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August 26, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU hopes to be gracious Big 12 host

MORGANTOWN — It started even before he was named athletic director at West Virginia University, back when he was on the board of governors. Oliver Luck had eyes and ears and, yes, a nose that could sniff out the smell of stale beer in the aftermath of a football game.

He saw some of the boorish behavior of fans, listened to some of the taunts aimed at opponents and read about the arrests, and, as an alumnus, as a person connected with the school, there was a sense of embarrassment, a sense that the experience at a WVU football game had to be a better one.

His feelings about this only increased when he found himself sitting in that athletic director’s chair, not necessarily so much from personal experience, because there were some games he missed as he felt it was important to be there when he could for his son, Andrew, who was passing his way into the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft at Stanford.

Instead, people would contact him, and the emails were often of a single theme and he felt he had to take action — fan behavior — especially with the move into the Big 12 Conference on the horizon.

“A lot of behavioral changes we are trying to institute came from the emails I received from fans,” Luck said. “People would say, ‘I’ve been going to Mountaineer games for “X” number of years and I’m thinking of giving up my tickets. I’ve got too many people that are rude and drunk and whatever.’”

It was a constant theme, one that would drive him to a series of actions, the latest being an open letter to fans asking them that they show some courtesy to their Big 12 visitors rather than acting in the gruff, drunken and sometimes threatening way that they had in the past toward visitors.

The truth is, this type of behavior is not typical of West Virginia or West Virginians. That is not to lay the blame for such behavior on the out-of-staters who attend WVU, as there is something about football and, yes, alcohol and perhaps the thoughts of keeping up a longstanding tradition of belligerence toward opponents, that makes West Virginians go off in a terribly wrong direction.

“Talking to both the Morgantown police chief and the university police chief drove the change in the pass-out policy because they said people were really abusing the liquor,” Luck said.

Whether or not the policy of not allowing fans to leave at halftime and come back in cut back on fans’ enjoyment at Milan Puskar Stadium can’t be gauged, but Luck’s emails of complaint slowed, and they did have more ticket renewals than normal this year. It seemed as though the atmosphere — and the football — was more in keeping with what the people wanted.

Luck noted that playing in the Big 12 will bring thousands of fans into Morgantown after those fans had come a long way and spent a lot of money and that this will be their first impression of the school, the team, the state and the people.

“We don’t want somebody saying, ‘I spent $2,000 driving or coming to the game and I get this kind of treatment?’” Luck said. “There’s two things here, stopping bad behavior, which is the No. 1 thing, then there’s extending a hand of friendship.

“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” Luck observed.

In his letter, he wrote:

“Let’s all make a pledge to go out of our way to welcome those fans to Morgantown and to West Virginia University. Let’s make sure that we extend a friendly hand at the tailgates, invite visiting fans over for something to eat and thank them for coming to our beautiful state.”

Certainly, it would be a nice gesture, although a terribly radical departure from what has become ingrained as Mountaineer behavior at a football game, but Luck has been chipping away at that since he took the job.

A year ago he seemed to hit a home run in helping to curtail bad behavior and drunkenness by A. beginning the sale of beer in the stadium, an effort to cut down on the parking lot drinking; and B. cutting out pass-outs at halftime, which had allowed fans to pour into the parking lot and back to their tailgates to imbibe at halftime and then return.

All of this is important to the state as the team moves into the Big 12 because of the national exposure that is to come with the move.

“It’s important because perception is reality. Even if our fan base is no different than anybody else, we have a perception that has been built in over the years,” Luck said. “It’s an opportunity for us to begin with a clean slate. I think it’s the right thing. ... I don’t want to force people to shake someone else’s hand, but I don’t want them to hurl an expletive either.

“Now we’re going to have more national TV night games this year. Last year the LSU game was ‘Wow!’ We had people hanging off the rafters. Just given the excitement of the Big 12, we’re going to have more of that kind of stuff. That puts a strain on the cops and the security people.

“These will be national broadcasts. Instead of playing Bowling Green on regional television with very few people watching, we’ll be on Fox on Saturday night against Oklahoma or TCU. I think we have an opportunity not just as a football team, not just as a university, but a state as a whole.”

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

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