By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Independence is nice, but not necessarily for a college athletics program.
The waiting game is taking its toll on Bluefield State athletics. With less than three months before another college sports season begins, the Big Blues still have no place to call home.
“I understand our administration is working on that, but I just hope they can find the right place for us quickly because I think it does have an impact on retention,” Bluefield State baseball coach Geoff Hunter said. “Students say, ‘What are we playing for, what conference are we in.’ It definitely has an impact on recruitment…
“I still think for the future of our athletic program it is really important that we make a decision so that we can have a direction and so that we can recruit to that.”
While Bluefield State Athletic Director Terry Brown continues to wait for a final say from the Mountain East Conference — which might come by the end of this month — the school’s coaches have compiled schedules as requested and are facing the reality that the 2013-14 school year will likely be played under Independent status.
“It is my understanding we looked at a lot of other conferences and I appreciate the fact that we did that,” said Hunter, a faculty member in the business department and baseball coach at Bluefield State for 29 years. “For one reason or another, those conferences didn’t feel like we were a good fit. I don’t know, if you are not in a conference, I guess that makes you an independent, doesn’t it?”
Bluefield State reached its current situation when eight football-playing members from the West Virginia Conference created their own league, the Mountain East, which begins play in the fall. Wheeling Jesuit soon followed, and was later added to the Mountain East, and four others departed for the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
“I think it was a great conference and I am sorry to see it go…,” Hunter said. “I think there are a lot of good relationships and it is sort of sad to see that end, but at the same time things are a lot different in athletics now than they used to be.
“The reality of it is there are some schools that have a lot of resources that they have decided to put toward their athletic program and there are other schools that don’t have as much available. What I have seen in my 29 years in the league is that there has been clearly a separation between some of the schools with most of their sports in terms of level of support.”
That move left Bluefield State and its small cradle of coaches trying to explain to current and prospective recruits what the future holds. The problem is, they have the same questions.
“We don’t know so we can’t tell them, but we just tell them what is going on and tell them the truth and let them make a decision,” Bluefield State men’s basketball coach Jamaal Jackson said. “As long as we are honest and transparent, we let them make the decision if this is something they want to be a part of.”
Bluefield State women’s basketball coach J.J. Oliver, whose Lady Blues were 11-11 last season, the best year in more than a decade, still didn’t have a single new recruit less than two weeks ago. All three coaches have faced similar issues with bringing in prospective athletes.
“As of this point we have signed no one, which is unique, that hasn’t been the case since I have been here,” Oliver said. “Have we gotten that question during recruiting? Yes. Have we had other teams that have used that against us in recruiting? Most certainly.
“We have got several teams that we have been in the hunt with kids. We even had kids who were committed to us early on that for one or a couple of reasons decided that they were going to attend another school.”
Brown has looked at numerous options, from NCAA Division II, III and even NAIA, but when Wheeling-Jesuit, which doesn’t play football, was extended an invitation by the Mountain East, Bluefield State — which hasn’t had football since 1981 — began to hold out hope for the same.
“It has been 11 months,” Hunter said. “The schedules are out there.”
Hunter said the coaches overwhelmingly voted in the fall to accept an invitation from the G-MAC, but Bluefield State officials have held out hope to maintain relationships and rivalries with the various WVIAC schools that will be in the Mountain East, including Concord, Charleston and West Virginia State.
“They anted up a little bit of money to apply to have a new conference and then after it was all said and done we kept hanging in there hoping we would get a chance,” Hunter said. “Apparently they gave us the opportunity to apply and the only difference was it was a lot more expensive to apply than it was to be one the people sitting around that were in there originally.”
Brown has said the G-MAC is the next best option, which all the coaches acknowledge offers travel issues with long trips to Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“I know there are some travel issues, but there were travel issues in the WVIAC too,” Hunter said. “There would be travel issues in the Mountain East as well, there are always going to be travel issues.
“That is unfortunate, but that is just the nature of the beast…Probably from a resource standpoint we are a little more competitive with some of those teams.”
There is also scheduling. Hunter has had difficulty finding weekend games, while Oliver has 28 games on the slate, and 17 will be played before Christmas. There is also the subject of postseason play. Independent teams have a more difficult time getting a bid to NCAA regional play.
“If there are not teams available to play,” Hunter said. “They are just not available to play.”
As an Independent, many of those games will be on the road, and there are fewer games in basketball after the first semester because most schools are playing conference games.
“Our schedule is complete,” Jackson said. “I designed a schedule as if we are not going to be part of a conference. If we do end up getting in a conference, I will just cancel those games and move on.”
That isn’t the ideal solution either. Even if Bluefield State accepts an invitation from the Mountain East or the G-MAC, Hunter said it might have to be as a ‘provisional member’ for the 2013-14 season with schools hesitant to change schedules that have already been made.
“I think we as coaches did have a chance to express our viewpoint at one point and I think most felt like although the G-MAC wasn’t a perfect alternative, it was maybe our only alternative at that point,” said Hunter, who said the coaches are also facing scholarship cuts for the upcoming school year. “We are very concerned about travel and missed class time and all that, but we didn’t did jump on that opportunity.
“I think we got our offer about the same as all those other (G-MAC) schools got it. I think we were hoping the West Virginia Conference would survive, we were hoping the Mountain East would take us.”
No wonder the coaches are Bluefield State would like to see a decision made, and soon, no matter whether it is the Mountain East or G-MAC.
“I guess with travel, you would have to go with the Mountain East for being the most economical, with me personally, I don’t really have a preference, I would like to be somewhere,” Oliver said. “I would prefer to be where we are wanted and where we are going to be treated right.
“Whatever is the best situation for the institution and wherever we are going to be the best fit.”
There is also perception among student-athletes that they aren’t playing for anything, whether it be conference championships or simply earning player of the week awards.
“I don’t think there is any question that they are concerned,” Hunter said. “It is sort of a perceptual thing, but you can say all you want that we are going to do this or that, but until you have done it, you haven’t done it and we just haven’t done it.
“I have got some kids that are not coming back next year. I am not saying that is because of the conference situation, but I just think that is a contributing factor.
“It is not a good situation to be in when there is the level of uncertainty there is.”
The wait continues for Bluefield State coaches and athletes. Hunter simply wants closure, and soon.
“I would just like us to make a decision, I would like us to be proactive, not reactive to the whole situation,” Hunter said. “At some point we are going to have to move forward one way or the other.”
—Contact Brian Woodson