By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It is time for Bluefield State athletics to face reality. It is time for a change.
The Mountain East Conference begins play in the fall, and Bluefield State will not be part of it. The Big Blues have held out hope for nearly 11 months in hopes the fledging league will relent and let them in (for a hefty price tag), but it simply isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon.
Independent status awaits in 2013-14.
Perhaps, as Bluefield State baseball coach Geoff Hunter says, membership in the Mountain East — which was created with nine West Virginia Conference schools —— shouldn’t happen at all.
“I guess it is honorable for us to fight to hang on and I understand that there is some old rivalries and all that, but at the same time, if you compare the resources that are available at other schools to the resources that we have available for athletics, maybe we ought to be looking for a better fit.” Hunter said. “There is nothing wrong with making a change if it is going to put our student-athletes in a better position to be able to compete…
“I am not sure given the resources that the other schools have available compared to our resources, that the Mountain East is the best fit for us. No one has convinced me of that and I have competed against all those schools for many years.”
Thirteen of 14 WVIAC schools have found new conference homes for the 2013-14 school year, with nine going to the Mountain East and the other four to the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
The one holdout is ... Bluefield State, and that makes little sense. It is hard enough for the Blues’ athletic program to remain competitive with a small budget and virtually no fan base, but try doing it as an Independent, which offers an array of issues beginning with just finding games to play.
“I think just like there is a school for every student, I think there is a conference for every school out there,” Hunter said. “Hopefully we can keep looking and hopefully we can find a good fit because it is really important that the students have something to play for.”
Bluefield State faces some tough decisions.
How can a small HBCU (Historically Black College and University) like Bluefield State compete in the big budget world of college sports, even at the NCAA Division II level? According to Hunter, Big Blues’ athletics has a budget under $1 million, while records show that Concord — which is located in the same county — has an athletic fund that exceeds $3.6 million.
That is like comparing the Astros to the Yankees.
“It is tough for places like us. We are an HBCU and HBCU, historically we are always under-funded and under-supported,” said Hunter, who has been a part-time coach and a full-time member of the business faculty for three decades. “Anybody that does the research knows that, all you have to do is look at the difference in the budgets between Concord and Bluefield State coming from the state, both state institutions and there is no comparison.
“There is much more funding from the state for them than there is for us, that is just the way it is. We started out that way and we have always sort of been behind and playing catch-up.”
The funding isn’t getting better for the Blues. The coaches were advised that a scholarship cut is coming for the upcoming school year.
“I don’t think it is a significant cut, I think they did everything they could to help the programs to be able to maintain and I appreciate that and I understand when the money is not there, the money is not there,” Hunter said. “It seems like we are fighting to get into a conference that already we are not competitive across the board and we are going to absorb a scholarship cut which is going to make it even tougher for us to be competitive.
“I just don’t understand why we feel like we have to continue to do that.”
Not all Bluefield State programs are suffering.
“We have gone really well with golf as of late and we have done really well in men’s tennis as late and all the other programs are very proud of them, that is a decision we made as an institution to support those programs,” Hunter said. “It is possible for a small school like us to be competitive with some of the smaller minor sports because you can’t require as many players and doesn’t require as much resources.”
The other programs, such as baseball, basketball, volleyball and softball, require more personnel and more support, and those teams have rarely escaped the bottom half of the WVIAC standings over the last decade or more.
“The type of athletes we recruit for baseball, we are looking for the complete package, we are looking for character, we are looking for kids that are good students, and we are looking for kids that can play a little bit,” Hunter said. “The only problem is a lot of schools are looking for that and if you have got a kid with good character, who has good grades and a good test score and can play, then that kid has options.”
Hunter isn’t trying to complain. He simply wants what is best for the student-athletes at Bluefield State, and membership in the Mountain East might mean more of the same in terms of lack of success in most sports.
“I have the greatest job in the world because I have the opportunity to work with young people and influence them in a positive way on a daily basis and I don’t think there is any greater contribution that anybody can make than that,” Hunter said. “We haven’t won as much as we would like, I understand that, a lot of people look at our record and say we are not very good, we compete, some days we are better than others, but I would like to think we do it the right way.
“I would like to see us continue to do that for our student-athletes and give them an opportunity to grow as people, I just think it is really important that we make a decision and it may be too late for ‘13-14 as far as us actually getting on a conference schedule.”
While Bluefield State seems intent on getting accepted into the football-focused Mountain East, Hunter thinks the Blues could be more competitive elsewhere, such as in the G-MAC.
“(The Mountain East has) football, I understand that, we don’t, I understand that, but the bottom line is they also have much larger budgets than we have and that is just a fact,” Hunter said. “That is why from my position as a coach I feel like it is OK if we don’t have the resources. I accept that, I don’t have a problem with that at all, I believe in Bluefield State, that is why I have stayed here all these years...
“As far as the conference, I think it is just like what is happening with athletics throughout the country at the Division I level or wherever. There is just a lot of changing going on and a lot of people looking for a better fit for their institution.”
For Bluefield State, it is time to move on. Find a league that is a better fit, where the student-athletes have a better chance to be successful, not just in the classroom, but also on the field, diamond, court or other athletic venue.
The athletes at Bluefield State deserve better. Hunter will continue to do his part to make it happen.
“As a coach and someone who competes against other schools in my sport, I want it to be a somewhat level playing field,” Hunter said. “I want to feel like we have an opportunity to compete on a daily basis, and not just here and there in games, but also compete to make it to the postseason.
“The bottom line is when you don’t have the resources, that is a very difficult to do. Obviously I accepted that a long time ago or I wouldn’t have stayed where I am at.”
Editor’s Note: More with Bluefield State basketball coaches Jamaal Jackson and J.J. Oliver later this week.
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org