By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
With 11 of 12 players returning from one of the best seasons in recent memory at Bluefield State, J.J. Oliver was expecting an even better year as the 2013-14 campaign approaches.
“This is my fourth year coming up, and coming off the season we came off of and having some of the (commitments) that we had, we were really optimistic,” Oliver said. “We would be done with recruiting right now and probably have one of our better recruiting classes we have had.”
Instead, as of just over three weeks ago, Oliver had no recruits coming in for the 2013-14 season, and the lack of a conference home is at least part of the reason.
“It has definitely been a challenge, I guess the best we can say about it is we return 11 of 12 kids from last year so we have a great nucleus coming back,” Oliver said. “We do have some projects that we have identified that will be in here...I would be lying if I didn’t tell you it hasn’t been difficult under the circumstances.”
Oliver men’s basketball coach Jamaal Jackson and baseball coach Geoff Hunter have all expressed the difficulty in recruiting and retention with conference affiliation an uncertainty.
“It may be some of it, but that is part of it...,” said Jackson, who is trying to rebuild a struggling program without his two leading scorers from last season. “Players may leave your program, some players don’t want to come to be part of your program for all types of reasons.
“I just recruit kids, be honest and transparent with them about where our program is right now and tell them where we are trying to go. If they want to be part of it, they will be part of it, if they don’t, I will move on to the next one.”
Bluefield State’s plight began when eight — and later nine — West Virginia Conference schools left to create the football-based Mountain East Conference. Four other WVIAC institutions chose to join the Great American Athletic Conference (GMAC), but Bluefield State didn’t make a move.
According to Terry Brown, the athletic director at Bluefield State, the school was holding out hope of an invitation from the Mountain East after Wheeling Jesuit — which also doesn’t have a football team — was invited to join the league.
According to Hunter, the coaches at the school voted overwhelmingly during a fall meeting to accept an invitation to the GMAC, but no such move was made in either direction.
The Bluefield State coaching trio understands the allure of getting into the Mountain East, partly to maintain rivalries with schools like Concord, Charleston and West Virginia State. However, Hunter thinks the Big Blues would be more competitive in the GMAC, despite issues with travel to schools in Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Honestly, in my opinion, if we could just get in a conference I don’t really have a preference,” Oliver said. “I know for the sake of our alumni, keeping those rivalries are things that we want to do.
“As it is right now, Concord is on our schedule for next year, but we weren’t able to schedule with those other two. We do have some Mountain East teams on our schedule, but the bulk of them is a little bit different when you get into talking about having to play us and wanting to play us.
“We haven’t been shown a lot of love in that direction and I think that is pretty wide spread across all the sports from the coaches that I have talked to.”
Oliver simply wants a league that will be the right fit for his program.
“I guess with travel, you would have to go with the Mountain East for being the most economical,” Oliver said. “With me personally, I don’t really have a preference, I would like to be somewhere.
“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.”
Jackson is trying to deal with the situation the best he can.
“Whoever we have in front of us, we will play,” he said.
The Bluefield State coaches have already compiled their schedules, and they were comprised based on probable Independent status. That means for basketball, lots of games prior to the second semester, and plenty of those will be on the road.
“We have got an Independent schedule, of course it is tentative right now, but we only have about 10 or 11 games after Christmas and that certainly isn’t ideal,” Oliver said. “We are having to fit around other team’s conference schedules and most teams are real conference heavy in the second semester, which means they only have vacancies the first semester.
“In some circumstances we have been able to find some teams that would play us in the second semester, but certainly the majority of our games are the first semester and on the road.”
Jackson had to do the same with his schedule.
“It is more difficult because once January and February rolls around those teams really don’t want to play non-conference games,” Jackson said. “We have a lot in November and December, but we still have some games in January and February. I designed it that way, but if we get in a conference we will just cancel those games or move them around.”
Oliver is an optimist, and is pleased to have retained most of his players in his program, while adding that an Independent schedule will give his team a chance to play some new opposition.
“One of the things that has benefited me is the fact that once my kids get here they enjoy our program and our environment,” Oliver said. “I just had a group of them meet out here, ‘Coach, what is going on with the conference’, but at the end of the day I think they enjoy playing for Bluefield State, they enjoy our program and the things that we have grown to be.
“It is definitely a program where they can feel like they have vested ownership in the growth that is taking place within the program so it is definitely not something they would be willing to relinquish that easy.
“The other thing is my student-athletes, they do well in school academically so I think they understand the value of an education and they respect the education that they get at Bluefield State.”
That is, ultimately, what matters most, but the athletes do want something to play for. Not being in a league limits those opportunities.
“It would help us a great deal in recruiting and with our current kids just knowing that we have a home and we have a conference championship to play for,” Oliver said. “It has certainly been difficult so far, but we will play what we get and work through it the best that we can.
“It would make it easier for us as we strive toward getting this program into the NCAA postseason, which is what our ultimate goal is and what the goal of the athletic department is to compete on the national level.
“It could certainly help us a great deal if we were a member of a conference.”
—Contact Brian Woodson