MORGANTOWN — A heavy fog hung over Mountaineer Field on Friday morning just hours before Coach Neal Brown would lead his third edition of West Virginia football into its first official practice, but as dense as the football future is for the Mountaineers it can’t match the density of what the future holds in terms of their place in the college game.
All of a sudden, they are in danger of being a team without a home among the Power 5 conferences as the Big 12 is crumbling around them, Texas and Oklahoma having bolted for the SEC and taking most of the credibility as a Power 5 conference the Big 12 had with them.
Haven’t we been there before?
Indeed, we have, back in the days when the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten picked the meat off the bones of the Big East, adopting Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers, Louisville and Boston College as their own.
Connecticut and South Florida were left out as WVU, spurned by the ACC, which was then and is now the most natural fit for them, headed into the Big 12 — a financial windfall that kept WVU relevant in the college football power structure, even if it was a geographical and cultural misfit.
The man who negotiated that deal was Jim Clements, then in the midst of his five-year term as president of West Virginia University. Ironically, he left the school to become president at Clemson, which has ruled the ACC in football ever since.
I sought him out the other day for perspective on the Mountaineers’ situation, having the unique insight that comes from having been on the inside when they last went conference shopping and now being one of those who will vote on whether they will join the ACC should that conference choose to expand and should WVU apply for admission.
Obviously, Clements could not speak on the record other than to express his love for WVU and to express that they are in good hands with the experienced E. Gordon Gee as their president.
Considering that it is conference presidents and regents who vote on membership, he could go no further than that.
However, our conversation offered up some insight into what conferences are looking for and led to some conclusions on my part, the first of which is that Dr. Gee is smart and capable enough not to make the mistake of limiting his options.
While WVU fits the footprint of the ACC best — certainly far better than it fits the footprint of the Big 12 — Dr. Gee has got to see if there is interest in WVU not only from the ACC but from both the Big Ten and SEC and that it has to seriously consider sticking with the Big 12 should it decide to carry through on talks that have begun about merging with the PAC-12.
As difficult as that would be to swallow, it would keep them from finding themselves being referred to on “SportsCenter” as “in other games, West Virginia.” The Mountaineers may be a state in Appalachia but it is not Appalachian State.
WVU brings more with it than many outsiders imagine.
It offers a conference most of what conferences look for in members as a land grant, flagship, research university.
If you were to list the requirements, they would be academics, athletics, media value, especially through television market, a rich history, a strong fan base that travels, a modern, upgraded facility in football, basketball and baseball, to say nothing of the Olympic sports.
WVU would bring all that to the ACC while geographically being the best fit it could find, should it decide to expand, which it hasn’t even discussed at this point. It would need little or no adjustment period, for it comes from a Power 5 conference and will immediately renew nationally respected rivalries with Pitt and Virginia Tech while also facing former Big East foes like Syracuse and Boston College.
The two arguments against WVU joining the ACC you most often hear is they don’t fit academically and don’t bring the type of television market the league is seeking.
The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle recently made a case for WVU being accepted by the ACC as its 16th member and addressed both those issues.
“The TV market thing is not what you’d expect it to be,” it wrote. “You’d assume that WVU, in Morgantown, would be in a tiny TV market, in the Middle of Nowhere West Virginia.
‘You’d be wrong.
“Morgantown is in the Pittsburgh DMA, which ranks 26th among the 210 TV markets in the U.S., according to Nielsen.
“The smallest, you’re familiar with — Charlottesville, which sits at 177.
“You could make the argument, well, we’ve already got Pitt in that market, why would we worry about whatever WVU can bring?
“Think this one through. Where do you think Pitt football ranks among viewer choices in the Pittsburgh TV DMA? In football season, you have the Pittsburgh Steelers. In basketball season, you’d get good odds on the Pittsburgh Penguins doubling or tripling whatever Pitt basketball draws.
“And back to the fall, I’d guess that WVU football would get more viewers than Pitt football in that market, considering that the market includes Morgantown.”
The academics is a more difficult sell as the Augusta newspaper pointed out that WVU ranked 241st in the latest U.S. News and World Report college rankings. In the ACC, only Louisville ranks outside the top 80 at 176.
But its academic reputation has been soaring of late and WVU is pushing it hard on social media, one such Tweet being:
“Only the nation’s top institutions earn Carnegie’s R1 research status … And we’re one of them! Our faculty, staff and students continue to lead the way in research to improve our state, our nation and our world.”
And while WVU is a national football and basketball force, it brings in money, too.
USA Today, using 2019 figures, reported WVU’s athletic revenues at $102.7 million, which would rank sixth among the nine schools from which such information is available. The league’s private schools — Boston College, Duke, Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and Wake Forest — are not required to make such information public.
And the school has a national alumni reach with 210,000 living alumni, which ranks competitively with other ACC schools.
The point is, WVU has everything any conference would want and in Dr. Gee has someone with experience in realignment negotiating its way through all the landmines that may be put before it.
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