MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For those West Virginians who haven’t spent the last four or five years down in the mines or otherwise out of touch with reality, you may have noticed a distinct decline in athletic success at the state university.
The predictable reflex is to blame the coaching, and by no standard can anyone hand out plaudits to that fraternity, although to date women’s basketball coach Mike Carey is the only one who has moved aside.
Screams for the dismissal of football coach Neal Brown have been heard and with the disappointment of this year’s basketball team, fingers are now being pointed in the direction of Bob Huggins despite his recent induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In addition, athletic director Shane Lyons was rightfully dismissed, the decay coming under his watch, although the root of the problem did not lie at his feet, either.
And don’t even bother fixating on the players, be they on the football field or the basketball court, for the situation is far more complex than that.
As Cassius proclaimed in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings
And that is exactly the truth.
The fault lies in the new model which is emerging within the NCAA, a professional model which hurts WVU and schools like it far more than other schools. While there always has been an imbalance in power within the NCAA, it could be overcome by schools such as WVU with patience and good decisions.
But today’s NCAA has set it up for there to be the New York Yankees on the top and the Pittsburgh Pirates on the bottom and with the dipropionate division of revenues and reputations it becomes an almost impossible task for WVU to exist as it once did in college sports.
Recently, former WVU tight end Anthony Becht, speaking on an Internet podcast while touting the new XFL and his new team, the St. Louis Battlehawks, of which he is head coach and is coming off a fantastic comeback win in his opening game, wiping out a 15-3 deficit in the final minute and a half, spoke about the situation WVU now faces.
“It’s a different kind of place now,” he said, having watched it over the years as an alumni, as a 12-year NFL veteran and as a college football TV analyst. “Over the stretch of time West Virginia has really been a developmental school where you got a lot of good three-star — if that’s what you want to call them — football players, hungry guys with chips on their shoulders, and cyclically every four or five years they put a team together and made a run.”
That, of course, was the Don Nehlen approach and he wound up with undefeated regular season teams in 1988 and 1993 and thought, in 1998, he also had that kind of team.
It was build, keep the team together, keep the coaching staff together, add to it and reach a peak.
“Right now, there’s a couple of things that are tough,” Becht said on the podcast. “Right now, I don’t love the conference West Virginia is in. I just don’t think it fits the identity for what WVU has been over the last 35 years. No. 1, they are battling that. Logistically, they are battling it as well because, from a recruiting standpoint, they are getting the four-star recruits but it’s a different time.
“NIL and transfers have forced schools to do things differently because they are ultimately judged by these five-star and four-star players.”
Now it’s true that WVU benefits from the upcoming departure of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12, dominant forces historically in the conference and certainly coming out of recruiting hotbeds with as much money as is necessary to buy coaches and players, which is at the heart of recruiting today.
WVU just does not have the resources necessary to compete with the Alabamas and Oklahomas and Ohio States and Michigans of the college athletic world under the rules as they presently are written.
True, they have created buildings to house athletes that help greatly in recruiting, but with the transfer portal allowing free agency at a player’s whim, there is nothing to keep him there a second or third year.
Certainly, competing with Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and Central Florida in future years is easier for WVU than with Oklahoma and Texas, but WVU is always an outsider going into areas such as Florida and Texas to recruit, where there is the greatest wealth of high school talent.
The other day, as he previewed Texas Tech, Huggins spoke of the fertile talent fields the Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas schools have to pick from.
He noted that the Big 12 was known as a football league but that the athletic directors went and made a conscious effort to improve its basketball coaching.
Good coaches get good players.
“When you get on a bus and ride from Austin just to Waco you realize how big the state really is and you’re going by how many junior colleges and high schools. There’s so many people there, and there’s a bunch of cities there. You go to Texas, you go to Texas Tech, you go to Houston, you go to Baylor, you just go on and on and on.
“They have a bunch of high-level things there ... and I think coach (Bobby) Knight coming into Texas Tech helped. When people talked about the great coaches in the Big 12, it wasn’t just about the football coaches after a while. They always had good coaches, but then it continued to get better. Jamie (Dixon) left Pitt and went to TCU. He was one of the top coaches in the Big East at Pitt.”
The college athletic world moved South, for the most part, and then took on a professional tint and West Virginia was a small state without a professional team and where you had a better chance of recruiting top-line coal miners or mountaineers with a small ‘M’ than five-star quarterbacks or point guards.
The table is tilted and it’s up now to Dr. Gordon Gee, the school president, and new athletic director Wren Baker, to find a way to saw off one of those legs so that it becomes level for schools like West Virginia to compete.
Competing can be done. Marquette, for example, is at No. 10 in the AP poll, but they do not play the Big 12 schedule and they are from a big city, Milwaukee, in the Midwest near Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis ... population centers where basketball rules.
They play in the Big East and do not have to mess with trips to Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and, coming up, Houston, BYU and Central Florida in a league that now encompasses three time zones.
WVU certainly has to make changes to the way it operates for the trending is quite negative recently.
The football team over the last four years has gone 22-25 (14-21 in conference play) while in the previous four years it went 33-18 (22-14) while the basketball team over the past five years has gone 86-70 (32-53) while going 123-55 (56-34) over the prior five years.
It’s incumbent upon the NCAA to see to it that reform is something more than just over cash distribution as there is a massive difference between professional sports and college sports aimed at competitive balance via a draft and the ability to tie a player to his team for long-term deals rather heading into the portal every time you run out of beer in the fridge.
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