MORGANTOWN — Outside the weather is sizzling with summer trying to make a lasting impression on us before we turn from swimming pools and iced tea and from hitting balls into the rough, to rough hitting on a football field.
Shane Lyons’ office on the second floor of the Coliseum has the air conditioning cranked up. He sits behind his desk and muses over the question that has been tossed his way a day after the Big 12 Football Media Day concluded and two weeks before the West Virginia basketball team heads for an exhibition tour of Spain.
Like it or not, athletic departments are now judged by how their football and basketball teams do on a consistent basis. The question over which Lyons was mulling?
Just where West Virginia’s athletic department stood in the overall scheme of things and could it possibly jump up a notch or two.
Anyone who follows sports knows there is a group considered the elite royalty in the business: Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and a number of others. These are the prime time performers, the ones who dictate their schedules and TV appearances, who pack in 100,000 football fans.
Where other teams just play games, these teams play for championships. And Lyons has been asked if West Virginia could ever make that leap.
“We can be who we want to be,” Lyons said. “We just can’t ever accept complacency and mediocrity. We have to keep getting better.”
He knows it doesn’t come easily and that you have to earn it.
“I look at our history and look back at the late ‘80 with Coach Nehlen and the early ‘90s and some with Rich Rodriguez here in football in the 2000s,” Lyons said.
He knows what has been done before in Morgantown, even if no football or basketball national championship has come the Mountaineers’ way.
“Do we have a chance to compete for National Championships? Yes,” Lyons answered his own question. “What we have to change is to believe if that we can get there. Unfortunately, there’s always a lot of naysayers: ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do that.’”
Lyons doesn’t want that kind of attitude from his staff, or coming from within the offices at the Coliseum, at Puskar Stadium, at the Basketball Practice Facility.
“When I talked to our staff to start the year two years ago, my message was ‘Why not us? Why not West Virginia?’” Lyons said. “Last year I had a one-word message for everyone to remember: ‘Belief.’ If you don’t believe you can do it, you can’t do it.”
However, Lyons is not looking for miracles, and he’s not looking to wake up in the morning with the trophy cases suddenly filled with national championships.
“Is it going to happen overnight? The answer is no. We have to invest in our programs. It was interesting yesterday because I read some articles about Nick Saban. They played for the National Championship last year and some of the press said [at Media Day] he was acting like they went 8-5,” Lyons said.
“Working with Coach Saban for a number of years at Alabama, I saw with him it’s always how can we get better, we have to keep getting better. We have to keep investing in our program. We can’t just stay status quo. If you stay the status quo, you can’t get better.”
The improvement has to be a department / university / state-wide effort, Lyons believes.
“We all have to do it together,” Lyons said. “Yes, I lead this department but we all have to come together to support this program. It’s the financial support, it’s the philanthropic support to help us build, I’ll do what I can do from a budgetary standpoint but we can’t just say we’ll do what we need to do with what we currently have.”
The problem is, you really can’t be thinking your place in the nation until you elbow your way to the top of your conference. Playing in the Big 12, West Virginia has to contend with teams like Oklahoma and Texas — both of which are the college sport’s richest programs and both are programs with the deepest pockets.
Lyons, however, kind of shrugs when you bring that up.
“In every conference you kind of have those dynasties. Look at the SEC, you’re talking the Alabamas, the LSUs, the Floridas,” Lyons said. “But I think things are cyclical. Look at Texas. People forget, we’ve beaten them 3 of the past 4 years.
“Geographically we may not look like a fit in the Big 12, but we are like institutions in the conference and we fit well.”
And when you have similar institutions, everyone has a chance.
“Lately the Oklahoma State’s have had great seasons in football. Iowa State has come on. That’s what we’re chasing,” Lyons said. “We need to get over that hump. We haven’t been fortunate enough to beat Oklahoma. We’ve been close. It’s not like we’re getting blown out. It was three points against Oklahoma.”
And, for solace, Lyons could look at Texas Tech — a school that once employed him — to see how you can come to prominence.
Last season, Texas Tech’s athletic department won the NCAA Men’s Track and Field National Championship and went to the NCAA Basketball Final before losing to Virginia. The Red Raiders also made it to the College World Series before losing to national runner-up Michigan.
They made the leap WVU wants to make, and the Mountaineers are now hoping a coaching change at the helm of the football program will get them over that hump.
“I was at Texas Tech in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I saw what they were trying to build then and what they have built. It’s an investment process. It’s continuing to believe and it has paid off for them,” Lyons said.
The same can happen at WVU, and Lyons points to the women’s soccer program as an example.
“It’s no different than our women’s soccer program. We invested in it, Nikki Izzo-Brown has done a great job and we were fortunate enough to play for a National Championship a couple of years ago,” he said.
Of course, you need some luck. You need Major Harris to stay healthy and to beat Pitt when you are favored by 28.5 points. But some things must be shrugged off.
“We have some disappointing losses and it’s like all people want to talk about are the disappointing losses rather than the successes we had,” Lyons said. “We had a great, great baseball season but it seems everyone wants to talk about losing to Texas A&M.
“But the thing is we wouldn’t have been playing there if we were still in Hawley Field. We wouldn’t have the baseball program we have. We invested in the stadium. We invested in baseball, being in probably one of the toughest leagues in college baseball, and we’re competing at a very high level.
“It’s a process. We live in a world of instant gratification. People don’t understand how hard it is to win.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.