MORGANTOWN - It's an interesting dichotomy this West Virginia-to-the-Big 12 deal as it applies to men's soccer.While all around him celebrated the move, Mountaineers coach Marlon LeBlanc kind of scratched his smoothly shaved head as he stood over to the side in a dimly lit corner and thought, "Uh, excuse me. Hello. Over here?''The Big 12, you see, does not sponsor men's soccer. Not only that, there's not even a single rogue Big 12 school that dares to venture into the sport on its own.Texas, with its seemingly multi-billion-dollar budget? Nope.
Oklahoma, where the land is so flat there could be a soccer pitch on any piece of unclaimed ground? Nah.In Kansas or Iowa, where the pull of schoolboy football is not nearly what it is to the south and soccer might seem ripe to gain a foothold? Forget it.No, despite what is probably a largely untapped gold mine of talent in the region - "Texas could start a men's soccer program today and be an instant powerhouse,'' said WVU athletic director Oliver Luck, who knows a little bit about both Texas and soccer - West Virginia will head next fall into a Big 12 Conference devoid of either sanctioned or non-sanctioned men's soccer.Thus Tuesday's official announcement of what has appeared imminent for a while now. In addition to being the newest member of the Big 12, West Virginia is also the newest member of the Mid-American Conference. LeBlanc's successful WVU men's soccer program has been accepted as an affiliate member of the MAC in that sport.
All of which raises a couple of interesting questions. First, is MAC soccer any good or is this just the lesser of all the evils?Well, actually MAC soccer is probably just as good as Big East soccer, according to LeBlanc. We have to trust his judgment because, quite frankly, ours is non-existent where soccer is concerned.There are just fewer teams in the MAC. There were 16 playing in the Big East last season. Only five full MAC members play soccer, and WVU and two other affiliate members - Florida Atlantic and Hartwick College - make in an eight-team league now. At the top of the league, Akron is as good as anyone in the country, having won the 2010 national championship and with this year's No. 1 recruiting class in the country. At the bottom of the league? Well, not so much."But we had bad teams in the Big East, too,'' said LeBlanc, whose Mountaineers were generally much closer to the top than the bottom in the Big East and figure to raise the caliber of play in the MAC.
The more intriguing question, though, relates to the Big 12 and its dearth of men's soccer programs. How can a league like the Big East have everyone on board and the Big 12 no one?The easy answer as far as the Big 12 goes is Title IX. All but two current Big 12 schools - Texas and Kansas State are the exceptions - field women's soccer teams in the league. Call it an obvious nod to that ubiquitous federal gender law that requires opportunities for women to be equal to those for men, regardless of the shadow cast by football.But if it is just a Title IX issue, then why is men's soccer universally sponsored in the Big East (and by nearly all of the ACC), which must follow the same guidelines? There has to be more to it than that.
That answer also seems fairly easy to come by. Soccer tends to be a coastal sport, as in East Coast and West Coast, especially the East Coast. There are plenty of exceptions, of course - Akron? - but for the most part the sport has not carved the same inroads in the Midwest. Thus, if a sport is to be sacrificed in the Big 12, soccer is a much more palatable option than, say, track or golf.It's not just a Big 12 anomaly, either. There are but two SEC schools that sponsor men's soccer - Kentucky and South Carolina compete as affiliate members of Conference USA. The 12-member Big Ten has just seven men's soccer programs. Even the correctly numbered Pac 12 has to add San Diego State to get up to six men's soccer programs.LeBlanc and Luck, though, are not giving up on Big 12 soccer. The school signed a four-year agreement with the MAC, but with a rather interesting clause. Should the Big 12 add men's soccer as a sanctioned sport during that four-year window, WVU can opt out of the league. While history and culture and geography might suggest that the chances of the Big 12 adding the sport are slim, it's really not that far out of the realm of possibility.The reason? Well, because it might only take a couple of schools to move the needle.Consider that the Big 12 sanctions women's gymnastics. Oklahoma is ranked No. 2 in the nation, Missouri is No. 19 and Iowa State is No. 25. But guess what? Those are the only three schools taking part in Big 12 gymnastics.Or how about wrestling? Oklahoma State was No. 4 in the final Intermat national poll, Iowa State No. 10, Missouri No. 13 and Oklahoma No. 15. The rest of the Big 12 wrestling schools? Well, there are none.
So if West Virginia is going to join a three-team Big 12 gymnastics league and a four-school wrestling consortium, why not work to find a like-minded school or two to invite into a Big 12 men's soccer party? It's not as if the infrastructure wasn't already there, what with most of the league already sponsoring the sport for women.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.