The Times West Virginian

November 6, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Problem at West Virginia is cultural

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Let us, for a moment, forget about blocked field goals and shanked punts, about a football team that gains yards but not victories.

For this is not about football at all, really.

Let us even forget, too, about a Big East basketball team losing to a Division II basketball team, for it is not about basketball either.

It is not about Dana Holgorsen or Bob Huggins, two men who represent both ends of the coaching spectrum, a rookie head coach with six victories and the fourth-winningest active coach in college basketball with more than 600 victories.

But winning or losing on Friday or Saturday really isn’t what this is all about at West Virginia University. It is far larger, far more long term, far more difficult to fix, for the problem that has been allowed to develop is a cultural one, a problem of emphasis, of losing sight of what is important.

This is about a leadership group of President Jim Clements and athletic director Oliver Luck taking West Virginia where it doesn’t belong, moving into places where it does not fit.

We’re not just talking Big East vs. Big 12, although that is crucially involved in all this and in the long run that may prove to be a costly mistake, for it takes them away from their geographical roots and those who root for them.

This is about an attitude that has permeated the entire athletic scene at West Virginia, an attitude that has everyone believing it is something it is not. It is not Texas or Oklahoma, not Michigan or Ohio State.

It shouldn’t want to be any of those, either, yet that is what we are all caught up in.

Athletics at West Virginia has come to be about building facilities instead of building teams. It is about television instead of education and money instead of victories.

It’s about fancy uniforms instead of fancy championship rings, and that is what’s wrong. We sing “Country Roads,” but we seem to be yearning for the glitter of the big-city lights.

They say WVU is replacing Missouri in the Big 12, but it looks more like it is replacing Colorado. After all, Colorado has mountains and John Denver, but has run off to the Pac-12 where it has no business being either.

There is nothing wrong with reaching for the stars, but not if it takes you out of your element, turns you from being a beer-and-shot society and a wine-sipping, pinky-raised clique.

West Virginia was successful running the football because running hard is physical and that is the way of life in the area. This is the land of the pickup truck and the hunting rifle, a land of coal miners and coal mines.

Why was West Virginia basketball such a strong fit in the Big East? Because it was a black-and-blue brand of basketball, a physical, tough game.

Why was West Virginia football always pushing and scrambling toward the top, even from the early days in the Big East?

Because it was an underdog, which West Virginians are and always have been. Miami was king and with them Virginia Tech, while WVU was driven to unseat them.

WVU didn’t get the great players Miami had, but for the most part they fought them as an equal, did it on attitude.

Winning on the football field was all that mattered.

Today, be it real or imagined, the profit margin seems to matter more than the point spread.

Style seems to trump substance, and it is a message that subliminally sifts down to the athletes.

You don’t win athletic events if you are recruiting players to whom having a fancy $24 million practice facility is an important item, one that would sway them to go elsewhere if you didn’t have it.

Athletes who are happy you gave them a pair of sneakers are far more likely to give their all for the alma mater.

You want to play in the Big 12, which probably means your recruiting base is going to move westward, but there isn’t a kid in Oklahoma or Texas who emotionally cares about or follows West Virginia any more than there is a kid in West Virginia who cares about or follows those Big 12 teams.

We can’t go back and change anything now, but the situation has to be addressed at the highest levels, for West Virginia is what it is and that is said not to point out what it isn’t, but simply to emphasize that it is a way of life, an attitude, something that cannot be allowed to slip away.

If it does, West Virginia will take a downward turn in college athletics.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter@bhertzel.