MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Remember that whole Orange Bowl era?If you're a West Virginia fan, certainly you do. Those were heady times, weren't they?The football team had just walloped Clemson 70-33, finishing off a season in which it won or shared its sixth Big East championship in nine years. It had won 10 games - the seventh straight season it had won at least nine and the 10th year in a row for at least eight victories.The basketball team, three weeks after that Orange Bowl, was 15-5 and headed to its fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and its seventh in eight years. It was a run that included three Sweet 16s, two Elite 8s and a Final Four.
Oh, and the athletic department as a whole - primarily because of those two just-mentioned runs of success - was flush with cash. Well, OK, maybe not flush. But its head was above collective water, enough so that renovations to the football, basketball and soccer facilities were no cause for alarm. Nor were the increasing sums of money being paid to its coaches.And, of course, there was that whole Big 12 thing. Goodbye flailing Big East, hello stability and security. While so many of its counterparts - Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Rutgers - were trying desperately to find an escape hatch, West Virginia was already slipping through one. On the other side was a financial bonanza and, just as significantly, a place at the competitive big boys table.Oh, boy, this was going to be good.More than a few funny things happened on the way to paradise, though. Well, not exactly funny ha-ha, mind you.In just over a year, the basketball team that was 15-5 a few weeks after the Orange Bowl has gone 17-28 and missed not only the NCAA tournament, but any postseason at all. Well, OK, there was a postseason. It was a defeat at the hands of a 20-loss Texas Tech team in a Big 12 tournament that ended before it began for the Mountaineers. Think of the early Big East days when WVU didn't even qualify for one tournament and was one-and-done in seven of the first eight at which it did compete.The football team lost five in a row at one point and won one more game than it lost in finishing 7-6, despite the most prolific passer and receivers in school history. Even the consolation of qualifying for a bowl game turned into a nightmare with a non-competitive loss to a team, Syracuse, from the very league it had tried so hard to escape.And all it took to accomplish that was $13 million. That's the approximate deficit the athletic department ran during the 2011-12 school year. And with declining attendance at football and basketball games as those seasons wore on, expect another deficit in 2012-13. The red ink isn't even beginning to disappear.It helps little, either, that the NCAA's Final Four will be played this weekend with a field that includes two members of WVU's old conference (Louisville and Syracuse) and another with a former Mountaineer coach in charge (Michigan and John Beilein).Yet despite all of that, one thing becomes only increasingly clearer as time marches on.If West Virginia had it all to do over again it would do the same thing. It would pay all the money it took to escape the Big East, it would jump at the chance to join the Big 12 and it would take its lumps and hope for - and work toward - better days.And it would be right to do so.
We bring this up today for a couple of reasons, including the seeming unrest in some quarters over how things have transpired. Some look at the deficits and the lack of success on the field, the still-spiraling salaries being paid out and the increases in ticket costs and mandatory donations and see nothing but a huge mess. And it is.But consider the alternatives. And that's the real point here today, because so many things that have happened since West Virginia pulled the expensive trigger on its move to the Big 12 might well have eliminated the school from being in a position to do so. And had that happened, WVU would be adrift in an athletic no-man's land.It has always been well known that one of the most attractive aspects of West Virginia to the Big 12 Conference hierarchy was its immediate availability. The league needed a school and WVU said it could be there yesterday. Certainly its recent history in football and basketball helped its cause, but that availability was necessary. Had West Virginia told the Big 12 it could come, but not for another year, all bets would have been off.West Virginia was in the right place at the right time to crawl through that escape hatch, and the eventual financial rewards will more than make up for any current deficits, even if those deficits seem astronomical now. It's not even worth arguing the point. It's short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.And while the competitive aspect of the move isn't as easy to quantify or predict, if you're a WVU fan you don't really want to argue that the school bit off more than it can chew, do you? You've spent all these years arguing that WVU was just as good as anyone else, so embrace the fact that now the Mountaineers have the chance to prove it.The alternative is not something you really want to consider, is it? But let me force you to do so for just a moment.
Let's say the Big 12 - or anyone else - was looking for a school today. Let's say WVU and Louisville were still on the table. Let's say that now neither had an advantage in when it might be available.It might seem short-sighted to consider this, but the here-and-now often sways these decisions big time. Who would the Big 12 want if it could only take one? In October of 2011, it was West Virginia. Today it might well be Louisville.Now it's the Cardinals coming off a resounding BCS bowl win, a trip to the Final Four in men's basketball and even Sunday's win over top-ranked Baylor in the women's tournament. And there's no argument at all that Louisville is a better geographic fit for the Big 12.Meanwhile, the ACC and the Big Ten have made it clear time and again that West Virginia wasn't high on their wish lists. The SEC isn't calling. And the Big East continues to crumble.So had it not been for West Virginia's abrupt and costly-for-now jump to the Big 12, who is to say the school would not be looking at a football schedule in future seasons highlighted - highlighted, mind you - by games with SMU, Temple and Central Florida? The basketball team would not only have a slate that no longer includes Syracuse and Pitt - soon off to the ACC - but sans Georgetown and Marquette and the New York area schools and the Big East tournament.In other words, it would have been everyone's worst nightmare from a few years ago when schools were fleeing the Big East left and right and WVU was wondering if it was about to become irrelevant. Except now it would be reality.Say what you will about West Virginia's struggles on the field and the court and in its wallet and everything else. But know that things could be much, much worse right now. And unlike the current situation, there would be no light at the end of the tunnel.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.