10-23-12 Not everyone is big on moving to the Big 12Sports Headlines Monday, October 22nd, 2012 Would you like to receive e-mail alerts when we have breaking news? Click here!
For more than a century, West Virginia University’s biggest rival on the football field has been the University of Pittsburgh. But with the university’s move to the Big XII this season, its football fans will no longer have the chance to see the Mountaineers play the Panthers.
So while university administrators say the move will be good for the University’s recruitment and the local economy, others are more skeptical. They say that the university made the change to increase its revenues from athletes, not necessarily to keep fans and players happy. For instance, the university will receive $20 million as part of a $2.8 billion television deal the Big XII conference just signed with networks. The Mountaineers will also receive a portion of the revenue collected by the University of Texas’ Longhorn Network, that university’s self-produced television station.
“It’s all about the money,” says Mickey Furfari, a long-time Mountaineer sports writer and Sports Writers Hall of Fame member. “The tail is wagging the dog, and that is sad.”
Furfari says the move to the Big XII is one more indication of how the university values athletics over academics.
However, university administrators say the move will only enhance the university’s stature and ability to recruit good students. Freshman enrollments this fall stand at an all-time high – 5,100-5,200 in early fall — and administrators believe that may be largely due to the conference change.
Joining the Big XII will also help the local economy and allow students to play more competitive sports, WVU supporters say. New businesses are opening in town and the athletic department must add several varsity sports, such as golf and track and field, in which university athletes can compete in the new conference.
WVU will also stand to reap significantly greater national exposure and prestige.”I think moving to the Big 12 will provide interesting opportunities,” says Brenda Thompson, associate vice president for enrollment management.
For the last 21 years, West Virginia University has competed in the Big East Conference, winning one conference championship in basketball, and having at least a share of seven football titles. For example, last year they tied for the championship with Louisville and Cincinnati.
The Big East also allowed for WVU to play against their traditional rivals, such as Syracuse, Cincinnati, and most notably, Pittsburgh. Games were in close proximity to Morgantown and fans could easily travel to away games.
Furfari and others say economics was a major driver behind the move to the Big XII. Football controls the economic landscape of college athletics, as it is the only sport in most collegiate programs that makes money. Within the Big East, however, West Virginia University was beginning to seem like a big fish in a small pond and the games were not as exciting. WVU had won at least a share of six of the last nine conference championships and has more Bowl Championship Series victories than the entire Atlantic Coast Conference combined during the last ten years.
Many of WVU’s competitors have also changed conferences in recent years. Pittsburgh and Syracuse left the Big East about a month before WVU made their exit, while schools like Missouri, Texas A&M, and Boise State have also chosen to pursue new conference affiliations.
In response to this changing landscape, WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck chose to leave the Big East, paying a $20 million exit fee, to join the Midwest-dominated Big XII.
However, the geographic distances involved in the new conference worry many people; players and university fans will have to travel to states like Texas and Oklahoma on a regular basis. The Iowa State Cyclones are the closest conference rival to the Mountaineers, and that requires a 14-hour drive for fans.
“If you want to go to an away game, you can’t afford it,” Furfari says. “There are a lot of people who would want to go, and they are long-time, loyal Mountaineer fans.”
Furfari believes that moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference would have made more sense for the Mountaineers. In the 1950s, Furfari recalls, Duke University’s football team did travel to Morgantown but the roads were so bad and bumpy that Duke’s athletic director vowed he would never go there again. As a result, WVU did not join the ACC when the conference expanded over 50 years ago.
For many fans, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the move to the Big XII is that the historic rivalry against the University of Pittsburgh, will end after more than 100 years.
The “Backyard Brawl,” as this rivalry is known, has been a rallying point for Mountaineer fans. You can hear them chanting anti-Pitt slogans everywhere you go, whether it’s at a football or soccer game, the bar downtown, the Fallfest concert, or pretty much anywhere on campus where Mountaineer fans are gathered. Former Mountaineer broadcaster Jack Flemming described how Mountaineer fans are “born to hate Pitt, bred to hate Pitt, and die hating Pitt.”