The Times West Virginian

October 30, 2011

Mountaineers taking step into college sports history

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University is taking a step into college sports history as it ventures out of a disintegrating Big East Conference and moves into the Big 12, a conference with teams that have helped write the very history of collegiate football and basketball.

In football circles, to be sure, the names Oklahoma and Texas are legendary, and no one short of UCLA has a more storied basketball history than Kansas.

And while you can go as far back in college athletics history as you want, the modern era has been no less imposing. Indeed, West Virginia has chosen no easy path to fight for the national championship that has evaded it in football and basketball for its entire history.

You may hear about LSU and Alabama and the SEC in football, but sitting right behind them is Oklahoma State at No. 3, and the conference adds two more Top 10 teams in Kansas State and Oklahoma at Nos. 8 and 9.

The conference has Texas at No. 20 and Texas Tech at No. 24.

The Big 12 currently is not quite so imposing in basketball, where Baylor is highest ranked at No. 12 and Kansas at No. 13, but what conference would look strong to a team coming out of the Big East?

The legacy and legends of the Big 12 schools show just where it has been and where West Virginia can help take it to. Certainly it has taken a hit in football with the recent defections of Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M, considered to be three of the five most successful football programs in the conference.

With Missouri also on the verge of leaving, it also possessing a proud football program, the Big 12 loses much of its history ... but hardly all of it.

The Oklahoma Sooners, for example, possess seven national championships and have produced five Heisman Trophy winners while taking 42 conference titles.

The Sooners won 47 straight games from 1953 to 1957 under Bud Wilkinson. Think of that for a moment, a stretch without losing that covered parts of five seasons, including three straight unbeaten years.

Texas is not far behind, owning 850 victories entering this year, which is second only to Michigan and has been good enough to reward them with four national championships. With a pair of Heisman Trophy winners named Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, their position among the nation’s elite is sealed even with recent problems.

If you are going to name drop Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, you might want to name drop the heroes of the Big 12, which goes back as far as the game itself.

Quarterbacks come to mind immediately, and if West Virginia is boasting on Geno Smith now and Patrick White and Marc Bulger before him, consider the award that they all played for. That would be the Davey O’Brien Award, named after the long-ago quarterback at TCU.

And O’Brien wasn’t as good as maybe the best quarterback the conference ever turned, TCU’s Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, who was a do-everything player (run, pass and probably the best punter ever in the game) who carried Baylor to national prominence and then won his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame while with the Washington Redskins.

Texas, of course, gave us Vince Young, who is the best QB the Big 12 Conference has had since it merged with the Southwest Conference in the mid-1990s, and Colt McCoy, while Oklahoma offered the likes of Jack Mildren, Thomas Lott, Josh Heupel and Sam Bradford.

If there were great quarterbacks in the conference, it is fair to say that no conference turned out running backs that are more exciting than the Big 12 schools.

Just the names alone conjure up unmistakable images.

There’s Kansas’ Gale Sayers, long and lean with large strides cutting left and right on a slippery, wet field for a long run. There’s the aforementioned Earl Campbell running over people and chugging down the sidelines, a brahma bull with racehorse speed.

Oklahoma’s Billy Sims would turn on the jets as he burst through a hole and outrun a posse of defenders on his way to the Heisman. And that doesn’t go so far as to mention the Sooners’ Adrian Peterson, Tommy McDonald, Steve Owens, who holds the school record with 57 rushing touchdowns, and Joe Washington, who led them to national championships in 1974 and 1975.

And there was maybe the best of them all, one WVU got to know when he was a backup to another all-time great who became a great professional, Thurman Thomas. His backup was one Barry Sanders, whose NFL highlights to this day are unmatched as he went on to become that league’s No. 3 among all-time leading rushers.

The conference always has turned out great defensive players, beginning with Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis, who made one of the most famous tackles in college football history when he secured the 1965 national championship for Texas by tackling Alabama quarterback Joe Namath on a fourth-and-inches on the goal line to protect a 21-17 Orange Bowl victory.

And if Nobis was the greatest middle linebacker (he also was an offensive guard, playing both ways), Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth was one of the most flamboyant at the position.

Oklahoma’s Leroy Selmon, one of the three Selmon brothers, may well have been the best defensive player ever in college football.

The conference also has been rich in coaches, beginning with Wilkinson at Oklahoma and Royal at Texas, along with Barry Switzer with the Sooners.

While not exactly known for basketball as it is for football, the Big 12 goes right back to the roots of the game, for Kansas’ first coach was none other than James Naismith himself, the inventor of the game.

That started a tradition of coaching at the school that brought such legends as Phog Allen, Adolph Rupp, Larry Brown and Dean Smith there. With the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps still the greatest individual talent in basketball, along with Clyde Lovellette, Jo Jo White and Paul Pierce, Kansas has sent an army of players to the NBA.

The Jayhawks have won three NCAA titles, reached the Final Four 12 times, and are one of only three teams to have won 2,000 games.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.