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WVU joining Big 12 regardless of Missouri

Local reaction to Big 12 move mixed

MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia is about to officially start "playing with the big boys."

That's the way one school official described the university's impending move to the Big 12 Conference.

When the school will be able to begin play in that league remains unclear, as do several other significant questions. But sources at WVU Tuesday not only confirmed the move, but said they were attempting to arrange a news conference with school and Big 12 officials in Morgantown to announce the deal today. Late Tuesday the Gazette learned there would not be one.

By late Tuesday night, plans for a press conference Wednesday had been put on hold, but the move still appears inevitable. The school issued a statement Tuesday night saying that no press conference was scheduled and a source in the athletic department said he was "99.9 percent certain" that none would be scheduled Wednesday.

That could, however, simply be due to the unavailability of Big 12 officials, who were thought to be scheduled to arrive in Morgantown today but according to sources now will not make the trip that soon.

In moving to the Big 12, West Virginia is in essence abandoning the sinking ship that is the Big East Conference, its home for football since 1991 and for most other sports since 1996. The Big East in recent weeks has lost longtime members Syracuse and Pitt to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Texas Christian University to the Big 12. TCU was scheduled to join the Big East in 2012.

West Virginia's entrance into the Big 12 was paved on Monday when that league's board of directors voted to admit the school. The Big 12 is in danger of losing Missouri to the Southeastern Conference and apparently wanted to be proactive and have a replacement at the ready.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that West Virginia's acceptance means that Big 12 officials have been assured that Missouri is about to withdraw from the conference and that only the details and exit strategies remain to be worked out.

And according to several published reports, that seems to be the case. Missouri officials reportedly were at the SEC's headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., Tuesday discussing the move.

WVU sources, though, said that their school's admittance to the Big 12 wasn't necessarily predicated on Missouri's exit. While they have no more idea of Missouri's intentions than anyone else, they say that West Virginia was not accepted into the Big 12 as a replacement for Missouri, but instead as an addition to the conference.

In other words, if Missouri does as expected and withdraws from the Big 12, WVU would be the replacement and the league would be at 10 teams. But if Big 12 officials are somehow able to convince Missouri to remain and not move to the SEC, West Virginia's addition would bring the conference to 11 members.

That would then leave the Big 12 just one school away from adding yet another member to reach 12, the minimum required to stage a lucrative conference championship football game.

Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton said Monday that the decision whether to remain in the Big 12 or withdraw and shift to the SEC, could happen in a matter of days or weeks.

West Virginia is currently a member of the Big East, which is once again attempting to reinvent itself after losing three more schools. In an effort to do so, the Big East targeted six schools for membership and voted unanimously -- including the West Virginia vote -- to raise the exit fee for football members wishing to leave from $5 million to $10 million.

That increase, however, does not go into effect until other schools begin joining the conference. So by notifying the Big East now, WVU avoids the doubled exit fee. It could also seriously cripple the Big East's attempts to attract new members because West Virginia was widely considered the centerpiece program of the league's remaining football schools.

That crumbling nature of the Big East was the primary motive for West Virginia's move. The school has been attempting to find a lifeboat for months now, but was rebuffed by both the ACC and SEC, which would have been more geographically sensible.

In the Big 12, West Virginia has no concerns about being a part of a conference with automatic-qualifying status into the Bowl Championship Series. It could also more than double its conference share of television and other revenue. Last year, WVU's slice of the Big East pie was just over $7 million. This year, Big 12 members are expected to reap in the neighborhood of $15 million. And next year a new 13-year, $1.17 billion contract with Fox kicks in. The Big East does not have a television contract beyond the 2012-13 school year.

The biggest concern, of course, is travel. The closest Big 12 school to West Virginia is Iowa State, which is still almost 900 miles. The average distance to a Big 12 campus from Morgantown is more than 1,000 miles.

West Virginia officials, though, weighed those factors against the possibility of remaining in the deteriorating Big East and decided it was worth the difficulties.

When asked if there were any reservations about the move, one high-placed WVU source who did not want to be quoted, said he had "Zero. Zero apprehension.

"We've run the numbers on charter flights and travel and everything else we could at this point," the source said. "In the end it comes down to a matter of stability and playing with the big boys."

Conjecture on the Missouri replacement in recent weeks has centered on West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati of the Big East and independent Brigham Young University. If the Big 12 eventually decides to expand to 12, one or two of those other three schools would likely be the targets.

When West Virginia might be able to begin play in the Big 12 is up in the air. First, Missouri is contractually committed to staying in the Big 12 through the 2012-13 school year, although if the Tigers are planning to leave then negotiating that departure date could be one of the hang-ups in Missouri's decision.

There is also the Big East's 27-month rule, which does not allow a school to exit the conference until after that length of time following an announcement. Pitt and Syracuse are bound by that, as well, which means none of the schools could begin play elsewhere until the 2014-15 school year.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto has been steadfast in his conviction to hold departing schools to that timetable, although once -- or if -- new members join, those schools might feel differently about having lame duck members of the league. And, too, in less than 27 months the football portion of the Big East might have collapsed all together.

When West Virginia leaves the Big East, the only FBS-level football schools remaining there will be Rutgers, Connecticut, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. Connecticut has been rather open about its desire to join the ACC along with Pitt and Syracuse, and there remains the possibility that if the Big 12 expands even more it could take Louisville and/or Cincinnati.

The Big 12 is currently at 10 members after the departure of Nebraska and Colorado last year, Texas A&M this year and the addition of TCU. The nine members of the Big 12 besides Missouri are Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State.

West Virginia might not be the only school ready to jump to the Big 12, either. Notre Dame, which is a member of the Big East in most sports but an independent in football, is reportedly looking at its options because of the exodus of schools from the Big East. While the Irish are unlikely to put their football program into the Big 12, the league seems receptive to adding Notre Dame under the same conditions as the Big East -- giving its basketball and Olympic sports a new home.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.

 

 


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