge,” he said.
“The older I get — and I’m 51 — I realize in life you want to accomplish things. I just booked a flight to Houston to go down when the new stadium opens in May. That’s sort of my baby.”
He is doing things and has a purpose for what he’s doing.
“You want to accomplish things and you have to be careful not to confuse activity — being busy — with accomplishing things,” he said. “If baseball works out with a minor league team, it would be great with the community.
“I’ve been surprised by how many minor league teams have knocked on my door saying finally someone is going to do something with that community. I’ve been shocked by the high level of people who are interested.”
You don’t know until you try it, and Luck is certainly willing to try things.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.