RICH MECKFESSEL remembers vividly the glory days of the West Virginia Conference.As the men's basketball coach and athletic director at Morris Harvey and the University of Charleston from 1965 to 1982, Meckfessel recalled last week a time when the streets of Charleston were filled with fans from Athens to Shepherdstown and all points in between for the WVC men's basketball tournament at the Civic Center.Many took vacation time to support their schools, and downtown hotels were bustling with so much activity that there wasn't a room to be had in the Capital City."Maybe nobody cares about the WVIAC anymore but I remember it as a young coach-AD," Meckfessel said in a phone interview from his home near Savannah, Ga. "I was 27 when I came there in 1965, and it was something special in those days."
The WVC once owned a proud history, having the distinction of sponsoring the longest continuously held basketball tournament in the country, which has been in Charleston since 1960. The league was organized in 1924 and originally included West Virginia University and Marshall.Now the WVC will become just a footnote in history after nine of the league's members announced last month that they were breaking away and reforming with three new schools as the Mountain East Conference.Meckfessel has been paying close attention to the machinations, starting in the spring and carrying into the summer, that brought down the WVC, and he hasn't liked what he has heard or seen."I still have feelings for the conference because I spent 17 years there,'' he said. "It was a big part of my life. Change is good if it results in improvement. I can't see this change resulting in any improvement for anybody. [The former WVC schools are] going to be in the same kind of conference.''After leaving UC, Meckfessel spent 17 years as the head coach at Division II Missouri-St. Louis then three years as the AD and seven years as the commissioner of a Division III conference."I've been to a lot of NCAA conventions and I know how this stuff works,'' said Meckfessel. "It could have been avoided. I think there were some schools in the conference that were hell-bent on this happening."I understand an ultimatum was given. You either come along with us or go your own way. I think there are some schools and some presidents that have delusions of grandeur. All of the sudden by getting in a conference they're going to improve the conference."I think egos were involved among presidents and athletic directors. I don't think there was the spirit of working together and compromising that existed in the conference the 17 years I was an athletic director. We had the same issues then. I think it's sad that kind of attitude brought down a conference.''Former WVC members Concord, Fairmont State, Glenville State, Shepherd, UC, West Liberty, West Virginia State, Wheeling Jesuit and West Virginia Wesleyan, along with Notre Dame College and Urbana of Ohio and Virginia-Wise, will form the new conglomerate, which will begin play in all sports beginning in the 2013-14 school year. Wheeling Jesuit is the only member that doesn't have a football program.The biggest impetus for the WVC's breakup was to ease the pain of scheduling for the football-playing schools. They had to find three nonconference games per season and that was becoming increasingly harder to do.When the Mountain East begins play, the schools will only have to come up with one nonconference game per year since 11 schools will be playing football.
The former WVC schools also hope to burnish their football reputations. In 2009, UC finished with a 9-2 record but wasn't granted an at-large berth to the NCAA Division II playoffs because it's strength of schedule was perceived to be weak.One of the Golden Eagles' problems that season, in addition to two late-season losses, was the scheduling of nonconference opponent Tusculum, which finished 3-7 after earning a playoff bid in 2008.Meckfessel said a simpler solution for the WVC's football scheduling problems would have been for the league to enter into agreements with other conferences instead of blowing up the whole thing."A good example of this is a school where I played and coached at for five years, Washington University in St. Louis,'' he said. "Their conference doesn't have enough football playing members, but they have an arrangement with the Ohio Conference so they play two or three [games] on a rotating basis with schools in that conference."It seems to me if scheduling three nonconference games were that hard they could have easily come up with an arrangement with one of the nearby conferences.''Meckfessel said the new Mountain East Conference won't immediately gain cachet among Division II postseason committees.
"I don't think you can just snap your fingers and just become a full-fledged conference,'' he said. "The schools are going to wind up playing the same schools anyway."I don't think those three new schools [Notre Dame, Urbana and Virginia-Wise] are going to beat anybody, and maybe not be even as good as the nonconference schools that the nine football-playing schools were playing. I can't see any improvement in the number of teams that get into the NCAA playoffs in any sport.''Meckfessel said the other WVC schools did make a critical judgment error when they blocked Virginia-Wise, which plays football, from joining the league this past spring. That move had the backing of all the WVC's nine football-playing schools but lacked a two-thirds majority, which would have been 10 votes, and failed."I think the other six schools were foolish to vote against Virgnia-Wise,'' he said. "I don't know if the six schools that voted against Virginia-Wise understood the gravity of the situation.''Meckfessel said he doesn't see any good that will come out of dismantling the WVC."There's a long rich history that was blown up because a few ego-driven presidents and athletic directors weren't willing to work things out,'' he said."There's only one way to improve things through athletics. One is to go to Division I, which the WVIAC schools can't do, and the other is to win all the time. Some of the schools in some of the sports have done it. Now, they're scattered to the winds. It's unfortunate.''Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.