WVU find­ing suc­cess in Big 12

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SPORTS - Berry Tramel btramel@ ok­la­homan.com

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

Big Ten.”

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.”

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