By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Mountaineer mania was in full force.
The Chuck Mathena Center turned into Morgantown-south for a few hours as the West Virginia Coaches Caravan made its annual stop in Mercer County on Wednesday night.
An estimated 350 supporters of West Virginia University athletics were on hand to listen to such WVU officials as athletic director Oliver Luck, football coach Dana Holgorsen and men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins.
It’s a trip that Huggins has grown to love in his years at West Virginia.
“I think it is terrific, I love coming down here,” Huggins said. “People are great, I came down when we named the highway after (Princeton native and former WVU basketball star) Rod Thorn and people here are wonderful. I love getting out and meeting people.”
While Huggins is a native West Virginian, Holgorsen is a relative newcomer, entering his third season as the football coach for the Mountaineers, but has also grown to enjoy the trip south.
“It is always fun to come to the southern part of the state,” Holgorsen said. “It is up for discussion what is the prettiest part of the state, this one has an argument down here, but great people and that is what the month of May is all about.
“Just being able to get out. We have pretty much been out across the whole state so we are just getting out and visiting with people and trying to get people excited about 2013.”
One year ago when the Caravan arrived in Princeton, the topic revolved around West Virginia’s first season in the Big 12. That was still a subject on Wednesday, especially for Luck, who has never regretted the move from the Big East.
“I think everybody, quite honestly, is as excited as they were last year at this time when we were just embarking on this journey,” Luck said.
While Luck answered numerous questions related to the Big 12, from scheduling to travel and the possibility for expansion, the primary reason for the move has become reality for the Mountaineers.
“College football has changed, it is football that is driving all the revenue, Hugs and I joke about that all the time,” Luck said. “It really is, football is what makes the difference and right now, thankfully, WVU is in a power conference.
“The five power conferences, the Big East is no longer a football conference anymore. It is important for us because we are playing power schools and we have a chance to compete for the national championship and that is what we want to do, that is our goal.”
West Virginia was thinking national championship in football five games into last season when the Mountaineers were 5-0 and ranked among the top five teams in America.
That was followed by a defensive collapse, with West Virginia finishing the season at 7-6, losing to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. Holgorsen had already been a part of the Big 12 in the past, and said the adjustment to the league is still taking place.
“I tried to explain a lot of things from a fan standpoint, but it is probably going to take another year to play these teams over and over again and develop some rivalries,” Holgorsen said. “What happened last year, we have already been to Texas, we have been to Kansas State...
“It is still going to take some time. It is still what I thought it was. You have got 10 teams that are all pretty even. If the ball would have bounced a little different last year in a couple of games then we probably would have been right there second or third in the conference.
“We have got a chance to win it next year and the other nine teams have a chance to win it as well. It is just a very competitive conference that we are fortunate to be in.”
Holgorsen’s biggest chore in the offseason, besides revamping the coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball, is replacing Geno Smith, who is now a quarterback with the New York Jets.
Among the candidates are holdovers Paul Millard or Ford Childress, along with Clint Trickett, who recently transferred in from Florida State, and is already on campus.
“You want an established guy, you want a starter, you want to know who your guy is, you want that guy to take a leadership role and bring the team along, but due to the fact that college football has eligibility rules you have got to replace guys at some point,” Holgorsen said. “When you replace them you are going to do that with a guy who doesn’t have that much experience.”
Huggins also had a trying first season in the Big 12, finishing with a 13-19 record, the worst mark at West Virginia since 2003. Several players left the program as transfers, including Keaton Miles earlier this week.
“They probably weren’t as successful as they wanted to be, and probably not as successful as we wanted them to be, and I think everybody has to be happy,” said Huggins, who is excited about a deep recruiting class arriving for the upcoming season. “I am not one that thinks transferring is a terrible thing.
“If you can transfer to a level where you are productive or you are happy, I think that is a positive thing.”
Huggins said there were many reasons for the difficult season, from youth to travel issues to a different style of play and even officiating in the Big 12, but the biggest problem was simply scoring points and stopping the other team.
“What I found last year is coaching is overrated,” Huggins said. “You have got to have players, you have got to be able to make baskets. We just didn’t score the ball enough and we obviously didn’t stop other people from scoring the ball enough.
“We have got to get better at both ends of the floor, but it is a lot easier to do that with talented guys obviously and I think the guys we are bringing in are talented guys.”
Other West Virginia coaches were in attendance, including women’s basketball coach Mike Carey and volleyball coach Jill Kramer, along with The Mountaineer, Jonathan Kimble, who made two appearances earlier in the day at local schools, and joined by Luck in being deputized by Bluefield City Manager Jim Ferguson as members of “Team Blue.”
Ferguson, who was also the organizer of the event, was excited to have Kimble in town.
“I believe this is the first time that the Mountaineer mascot has appeared at a coaches caravan in southern West Virginia,” Ferguson said. “That is another reason why tonight was so special because he is such a beloved Mountaineer tradition in our state.”
The tradition that Luck would like most is a football national championship for his alma mater. He feels like the move to the Big 12 will help West Virginia athletics reach a higher level, and not just on the gridiron.
“It is a tough thing to do, not many teams have won it, certainly the last 15 or 20 years, but we are in a position to be able to do that and I think that is really all any school can ask,” Luck said. “Playing in the conference, not just with football and basketball, the two premier sports, but with all the Olympic sports is a good thing because it has forced us to upgrade what we do.”
—Contact Brian Woodson