CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Usually, this week gives me a spring in my step as the West Virginia Conference tournament hits Charleston.I get a spring in my step because, well, it signals spring is just around the corner. And I get a spring in my step because the event brings back fond memories.This year's event, however, brings a fall to my countenance. It brings a sadness.For this will be the last real stand of what we've come to know and love as the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.After this school year, most conference members will move to something called the Mountain East Conference. The Civic Center's John Robertson said negotiations are ongoing to keep the hoops tournament in town, at least for next year.But I simply can't wrap my arms around this MEC replacing the WVC. Our WVC.I duly note the West Virginia Conference has had its flaws. Yet it's been our conference. It's been the Mountain State's conference. There's never been a need for the word "east." Since 1924.Here's what the WVC's most time-honored icon had to say about the Mountain East on Tuesday:"I don't know much about it."That was from former Fairmont State coaching legend Joe Retton.Few do know much about it. It will be starting from scratch. It will be trying to build a brand, which will take years, if not decades.
Yes, WVC tournament crowds have dwindled. Yes, some programs needed to step up and act like NCAA Division II schools rather than NAIA schools.But the WVC has always worked through differences. It took the tired, the poor, the huddled schools yearning to breathe free. It allowed the possibility for schools like Bluefield and Ohio Valley to dream and contribute to a long, rich tradition - an 89-year tradition.This move seems like change for the sake of change."We'll have to see what develops," said Retton, now 81. He then added, "Sometimes change has to occur."
Indeed. My question: Was such a drastic change necessary? A conference call to bring in Virginia-Wise fell a couple votes short and 89 years of tradition are tossed?What I think those in charge didn't understand is this ragtag WVC conference has meant something to us.
We grew up watching Retton and his Fighting Falcons. We grew up watching Neal Baisi and his WVU Tech teams. We watched with amazement players like Archie Talley and Sedale Threatt.Forcing change to spur league schools to meet Division II standards is one thing. However, the mission of the league should be to accommodate state schools, not punish them or push them away. Many state schools struggle mightily. They are those tired and poor.Maybe new league leadership was needed. But the new conference will be starting completely over. There will be no automatic NCAA bids for a couple of years. League familiarity will be out the window.Out also are Alderson-Broaddus (which, by the way, is adding football), Bluefield, Davis & Elkins and Ohio Valley, as well as the two latecomers from Pennsylvania, Pitt Johnstown and Seton Hill. Salem and Tech have been out. The tradeoff is adding Wise and two Ohio schools, Notre Dame and Urbana.
I can't help but ask: Is that really worth ditching a tradition so near and dear to so many?It seems as though some, like University of Charleston president Ed Welch, tried to slow and temper the change. In the end, however, word is he caved so his school would have a decent football schedule.It's sad. After 89 years of showcasing personalities, personality conflicts brought down the show.UC, of course, will be fine. Same with Fairmont, Concord, Glenville, Shepherd, West Liberty, West Virginia State, West Virginia Wesleyan and Wheeling Jesuit. Their new conference will have a shiny web page and maybe an Internet radio network or some such deal.(I had to laugh, though, at the suggestion that bringing in Urbana, Wise and Notre Dame would increase the league's "footprint." Umm, for what? Those ESPN and Fox television negotiations?)What's lost here is, new conference or not, Glenville is still in Glenville. What's lost is West Virginia State will still have issues.What's lost is the WVC probably did try too hard to be all to too many - but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.What's lost here is a little piece of all who followed the WVC through the years. As well as 89 years of tradition.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.