By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
When President Jim Clements and athletic director Oliver Luck escaped from the Big East to go west and join the Big 12, the only real criticism of the move seemed to be whether or not West Virginia fit in a conference that was located west of the Mississippi River and that was steeped in cowboy tradition.
“I remember saying very often people look at our location and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s a small state, no big cities, all the big TV markets are tangential to the state ... to me that’s not the right way to look at it at all,” Luck said.
“To me it’s a great location. We are the northernmost southern state, the easternmost Midwestern state. We very well could be in the ACC. We could be in the Big Ten. I believe we’d fit in the SEC, just the way Kentucky and Tennessee do ... and we fit into the Big 12.”
Luck has no doubt that it’s a good fit, and, when you sit in his office and question it, he walks across the room for a book that is always on his desk.
This is a book you would not expect to find on an athletic director’s desk. It is not a biography of Sam Huff or Jerry West, a history of the Cotton Bowl or a how-to book on creating Heisman Trophy winners.
But then again Luck is not your normal athletic director, having nearly become a Rhodes Scholar before an NFL career and then a long term as president of NFL Europe.
The book’s title is “American Nations,” and it is written by Colin Woodard, an academic who has a theory that state lines do not define the culture and mores of a people. America is seen in terms of regions.
Luck has had a number of conversations with the author.
“When I came here I said I’m the athletic director at West Virginia and we’re in the middle of looking at conferences and I find your map very interesting because college football is very cultural,” Luck revealed.
The map breaks the United States up into cultural regions rather than states ... regions such as the Deep South and Great Appalachia.
“This guy’s theory — and there’s a number of people in his camp — is that he takes out state boundaries and he’s done all this research on counties and voting, church affiliation, you name it, and came up with these cultural groups.”
One of them is Great Appalachia.
“It’s enormous. It’s based on a Scotch-Irish tradition,” Luck said, showing the map. “It’s like the guy who was asked to describe Pennsylvania politically. He said, ‘It’s very easy. You have Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle.’
“There is such a thing as cultural affinity. You look, he has Appalachia in Waco, Texas, Fort Worth, Austin. It’s up into Oklahoma.”
Indeed, those who believe West Virginia is not a fit would be surprised to see that culturally it fits extremely well with many of the states in the Big 12.
“The point is, the original settlers settled in these areas and left their cultural imprint,” Luck said, referring to the map. “New
Netherlands, which is basically just New York, is the most tolerant place because all the Dutch wanted to do was make money.
“Appalachia is Scotch-Irish. It isn’t really geographical. It’s a cultural fit, and I believe WVU fits very well. Our only neighbors in Great Appalachia were Pitt and Cincinnati. South Florida doesn’t fit in there.”
If this is true, the Big East has almost signed a death warrant with its cultural mix from Boise State to San Diego State to Connecticut.
Other conferences also have gone astray, and Luck believes that a complete restructuring would benefit the sport.
“The structure of college football needs to change,” he said. “You need someone to put some geographical and culture sense into it so you can be with schools like your own. Maybe we could have a Greater Appalachian Conference where you could have West Virginia, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and Pitt.”
Yeah, right, like something that makes as much sense as that would ever come to be.
“I think the structure now is nowhere near ideal. I really do,” Luck said. “I hate to take lessons only from the professional leagues, but they are smart people. They take the fans into consideration when they make these decisions, too.
“They want the people in Philly to be able to jump in the car and drive to New York. That’s good for the game. People like to do it.”
And they like to do it in college football, too.
“I do think at some point the structure of college football needs to be reformed. Whether it’s one person — a czar — or a group of three, there needs to be somebody at the top who says, ‘Listen, let’s bring back a little geographical common sense.’”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.