MORGANTOWN - In recent months, Oliver Luck had already begun trying to upgrade West Virginia's baseball program, allowing a full complement of scholarships for the first time and beginning the process of looking for alternatives to dilapidated Hawley Field.On Saturday, he took the step that surprised almost no one.Shortly after the Mountaineers completed a 23-32 season and missed the Big East tournament, WVU's athletic director announced that longtime coach Greg Van Zant would not return. He was fired after 23 years with the program, the last 18 as head coach.He said the school will begin a national search for a new coach to lead the team as it heads to the ultra-competitive Big 12.
"I just believed that, given the challenges we're facing with the Big 12 and its baseball institutions, we needed to go in a different direction," Luck said shortly after making the announcement.Van Zant met with reporters following a 12-inning season-ending 5-4 loss to South Florida at Hawley Field - prior to Luck's announcement - and pleaded ignorance as to his future with the program."We'll find out,'' he said when asked if he believed he would remain as the team's coach.Luck, though, said later that Van Zant had been told several weeks ago that his contract would not be renewed.Van Zant has spent most of his adult life at WVU. A native of Williamson, he played for the Mountaineers in the early 1980s and became an assistant coach under Dale Ramsburg in 1990. He became the head coach in 1994, shortly after Ramsburg's death.Van Zant had some success as WVU's head coach, compiling a record of 528-451-1 and finishing 12 wins shy of tying Ramsburg for the most coaching wins in school history. But while he ranks second on that list, he is also fourth from the bottom among the school's 18 head coaches all-time in winning percentage (.539).He produced 50 professionals and six All-America selections, but produced only one Big East championship and one tournament title in 17 years in that league. He was also twice named the conference's coach of the year.The Big East, however, is not the Big 12 when it comes to baseball. Four Big 12 teams are currently ranked in the Top 25, and that's not an anomaly. The Big East rarely has more than one ranked team.Still, before Luck announced Van Zant's dismissal, the coach steadfastly maintained that next year's move to the Big 12 would not be as daunting as it is made out to be."College baseball is college baseball. It's not a big a difference going to a different conference,'' Van Zant said. "We play the top teams in college baseball already.''The Mountaineers do not, however, play those top teams as frequently as they will beginning next season.
Van Zant was also quick to point out that support for the program is needed no matter who is coaching. Luck recently addressed a major issue when he allowed the program to award the full NCAA complement of 11.7 scholarships. Most years the Mountaineers have been limited to eight or nine.There are also issues with Hawley Field, which pales in comparison to Big 12 venues in terms of seating, dugouts and a clubhouse. Hawley has no clubhouse."You're going to have success based on how well the school supports you,'' Van Zant said. "We've been in the Big East for 17 years and we've only had eight and a half scholarships. We've never been fully funded. You can go get a coach from wherever and they're just going to come from programs that have been fully funded that have success. But you're only as good as your support."Moving forward I think our school is going to make a commitment to baseball and we'll see what happens.''It won't be with Van Zant, though.One thing is certain. In order to compete in the Big 12, West Virginia will have to invest in many ways, beginning with a new coach. According to the most recent available figures, Van Zant was paid just under $89,000 for fiscal 2011. West Virginia certainly won't pay a new baseball coach anywhere close to the seven-figure salaries it allots football coach Dana Holgorsen and men's basketball coach Bob Huggins, but in order to attract top talent it likely will have to pay at least two or three times what Van Zant made.
There is also the issue of a home venue. Several entities have broached the idea of a new baseball stadium in Morgantown, but nothing has taken off. Luck admitted Saturday that the four Big 12 home series the team will play next season are likely to be relocated, perhaps to Appalachian Power Park.But that's not a long-term solution. Sooner rather than later the school will have to fund in some part an alternative."We've looked and have had conversations with folks in Charleston and some of the other minor league parks in southern West Virginia," Luck said. "We haven't made any final decisions yet, but it's very likely we won't play those four series here in Morgantown."More than likely we'll be playing our nonconference games at Hawley. Those are folks that have been to Hawley in the past. But we think with our conference series we simply need a better ballpark, a nicer ballpark to play in."Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.