By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A day before West Virginia University was to play its first game in the Big 12 Conference Basketball Tournament, Notre Dame reached an agreement to leave the Big East, the final step in destroying what once was a wonderful collegiate athletic conference.
The symbolism there cannot be ignored, for in the end, as the conference was struggling for at least a survival of its identity, the two legs upon which it was standing were West Virginia and Notre Dame … the Mountaineers a team that was good enough to reach the Final Four in basketball while being a national contender in football and the Fighting Irish being … well, being America’s team to love or to hate.
Once upon a time the Big East was where it was happening, Miami fighting for football championships, Michael Vick capturing the imagination of the football nation with his inventive play at quarterback, Syracuse or Georgetown or Villanova or any of how many other schools battling for the national basketball title.
My goodness, in 1985 the Final Four had three Big East schools — Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s.
It was made up of schools who, for the most point, were located in the same geographical area and that held its basketball tournament not in the middle of nowhere, which is Kansas City, but in the nation’s greatest athletic building in its most vibrant city, Madison Square Garden and New York.
A week ago Leigh Montville, one of the nation’s finest wordsmiths out of New England, wrote a wonderful piece about the death of rivalries that has been brought about by realignment and what it has done to our sporting world.
Montville summed up the cause of this quite succinctly by saying:
“The reason for this lack of interest can be debated at different levels by different people — Boston is not a college basketball town, fans will only support a winner, weather considerations, etc. — but the reason for my own lack of interest is simple: I don’t care about the teams on the BC schedule. I suspect that is the case, too, with a lot of other potential customers.”
It is no different here, and we are going to limit our discussion to basketball because football is a different animal with one game a week and with the Big 12 being in all reality a football conference, although even with Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, it didn’t help itself any in football by letting Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy winner get away last year.
You can sell out a football stadium because a football game is as much a social event as a sporting event, a weekend party in which only three and half hours are taken up inside the stadium.
Even there, though, say what you will, I miss games with Pitt and with Miami and with Virginia Tech … I miss John Thompson, whichever one is coaching Georgetown in basketball at the moment, and Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun.
Heck, I even miss the Big East basketball officials, maybe more than anything else.
The way the world worked out, WVU had no choice but to do what it did, but that does not mean it is as good as it was or as much fun or that it even helped a Mountaineer athletic program, which may or may not be able to compete at such a level.
Football, in its first Big 12 season, goes 7-6. The basketball team is under .500 for the first time in more than a decade. The wrestling team goes off at the end of the season and competes in a dual meet with Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State and losses all three matches by a combined 135-12 score.
Ticket prices continue to rise, games are televised at unfriendly hours, road games wear on the teams, and the travel is such that fans who want to attend games find it either cost prohibitive or so far as to be inconvenient.
Home football attendance dropped slightly this past year even though a year before it had both Norfolk State and Bowling Green coming to town while this past year’s non-BCS opponent, James Madison, was played in Washington, D.C., at a neutral site.
True, the team was not as strong as as in 2011, but Oklahoma and Kansas State weren’t in town, either, although LSU was.
The point is, it just isn’t the same, and it never will be. You aren’t playing against a school 80 miles up the road and, in truth, Oklahoma doesn’t mean any more to WVU that WVU does to Oklahoma, who has Texas and Oklahoma State to occupy its animosity while WVU wanders aimlessly without a rival.
College sports is supposed to have Texas playing Texas A&M, Kansas playing Missouri, Oklahoma playing Nebraska and West Virginia playing Pitt, and until it realizes that, it is going to deteriorate in those places that have had to jump around for survival.
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