The Big 12: A Long, Strange Trip
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When Oliver Luck was living in Houston and working for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority he would frequently run into University of Houston graduates.
He learned quickly from them the depressing tale of Houston Cougar football.
At one time, U of H was challenging Texas and Texas A&M for football supremacy in the Lone Star State. During an 11-year period from 1968-79, the Cougars were nationally ranked nine times, including three seasons in the top 10 during a four-year stretch from 1976-79.
Houston was able to parlay that great success into membership in the Southwest Conference in 1976, and for 17 years Houston was sitting at college football’s big table - that is until the Southwest Conference imploded in 1994.
When the dust had settled, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor joined forces with the Big 8 schools to form the Big 12 Conference. And the one prominent Southwest Conference school left standing on the outside looking in was Houston.
“I’m living in Houston; great city - booming,” Luck recalled. “Houston’s football program used to play in the Astrodome with 50,000; they were playing in Cotton Bowls; they had a Heisman Trophy winner in Andre Ware. They were sending lots of guys to the NFL and they don’t make the cut when the old Southwest Conference falls apart.”
Houston’s football program – and to some degree the school’s academic reputation – had suffered a critical blow in the world of public opinion.
“The University of Houston is a tremendous academic institution, but the people of Texas referred to it as ‘Cougar High’ because they were not playing Texas and Texas A&M any more in football,” Luck explained. “An accounting degree from Houston was considered to be less valuable than one from Texas just because of football, and I thought that was awful. People would moan and groan and complain because perception is sometimes reality.”
The University of Houston was the first thing that popped into Luck’s mind when he heard, in late September of 2011, that Pitt and Syracuse were leaving the Big East to join the ACC. A Big East without Pitt and Syracuse is no longer a Big East.
At the time, Luck had been West Virginia’s athletic director for about a year and he knew when he took the job in the summer of 2010 that realignment was probably going to hit his alma mater “right in the face.”
Those were the exact words Luck used when he began prepping West Virginia University president Jim Clements for what lay ahead for WVU athletics.
“I told him, ‘Jim, I don’t know when – it could be tomorrow or three or five years from now - but this realignment thing is huge and we have an advantage on one hand. We are the northernmost southern school, the southernmost northern school, the easternmost western school and the westernmost eastern school – and we’ve been part of schools from the south and we’ve been part of schools along the east coast.”
That was Luck’s glass-is-half-full analysis, but when he began to dig deeper into West Virginia’s complicated athletic history he realized that the waters were going to be much more difficult to navigate than he anticipated.
And there were no Carpathias in sight.
Ever since the mid-1920s, when athletic director Harry Stansbury put his prestige on the line by successfully fighting off a statewide push to have West Virginia University join the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the Mountaineers have cast their eyes eastward toward the epicenter of collegiate sports – the population centers of New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston where the history was being written.
The best teams and the best players back then were chronicled by such famous eastern sports journalists as Walter Camp and Grantland Rice, who once wrote in relative obscurity in Nashville, Tennessee before landing a job at the New York Herald Tribune and becoming a nationally known and respected sports authority.
Stansbury wanted to have a well-rounded, well-supported Mountaineer athletic program and he sought an eastern presence to help him do it by scheduling such schools as Duquesne, Carnegie Tech, Georgetown, Fordham, NYU and Temple. He also was a driving force in establishing an Eastern Basketball Conference in 1931 that first consisted of Pitt, Carnegie Tech, Temple, Georgetown, West Virginia, and then later Bucknell and Penn State until it disbanded in 1939.
Following Stansbury’s departure in 1937 to take over the Charleston Chamber of Commerce (some say he was nudged out), new West Virginia AD Roy “Legs” Hawley continued Stansbury’s pursuit of eastern relationships.
Hawley added Manhattan, Navy, Army, Boston College and Syracuse to West Virginia’s football schedule, and by the early 1940s West Virginia University solidly consider itself an “eastern school.”
But that would change in the late 1940s when Hawley grew tired of trying to improve the school’s standing in the northeast. What he wanted was an all-sports affiliation to protect his entire athletic department, not just football, which could continue to exist as an independent.
West Virginia basketball had developed into a national power in the early 1940s under Dyke Raese, and by the late 1940s with such star players as Leland Byrd and Fred Schaus, West Virginia had a hoops reputation second to none. When the late Eddie Barrett publicized West Virginia athletics in the 1950s the New York City writers would frequently tell him that West Virginia’s basketball reputation was on par with Kentucky’s - very heady stuff back then, or today.
Yet other than its annual trips to Madison Square Garden, Mountaineer basketball was severely limited with the local schedule it was playing. And without a conference affiliation, access to the NCAA tournament, which was beginning to overtake the NIT as the nation’s most prominent postseason event, was virtually impossible.
So in early December of 1949, Hawley pulled up stakes in the east and got West Virginia into the Southern Conference. The league then had an impressive array of schools such as Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Duke, Clemson and South Carolina that gave West Virginia a regional pedigree it was seeking.
However, the Southern Conference was not a solid association, and when the purity fight in college sports hit the league in the early 1950s (William & Mary had committed several serious violations in football) the Southern Conference took an anti-bowl stance for its football membership, much to the chagrin of the league’s football powers.
Maryland and Clemson operated big-time grid programs at the time and soon led a revolt that ultimately saw the key Southern Conference schools break off to form the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953.
Hawley sought membership in the ACC twice, when it was first formed in 1953 before being denied in favor of Virginia, and then again a few months later when the league considered adding West Virginia and Virginia Tech to make 10 schools. But on both occasions, West Virginia did not get the necessary support needed to get into the league.
So the Mountaineers continued their relationship with the watered-down Southern Conference until 1968 when football coach Jim Carlen urged West Virginia athletic director Red Brown to pull out of the league. Carlen’s reasoning was simple: if West Virginia wanted to have the big-time athletic program Mountaineer fans expected and deserved then it had to play a big-time schedule.
“When I would go and talk to Mr. Brown he would say, ‘You can’t do that!’ I said, ‘Mr. Brown, I know you are a basketball man and everything, but we’re in a different world here now,’” the late Carlen recalled in 2009. “These people here (West Virginia fans) need something to grab a hold of and Marshall is not going to be it. You’ve got to help me a little bit here now.’ I wanted to get out of the Southern Conference because we’re better than that. I wanted to play Kentucky and Tennessee and play where people could drive and see us and we could get to bowl games.”
Yet again, West Virginia cast its eyes eastward, strengthening its associations with neighboring schools through what was then known as the “Big Four” consisting of Pitt, Penn State, Syracuse and West Virginia in football, and also favoring an association in the ECAC for men’s basketball.
But the Big Four disbanded in 1972 when Pitt hired football coach Johnny Majors, who was convinced that the Big Four’s stipulations on limited roster sizes and its anti-redshirting stance hurt the Panther program – and the ECAC, a monstrosity that comprised nearly 40 schools from D.C. to New England, came unglued in the mid-1970s when the NCAA instituted a rule requiring all conference members to play each other. Out of this, the Big East Conference, made up of like schools from urban areas in the northeast, was formed.
West Virginia continued as an independent in football and found a home in the Eastern 8 Conference for men’s basketball with schools such as Pitt, Penn State, Rutgers, Duquesne and Villanova.
“The original Eastern 8 members were pretty good,” West Virginia basketball coach Gale Catlett once recalled. “Villanova was in there. Penn State was in there and we had a pretty good league with a lot of good rivalries and then all of a sudden after a couple of years we started to see some defections.”
What the Big East had that the Eastern 8 didn’t was a good television contract, and the Big East’s stability led to Villanova joining the conference in 1980.
“We tried,” said Leland Byrd, former West Virginia athletic director and the Eastern 8’s commissioner at the time. “In fact, that first year we had a Game of the Week and we couldn’t finance it and had to pay for it out of our own pocket. Our schools didn’t go out and help us pursue sponsorships. In Pittsburgh we tried Iron City Beer, we tried Budweiser, and if we would have gotten any support at all we would have beaten the Big East out because we were a year ahead of them.”
The two schools that could have made a huge difference were Pitt and Penn State, according to Byrd, but they put very little effort into trying to sell local sponsorship packages.
“We didn’t have anybody other than Pitt and Penn State who had any clout,” Byrd noted.
The reasons were obvious – Pitt wasn’t sold on the Eastern 8 and Penn State was in the middle of trying to develop an eastern all-sports conference. By 1981, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had taken on the dual role of football coach/athletic director, and he was looking for a way to reduce the pressure on his football coach (himself) to win games and generate revenue to support Penn State’s growing athletic program.
Paterno saw an opportunity with an eastern sports conference, especially when he came to understand the immense potential value of television contracts when he was a member of the College Football Association’s (CFA) TV committee.
“What really sticks out with me, and why I admire Paterno so much, was I remember interviewing him and he was talking about (forming an eastern league) and the potential television revenues it could earn. Nobody talked about television revenues back then,” said longtime Pittsburgh sports writer Bob Smizik. “He really saw that in the future.”
The CFA came about in the late 1970s to help the football schools have more say in their own destinies, particularly in relationship to negotiating their own television agreements. The University of Oklahoma, in 1984, successfully sued the NCAA on behalf of the CFA to wrestle away those TV rights, which eventually fell into the laps of the respective conferences. West Virginia coach Don Nehlen was a staunch supporter of the College Football Association working closely with president Chuck Neinas on many national issues.
“It was a lot of work,” Nehlen recalled. “First it was Joe Paterno and then it was (Georgia coach) Vince Dooley. We were kind of coming up with all of the new recruiting rules and that’s when Vince and Tom Osborne got up and said, ‘Hey, we need to have a league or a group of about 64 or 65 schools and to hell with the rest of these guys who are always telling us what to do.’ I knew eventually that we would end up that way.”
And no one knew this better than Paterno, which is why he was advocating an all-sports conference that would have had a geographic foothold in the northeast comprised of nearly half of the television sets in the country.
“I agreed with Joe,” said Nehlen. “He said, ‘We’ve got a chance to form a really good conference here.’ He thought we could get Maryland to come with us. You take Syracuse, West Virginia, Pitt, Penn State, possibly Virginia Tech, and we could have been a really good conference.”
The Big East also understood the threat to its existence because a Big East basketball conference without football-playing members Syracuse and Boston College would not have been as valuable.
Schools in the northeast had seen this act played out before. Two times previously, once in the early 1970s, and then later right after Majors left Pitt for Tennessee in 1977, Byrd said there were discussions among the football-playing schools about forming an eastern all-sports conference.
“As I recall, Penn State agreed the first time and Pitt did not,” said Byrd. “The second time, Pitt was agreeable but Penn State wasn’t.”
“The problem we had with the eastern conference was at that time Pitt and Penn State just were cats and dogs,” said Nehlen. “Joe, I think did this in good faith, but he was monopolizing recruiting and Pitt at that time was awful, awful good. At times, when they had (Dan) Marino, Hugh Green, Rickey Jackson and all those guys, they were better than Penn State. A couple of those Pitt teams we played I thought, ‘My god, they are going to kill us with all those pro players they had.’”
There was clearly a fair level of mistrust from both schools, going back to the Big Four days and beyond. Pitt felt, rightly or wrongly, that Paterno was using the Big Four as a way to keep its football program down. When Majors took over and pulled Pitt out of the Big Four the Panthers had one of the worst football programs in the country and four years later they were able to do what Penn State under Paterno couldn’t do up to that point – win a national championship. To many Panther supporters, Paterno’s eastern conference was just another way for Penn State to knock Pitt football down a rung or two because the Nittany Lions were always going to be the Alpha males in the northeast.
“There were a lot of ill feelings toward Joe at that time, even petty things about where the wives were sitting for football games and stuff like that,” Smizik recalled. “There was a lot of bad blood.”
But there was not as much bad blood on West Virginia’s part, or Rutgers or Temple – those schools badly wanted in an eastern all-sports conference because they had no other alternatives and were willing to go along with just about anything as long as it included Pitt and Penn State.
Furthermore, at the time negotiations for an eastern all-sports conference were reaching a climax in the summer of 1981, West Virginia was in a precarious position without a president or an athletic director, forcing the school to send its sports information director to those critical summer meetings in Philadelphia.
“We were in limbo,” said Nehlen.
And then there was Syracuse and Boston College, which were firmly committed to Big East basketball. Boston College’s main objective was to join a football-only conference while Syracuse’s No. 1 mission was to protect Jim Boeheim’s basketball program. That meant preserving the Big East at all costs.
“(Syracuse athletic director Jake) Crouthamel is a good friend of mine and he told me on more than one occasion, ‘Hey Don, we don’t even need football at Syracuse. We’re averaging 25,000 a game and I’ve got 13-14 players to worry about. I don’t have to worry about 85 players and all that expense,’” said Nehlen.
How much Syracuse sabotaged Paterno’s all-sports conference and exacerbated the rift between Pitt and Penn State will never be known, but Paterno’s plan eventually died at the vine and when Penn State wasn’t voted into the Big East for basketball, the Big East went full bore after Pitt. On many occasions since then, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese has said that not voting in Penn State was the league’s biggest mistake.
Paterno’s eastern all-sports conference, which West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers supported wholeheartedly, was dead when Pitt joined the Big East. It was West Virginia University’s best opportunity of joining a viable, geographically convenient major sports conference of like-minded institutions.
“Pitt was definitely the key factor,” said Smizik. “Penn State wanted Pitt and if it could get Pitt obviously West Virginia would come along, but more importantly, Boston College and Syracuse would have been forced to come along and that would have thrown a real wrench into the Big East. It would have put the balance of power in the east with Paterno’s all-sports league. That’s how it was presented and the Big East, realizing what this would mean to it, came courting Pitt.”
Eight years later, in 1989, Penn State agreed to join the Big Ten and soon all hell broke loose. In 1990, Notre Dame pulled out of the CFA to negotiate its own TV deal with NBC and immediately afterward conferences everywhere were starting to line up the best available schools to make their television rights more valuable.
Out of this shuffling, West Virginia and Rutgers in 1996 joined a Big East Conference fortified with the addition of Miami for all sports. The Mountaineers and Scarlet Knights had been football-only members since 1991, and then Notre Dame was added to the mix in everything but football to placate the league’s basketball schools. Virginia Tech came on board in all sports a few years later at about the same time Temple was kicked out because of a lack of fan support in football.
“I knew (the Big East) was different when West Virginia got in,” said Providence Journal sportswriter Bill Reynolds for the ESPN 30 for 30 program Requiem for the Big East. “I can remember one of the coaches saying to me, ‘I didn’t sign up for the Big East to go to Morgantown, West Virginia.’”
Ed Pastilong, West Virginia’s athletic director during the school’s years in the Big East, later used to tell some of his associates that when Notre Dame was being considered for inclusion into the league, he joked to the rest of the ADs in the room that he would only cast an affirmative vote for the Irish on the reassurance from them that West Virginia was a full-fledged member of the Big East. It was one more reminder to those inside the department of the school’s compromise standing in the conference.
Nevertheless, it was clear to everyone that the league the Big East had become by the mid-1990s was never going to be a long-lasting, stable union.
“It’s crucial to understand the significance that football plays in the American intercollegiate athletic landscape,” said Georgetown president Jack DeGioia on the Requiem for the Big East. “No matter how important basketball is in any university community, if they play football that is of incommensurable more importance.”
First Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC following the 2003 season, and then Boston College departed for the ACC a year later after fulfilling its exit requirements.
Eight years later, Pitt and Syracuse joined the ACC just four months after the Big East turned down a nine-year, $1.4 billion media rights deal with ESPN. At the time, Luck was a part of those deliberations.
“I don’t think anybody was worried about a connection between the TV decision and the conference as a whole,” he said. “We were looking at every conference and we realized that we needed to do two things which were, one, make more money and, two, get better time slots and more national games.
“We had a TV consultant in there and as a group the majority of us felt that we shouldn’t take the ESPN offer that was on the table - that we could do a little better.”
For Pitt and Syracuse, that meant going to the ACC.
“I don’t know if the ACC’s overtures to Pitt and Syracuse did anything with the TV vote the Big East had,” said Luck. “I always thought if the ACC really wanted to expand and they felt that those were two teams that would help them and it would stick a dagger in the Big East they would do it, regardless of a TV deal.”
Before Pitt joined the ACC, there was word circulating on the street that the Big 12 was considering the Panthers as a replacement school when the league lost Texas A&M to the SEC. TCU, which once considered joining the Big East, ended up getting that spot, and when Pitt and Syracuse left the Big East, Luck knew that his alma mater was dangerously exposed and might or might not come out of this latest round of realignment with a seat at the table.
Luck was in a car driving over to Maryland for West Virginia’s football game against the Terps when he received confirmation that Pitt and Syracuse were leaving the Big East.
“I got to the game and I found Jim Clements,” he said. “I said, ‘Jim the first thing I think we should do is I will call every AD that I have a personal relationship with in the ACC. And I’m going to ask them point-blank, 'Is there any possibility of West Virginia being considered for admission into the ACC? - because it’s obvious you’re growing.' Then I said to Jim, ‘I think you should do the same with the ACC presidents.’”
When Luck and Clements got back together to compare notes, the responses they got were unanimous – there was no interest in WVU. Counting the two times West Virginia failed to get into the league when it was created, and the four different times the conference chose to expand through the years, that’s six different occasions that the potential was there for West Virginia to join the ACC and couldn’t.
So when it became common knowledge that Missouri was exploring a move to the SEC, that’s when West Virginia became fully committed to making a move to the southwest. Luck said he knew if the Big 12 was interested in coming to this part of the country, and Pitt was not a willing participant, then the league might be interested in West Virginia University as a state flagship institution.
Unfortunately, Luck couldn’t go into his desk drawer and pull out a rulebook or a manual on conference realignment because the rules were being made up as they went along.
“I told Jim, ‘We may have a shot at being able to do something and we may not because there are no rules,’” said Luck. “Nobody cared about us except for us. I couldn’t appeal to the president of the NCAA. There was nowhere to go. We had to make it happen or else we were going to be in big trouble.”
That was likely right around the time Nehlen said he got a phone call from Clements asking him to get in touch with Neinas, who was then serving as the Big 12’s interim commissioner until a permanent commissioner could be named.
“Jim thought I was the key guy because of my friendship with Chuck. He told me, ‘Don we’re not getting in the ACC’ and I remember telling him, ‘Jim, are you sure you want to go to the Big 12?’ He said, ‘I want to go somewhere. Bad,’” said Nehlen.
In late October of 2012 – just a month after Pitt and Syracuse left the Big East, West Virginia was able to make a soft landing in the Big 12 Conference. Not only was it a stable situation for West Virginia’s athletic program with membership in a nationally respected conference with like-minded athletic departments and similar campus cultures – but the Big 12 was also a godsend for the university as a whole.
“We’re the one big school here in the state,” Luck explained. “People’s degrees will become less valuable in the world of perception out there if we didn’t find a way into one of the big conferences. I don’t care if we are the last one in.”
As it turned out, West Virginia almost was. Louisville, which tried to jump ahead of WVU in line to get into the Big 12, eventually replaced Maryland in the ACC. Rutgers, which was left looking in from the outside, has since found a home in the Big Ten.
Big East castaways Connecticut, South Florida, Cincinnati and Temple are still looking for their lifeboats.
For now, it looks like the game of musical chairs has ended. Had West Virginia University not found a home in the Big 12 Conference in 2012, Mountaineer athletics as we know it would have been dramatically altered, perhaps even fatally.
“There’s no question about that,” said Nehlen. “If we’re not in a (major) conference right now we’re done.”
Indeed, the waters are once again calm for West Virginia University, thanks to its willingness to look at things a little bit differently this time around.
Big 12 Conference, West Virginia Mountaineers, Joe Paterno, Penn State Nittany Lions, Eastern all-sports conference, Pitt Panthers
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