WVU finding success in Big 12
Dana Holgorsen chatted with his new quarterback the other day. The West Virginia coach was telling Will Grier about 2011.
Those Mountaineers, in their final season before joining the Big 12, blitzed Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. They won the Big East by rallying from a 6-3 start and winning their last three games. Those Mountaineers beat Cincinnati 24-21, Pitt 21-20 and South Florida 30-27.
Holgorsen pointed out to Grier what now awaits West Virginia in its final three games of the season: Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma.
“That’s a little different,” Holgorsen said. “The bar’s been raised, no question.”
As West Virginia celebrates this month, its five-year anniversary of joining the Big 12, the Mountaineers clearly are in a good place. The football team went 10-3 last season, including 7-2 in the conference. The men’s basketball team reached the Big 12 championship game for the second straight year and reached the Sweet 16.
The women’s basketball team won the Big 12 Tournament. The women’s soccer team reached the NCAA championship game. The baseball team reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years. West Virginia’s rifle team, befitting a school with a musket-toting mascot, has won five straight NCAA titles.
But WVU’s athletic ascent has not been easy.
“You enter into a league that has tremendous traditions and tremendous success, we were not as competitive as we should have been five years ago,” said WVU president Gordon Gee. “We have a lot of testosterone out there. We want to be comparative with all the comparisons that happen.
All of a sudden, our peer institutions that we’re comparing ourselves is the Big 12.”
When West Virginia entered the league, the Mountaineers weren’t up to Big 12 standards in revenue, facilities and, in some cases, athletic talent.
“Took awhile to figure out,” said basketball coach Bob Huggins. “Coming from the Big East to the Big 12, the Big East was very physical. There was a need for having big guys to knock people around. Really physical. Not necessarily tall, but strong. The Big 12 was so much more athletic, so much more spread.”
So Huggins changed his recruiting. His last two Mountaineer teams have reached the Big 12 title game and been seeded third and fourth, respectively, in NCAA regionals.
Football, too, was behind in talent. The 2012 Mountaineers had three NFL-caliber playmakers in quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Steadman Bailey and Tavon Austin. That West
Virginia team went 7-6, 4-5 in the Big 12. The next year, WVU fell to 4-8.
“I don’t think it’s by accident that (newcomers) West Virginia and TCU had a down year in Year 2,” Holgorsen said. “Just been a constant building. It’s been trending upward. It takes awhile.”
West Virginia’s ascent in all sports has come mostly without a full Big 12 payoff. The Mountaineers did not start receiving full shares of Big 12 money until 2016. This past school year, WVU’s athletic revenue jumped to $105 million, after the Mountaineers brought in $77 million, $77 million and $87 million the previous three seasons.
The Mountaineers’ basketball facilities are second to none: the venerable WVU Coliseum, along with a basketball complex that appears to match even OU’s pristine addition to Lloyd Noble Center.
But West Virginia’s football facilities, while adequate, are not opulent, which has become the Big 12 norm. That’s a very Big East thing – top-of-the-line basketball facilities, not-quite-there football facilities.
Holgorsen is proud of WVU’s incremental improvements, since most of them were done without a Big 12 windfall, and he points out that WVU generally doesn’t recruit against the schools in the Big 12, SEC and ACC that are fueling
the arms race.
West Virginia long has gotten some players from Florida, but the bulk of its recruiting is done in Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Eastern seaboard.
Even that, of course, can be a challenge. Since leaving the Big East, Huggins has moved West Virginia’s recruiting base from the New York/ New Jersey/Philadelphia area to the upper Midwest. Huggins’ father was a legendary Ohio high school coach, and Huggins was an iconic coach at the University of Cincinnati.
But recruiting in Ohio isn’t easy.
“When we first started going there, nobody knew anything about” the Big 12, Huggins said. “It’s become a brand.
The Big Ten is still the
Huggins said Big Ten coaches walk into a recruit’s home with a map, showing the ease of getting to conference games. West Virginia counters with the ESPN package – every Big 12 game is on one of ESPN’s family of channels.
“We’ve made it work,” said WVU athletic director Shane Lyon. “Our coaches and studentathletes have seemed to adjust.”
Holgorsen always has said the increased travel times have no effect on football. But basketball can be challenging. Road games with an 8 p.m. Central time start mean the Mountaineers get home at 4 a.m., even
with a charter flight. And Big Monday home games are rough on WVU fans, since they start at 9 p.m. Eastern time, and West Virginians come from all over. Morgantown sits in the far northwest corner of the state.
ESPN could help West Virginia by giving the Mountaineers more of the early ESPNU window on Mondays, but the Mountaineers also like that marquee slot, so it’s a dilemma.
But through it all, the Mountaineers have excelled. In many ways, West Virginia athletics are better than ever.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity for us,” said women’s soccer Nikki Izzo-Brown, who was not talking about her program, but the entire athletic department. The Mountaineers were a national power in the Big East. They remain so in the Big 12.
“I think there was tremendous excitement because we put ourselves in position to better a conference and a conference to better us,” Izzo-Brown said.
And that’s the reality of West Virginia’s fiveyear Big 12 journey. The league has been great for the Mountaineers. But the Mountaineers have been great for the league.
The Big 12’s futile attempts at expansion discussion the last couple of years have taught us that scant candidates are available to match what West Virginia brings. Great fan base. Namebrand recognition. Competitive programs. The only downside is the geographic disconnect.
“I think our entire athletic department is in a good place right now,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve all been through the transition. As an athletic department, we’re very proud of that. We’ve had a lot of good times here, especially this (past) year.
“Anyone that’s watched us playing the last few years knows we’re here. We’re going to stay here.”