Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

May 24, 2012

Excitement builds for West Virginia’s move to Big 12

PRINCETON — Excitement isn’t a big enough word to describe what the avid supporters of West Virginia University athletics have felt since the decision was made to leave the Big East for the Big 12.

No one knows better than Oliver Luck, West Virginia’s director of athletics, who attended the West Virginia Coaches Caravan on Wednesday evening at the Chuck Mathena Center.

“There is a lot of excitement right now, it is going to be a lot of fun and challenging, no question about it,” Luck said. “We may surprise a few people and we may be surprised a couple of times because it is a different environment that we are getting ourselves into.

“Clearly there is a lot of folks that are very excited, which is very nice.”

Luck was joined in Princeton by football coach Dana Holgorsen, men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins and Mike Carey, the women’s hoops coach.

All are excited about what lies ahead. They’d better be.

“There are all sorts of different indicators, but our coaches are very excited,” Luck said. “They all seem to have an extra spring in their step, no matter what sport it is because it is a new challenge.

“These guys are all A-type personalities, they really like challenges.”

It’s not just feedback from the coaches that Luck points out. How about the fans ... in Oklahoma?

“There are other metrics like ticket sales and in football’s case, season ticket renewals, which are off the charts now,” Luck said. “We have folks from Oklahoma calling up wanting to know when we put individual season tickets on sale because they want to buy them for one game.

“Just generally the enthusiasm that we have encountered, whether it’s Wheeling or Parkersburg or Martinsburg is off the charts as well.”

Holgorsen, in his second season as the head coach of the Mountaineers’ football team, came to West Virginia from Oklahoma State in the Big 12, and is now heading back to the same league after a year in the Big East.

“It will be fun, I won a lot of games at those venues and beat those guys quite a bit, but I do know how challenging it is going to be,” said Holgorsen, who led West Virginia to a 10-3 record, including the Big East championship and a 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. “Week in and week out it is going to be challenging, there is a whole bunch of talent.”

While West Virginia is known for a raucous game day atmosphere, Holgorsen noticed that wasn’t often the case at other Big East venues.

That is about to change, with the Mountaineers bringing in four Big 12 opponents this season that could potentially be ranked in the top 25, including Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas State and Texas Christian.

Trips to Texas and Oklahoma State figure to be just as challenging for the Mountaineers.

“The venue we see at Morgantown, it is a good venue and a good game day atmosphere, but that is going to exist at all the other nine schools,” Holgorsen said. “It wasn’t like that in the Big East, but the other nine schools in the Big 12, it is going to be the same thing that we saw in the Backyard Brawl.

“It is going to be that kind of environment every week.”

Not just in football. Huggins, who spent one season in the Big 12 with Kansas State, knows all too well how difficult road games can be in the new league.

“The fans, I think they are the best homecourt advantage of any league in America,” said Huggins, when asked the biggest difference the Mountaineers will face in the Big 12. “They show up now. You go to Stillwater, you go to Ames, you go to Lawrence, you go to Manhattan, they show up now and they show up.

“They are loud, they are enthusiastic, the students are terrific. It is a great home court advantage. I think there is so much better home court advantage in the Big 12 than there was in the Big East.”

Huggins has been asked often how the Mountaineers are going to adjust to the new look. He would rather ask his own question.

“I get so tired of people saying how are you going to adapt to the Big 12,” said Huggins, who led West Virginia to the Final Four in 2010, and a first round NCAA Tournament exit last year. “I guess my statement is what are they going to do with us, how are they going to adapt to the Mountaineers?  

“I don’t know, basketball is basketball, none of us are inventing anything, we are just stealing what everybody else has. Just go play.”

It’s not just the men’s program that will face a new experience. Carey has built the Mountaineers’ women’s team into a force in the Big East, and now they’ll join a league that includes Baylor and 6-foot-8 Brittany Griner, which went undefeated last year and won the NCAA championship.

“They are much bigger,” said Carey, when asked about the differences in the two leagues. “The Big 12 has a lot of 6-5, 6-6 players where the Big East had a few. The Big East is probably more athletic up and down the floor so we have to adjust to that.

“We like being athletic, we like getting up and down the floor. Texas A&M which left the Big 12 and went to the SEC, everybody says we are going to be like them in the Big 12. I hope so. Texas A&M won a national championship a couple of years ago so I hope we are like that.”

Much has been made about the distance West Virginia sports teams will have to travel to play conference games.

“We charter every away game in the conference so it will be a little bit longer, but at least you’re not in the airports and going through security,” said Carey, whose Mountaineers will host Griner and the Bears at the WVU Coliseum next season. “I think the biggest thing is not how long it is going to take, but the time zone difference when you are coming back.

“All of a sudden you are coming through the time zone and it will be little bit later when you get home than it was in the Big East.”

Luck has made moves since taking over at his alma mater to prepare for the move, including the addition of Holgorsen. He made another tough decision last week, deciding not to renew the contract of baseball coach Greg Van Zant after 18 seasons with the Mountaineers.

“I felt like going into arguably the second toughest baseball conference, maybe third, but it is a very challenging conference with legacy teams like Texas that have been up top forever winning multiple College World Series...,” Luck said. “We needed to go in a different direction...”

West Virginia faces a difficult challenge on the diamond, not only in a league with top programs like Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU, but weather is also an issue.

Luck doesn’t plan to use that as an excuse, pointing out schools in similar climates that have had success, including Virginia, Oregon State and Notre Dame.

“It is going to be a challenge,” said Luck, whose Mountaineers won’t be using its own Hawley Field for Big 12 home games, but will play somewhere in the state, perhaps even in southern West Virginia. “We’ll have to take some time to really pick up our program where we can compete with those Big 12 teams, but I do think we can get there.”

Getting ‘there’ in the Big 12 will be a challenge in all sports, but don’t count out the Mountaineers, while the excitement is building for a new era in West Virginia athletics.

“It should be like that,” Holgorsen said. “If you look at everything that transpired last year (with us) winning those last three games, what the men’s and women’s basketball teams did, what the other sports are trying to accomplish, with moving to the Big 12, there is a ton of excitement.

“There is stability with the football program and I am convinced of that. We are comfortable with where we are at so there should be a ton of excitement.”

—Contact Brian Woodson

at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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