MORGANTOWN — If you happen to be a fan of — or have even a passing interest in — West Virginia University athletics, you probably have an opinion on where the school rests at this moment in the ever-changing landscape that is NCAA Division I athletics.Just to be clear here, we're not talking about the competitive balance that exists within big-time college football and men's basketball. You probably have an opinion about that, as well, and in that context you probably aren't thrilled. In the wake of 7-6 and 4-8 football seasons and a 13-19 men's basketball season that seems far more likely to repeat than to improve by much, the notion isn't so much about competitive balance as it is imbalance.Let's face it, things just aren't going well.Again, that's not the topic today. All schools go through periods like this, when performance on the field or the court do not measure up to expectations. Deal with it. Complain about coaching or recruiting or styles or whatever you choose. It's your right. You're a fan. That's what fans do.
No, the topic today is the broader question of where West Virginia is positioned in terms of the haves and the have-nots of college athletics. That you have an opinion on, as well. Trust me, I know. It has been an issue for decades now.It began in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s when the football program was, along with its Eastern counterparts, adrift in independence and the basketball program was bouncing from the league to league in search of relevance.Things improved with the formation of the Big East's football-only amalgamation in the 1990s and then the school struck gold when it was allowed a seat at that league's basketball table. There were a few years of calm before the Big East's first cracks appeared with the ACC's raid of Miami, etc., and then only a few more years before the whole thing crashed and burned.When we say that we know you have opinions, we're talking about where West Virginia has landed since then, specifically in the Big 12.There are those who still pine for the comfort of what was the Big East. That's understandable. As it was structured at one point it was the absolute perfect fit for WVU. That doesn't exist anymore, though, so get over it.There are others who insist that in jumping headlong into the Big 12, West Virginia effectively slammed the door shut on what might have been a better fit; say the ACC. OK, for just a moment we'll dismiss a half a century of history and believe that somehow, someway that league might have changed its entrenched opposition to ever inviting WVU.Just for kicks we will also sprinkle some fairy dust around the Puskar Center and the Coliseum and wins will magically begin to roll in.And then there are others who just like to complain without forwarding any solutions. They complain about the travel and the competition and the absence of rivalries and the coaches and the administration and, for good measure, parking and salaries and reseating and just about anything else that has changed.And you know what? In a way I think I just might have a modicum of respect (or at least sympathy) for those people. All they know is that things used to be better than they are today and they wish we could all go back. Sure, it's simplistic and wholly detached from reality, but who doesn't yearn for a simpler time?Now I bring this up today not as a rant or to fill space, but instead because something happened late last week in San Diego that stands to change the face of college athletics. In an informal straw poll of administrators representing the membership of the NCAA, there was a clear consensus formed that the member schools of the five major conferences — ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 — should vote alone in at least some matters dealing with their level of intercollegiate athletics.Quite simply, the big boys are going to decide what's best for the big boys. No more North Texas having the same voting power as Texas.
This is huge. If it happens — and it will — the members of those five conferences are going to play by their own rules. Most notably, they will begin to pay their scholarship athletes a stipend. It's the proposal that has been bouncing around for years but never got enough traction because of the financial divide that exists between the upper and lower levels of Division I.The ramifications could be game-changing.If you thought there existed a divide between the members of, say, the SEC and Conference USA before, just wait until the big schools begin playing by their own rules. I'm not saying that is good or bad — that's a debate for another day — just that it is undeniable. Just one for-instance: Schools in those five conferences already get the cream of the recruiting crop, but essentially only because of the status of their programs.A scholarship to a C-USA school now pays the same as a scholarship to an SEC school. When that SEC (or Big 12, Big Ten, etc.) scholarship is actually worth more, the balance of power is naturally going to shift even more.Anyway, back to West Virginia. Just for a moment imagine that the school had not found a landing pad in the Big 12. In the last decade WVU has played in three BCS bowls and a Final Four. Let's face it, both the football and basketball teams are a long way from that level right now, but how far would they be if they weren't in one of those five conferences?In other words, what if they were Connecticut? Or Cincinnati? Or South Florida? Or Boise State? Maybe those schools find a safe haven, but for right now they are scared to death they're going to be relegated to second-tier status. And they should be.
Is there any question that had West Virginia not latched onto the lifeboat that is the Big 12, it would today be one of those schools? And then what would the chorus of complaints sound like?So sure, you can complain that West Virginia's two revenue-producing sports are at low tide. And you can pin the blame anywhere you like.Know, though, that in the long term at least West Virginia is positioned to succeed. You might not like how things have turned out in conference realignment, but very soon there will be concrete evidence as to how much worse it could have been.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1