By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There is something about 60,000 empty seats sitting there, bathed in sunlight on a crisp autumn afternoon, that gives an almost eerie feeling to Milan Puskar Stadium. To add to the weirdness of the moment on a Tuesday midday were the two message boards that stream across the facing of the upper deck, for they were offering a message they never before ever dreamed of offering:
“West Virginia University Welcomes the Big 12 Conference” they read, the Big 12 logo sitting at either end of both.
Inside the Touchdown Terrace at the north end of the stadium the atmosphere was more Saturday than Monday, the WVU Pep Band offering a deafening rendition of “Country Roads” and a group of game-clad cheerleaders shaking whatever it is that cheerleaders shake as they jumped around.
Indeed, it was a welcome to the Big 12, its commissioner, Chuck Neinas, who is serving on an interim basis, on hand to present West Virginia President Jim Clements with their official papers ... oh, and also an official Big 12 ball cap, which was not meant in any way to be a reflection on nor to stop the reflection from Clements’ premature baldness.
Neinas, of course, did a little bit of his own horn blowing, which you are allowed to do as commissioner, saying, “We think we have a great conference,” then added after a moment, “and West Virginia makes it greater.”
With that, he fell right in step with the overdone spirit of the day, by proclaiming, “It’s a great day to be a Mountaineer.”
Not to be outdone, Clements made him feel just like a Mountaineer as he presented him with a Mountaineer statuette, which undoubtedly will join a collection that includes a Jayhawk and a Longhorn and Sooner ... or is that a Later?
That’s another of those Sooner or Later jokes.
Whatever, Clements did some horn blowing of his own, citing the many attributes that West Virginia brings to the Big 12, taking a break only to have the head Mountaineer Maniac present Neinas with a Maniac T-shirt, to which he said, “A lot of people tell me I’m a maniac already.”
Clements then began introducing people there, but somehow managed to pick out seemingly the only person connected with the university not in attendance to take a bow — Mountaineer Brock Burwell.
“Must be in class,” Clements said, proving he can be quick on his feet when he wishes to be.
If you get the idea that it was all grins and chuckles, it was ... up until it came time to meet the media.
See, the media have this penchant for wanting to get some news out of a news conference, and about the only news available that anyone is interested in at this moment centers around the West Virginia lawsuit in its effort to free itself from the grasp of the Big East so it can play next year in the Big 12.
You would have thought you were asking Clements and Athletic Director Oliver Luck if they still were beating their
wives, for suddenly it wasn’t such a great day to be a Mountaineer.
The first question was rather straightforward to Clements.
“Dr. Clements, you’re confident this lawsuit can be settled so you can be in the Big 12 next year?”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to make any comments on it,” he answered. “Hey, we’re looking forward to being the Big 12, there’s no question. They have a great commissioner, a great set of schools athletically and academically.”
Yeah ... that’s kind of understood, since that’s the conference you went to. No one expected WVU would go to a conference with a rotten commissioner and set of schools that lag behind everyone athletically and academically.
Now Neinas was asked about the schedule for football next year.
“We’ll have to redo the schedule for a variety of reasons. We’ll have to do some adjusting,” Neinas said.
“Do you expect West Virginia to play there next year?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
Some wiseguy with the initials B.H. interjected a rather simple question here.
“What if they can’t?”
Seemed like a fair question. What if Missouri leaves the Big 12, as expected and now counted upon, and what if WVU doesn’t get out of the contract with the Big East, leaving the conference at nine, a team short?
“Then I guess for the first time in college football history we’ll have home and home,” he answered.
Someone asked Luck that since he couldn’t comment on the litigation, could he express how confident he was WVU would be in the league next year.
“I’d rather not comment,” he replied.
And so went what had become an absolute dog and pony show, with the dog wearing a muzzle.
The most pressing questions, the ones that really will dictate whether or not West Virginia gets to go to the Big 12 or get stuck in the Big East for 27 months, were mute — not moot — points.
Which leads to believe this is hardly as cut and dry as WVU would have you think, that there is a leash attached to the dog in that dog and pony show, as well as a muzzle.
The lawsuit that was filed certainly will hasten an end to this entire mess, but there obviously remains questions as to what the final solution will be ... unanswered questions despite a press conference.
While WVU is trying to apply pressure to force a settlement through the lawsuit, it seems the Big East has a pretty big stick of its own because the Big 12 needs WVU to fill out a 10-team conference and that could drive the price up.
Now here’s the kicker. There is a price on everything, and while WVU is looking at the price tag for escape at $5 million, rest assured the Big East is going to do all it can to drive that settlement price as high as it can, so high that WVU may need some help paying for it.
And considering what’s at stake for the Big 12, whose TV contracts hinge on having at least 10 teams, they say they would be willing to help.
“We haven’t discussed that,” Neinas said, “but there are ways we could assist them. There’s no question about that. If it comes to that, I’m sure the board will give due consideration.”
Hopefully this will end soon, not because going to the Big 12 is a panacea for all that ails WVU, but so that we don’t have to go through another “Welcome Back to the Big East” press conference. One of these in a decade is more than enough.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.