By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Not since June 20, 1863, when West Virginia broke away from Virginia and was welcomed into the Union as a state, has there been a day like Sunday, an independence day of a different sort as the Mountaineers were admitted into the union that is the Big 12 Conference along with Texas Christian University.
It is difficult to imagine just how important this was to the future of athletics at a school where the importance of athletics is magnified beyond that at almost any other school.
The event was celebrated at Touchdown Terrace at Milan Puskar Stadium with a gala afternoon party that included President Jim Clements and athletic director Oliver Luck, who engineered the departure from a decaying Big East Conference, and with brand new Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, to say nothing of most of the WVU coaches — the notable exception being football coach Dana Holgorsen — and more than 100 athletes.
A little more than a year ago the Mountaineers were caught up in a rapidly changing college sports landscape that was hurrying toward a national football playoff and leaving not only the Big East behind but threatening the very existence of the Big 12 itself, Nebraska having exited to the Big 10, Colorado to the Pac-12, Texas and Oklahoma looking toward taking their footballs, basketballs and deep pool of athletes and running while Missouri and Texas A&M were scurrying off to the SEC.
At the same time Luck was immersed at WVU seeking refuge outside the Big East.
“My only goal was to make sure we maintained our position in the big leagues,” Luck admitted.
A former Mountaineer quarterback who had come home to meet this crisis situation, he understood the importance of sports here and a rallying point for the state, a place where West Virginia has been able to build a self-worth while being relegated to ridicule in so many other areas of society.
“We have a small state, no professional teams. It’s crucial I think that WVU maintains its place in college athletics. In that regard, you really can’t overestimate how important this is,” Luck said.
This was not easy for him, because the ACC was flat out against bringing WVU in and the SEC had other plans.
Out in the plains, the once-proud Big 12 was disintegrating, operating with an interim commissioner in Chuck Neinas because the league’s cohesiveness had come undone.
Bowlsby had been athletic director at Stanford, as such enjoyed watching Oliver Luck’s son, Andrew, become one of the great quarterbacks in college football history. But he was looking to move on to one final stop in his career and the Big 12 job intrigued him.
“When I went into the interview I asked some frank questions,” Bowlsby admitted. “Some of them had to do with the overall stability of the league. I learned there was a lot more interdependency and lot more mutual commitment than was publically perceived.”
That led him to believe the situation was one that would work out when Texas and Oklahoma threw themselves fully back into the Big 12 picture. The league now had its featured stars and Bowlsby came to understand that not only could it make it, but it could remain a major player.
Trumpeting its strength, however, now is one of his goals.
“I think that’s one of my responsibilities, making sure the public perception is consistent with the private reality and I think the private reality is that these schools are very committed to each and to the future together and to our new members,” he said. “Those are all really good signs.
“What you can take away from that and look at is that we are playing a full round-robin in football and a double round-robin in basketball. That’s a very big commitment that strengthens the Big 12 brand as compared to virtually everyone else because there is no one else doing that.”
Had the Big East remained together, WVU might not have sought outside refuge, but when Pitt and Syracuse exited from a conference that was failing without dynamic leadership, WVU could not ride that ship any longer.
The biggest problem mostly was that they really never did have much in common with the Big East schools. It was a conference built on basketball and made for TV, a conference that was strong in private Catholic schools which had little in common with WVU.
The Big 12 was constructed with schools similar to WVU, not just tied together by an athletic thread.
“This is more than an athletic partnership,” Clements explained. “It’s universities like us, research, flagship universities, so there’s already academic and research partnerships. There are so many good things about this. We’re in a true power conference. It’s only going to get better and better and better.”
If there is any question it is a geographical one, for there is no rival 80 miles up the interstate like Pitt.
These are schools all almost 1,000 miles away and that is going to cut down on the number of games fans can attend.
Bowlsby, however, says that is not detrimental at all and that today’s world makes that far less important than it used to be.
“In this day and age it isn’t about geographic footprint as much as it is electronic footprint,” the commissioner said. “Clearly the two are related in some significant ways. Having an Eastern school (WVU) allows us to get coverage and clearances in markets we wouldn’t have gotten into in the past.
“But it isn’t as much about trying to find members in contiguous states as it used to be because the travel is easier. The electronic footprint, in a lot of ways, is more important than the geographic footprint.
“In fact,” he continued. “I don’t know that there’s anything not to like about our current configuration. The strategy going forward on conference expansion, this this should be a very hard fraternity to get into. You shouldn’t be able to come into this league if you don’t meet the standards that West Virginia and TCU have met in that they add significant value competitively, economically and educationally to the league.”
And while there is much talk about potential expansion to 12 schools, allowing a championship game, Bowlsby isn’t in favor of that and doesn’t believe the conference members want it.
“I like 10,” he said. “I think a majority of our members like 10. Does that mean we would foreclose on any consideration of other schools? No, certainly not. Conference expansion is going to be on everyone’s agenda at every conference meeting going forward.
“But I don’t think that will go away any time soon,” Bowlsby continued. “Are we preparing for adding schools? No. We’re very comfortable at 10 and we can stay comfortable for a while.”
The reason he is comfortable is that he sees a post-season playoff as not being worth what it produces.
“I like not having a post-season playoff. Under the best of circumstances you’re supposed to have your two best teams in that and one of them is going to come out as damaged goods as they move into post-season. You hope it isn’t your best team.
“If you have a seeded national championship playoff you sure don’t want to have your best team defeated.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.