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WVU move to Big 12 hits tricky political snag

Manchin warns of Senate investigation

MORGANTOWN, W.Va -- West Virginia's imminent move to the Big 12 Conference isn't as imminent as it appeared on Tuesday.

It hit a major snag late Tuesday and Wednesday. And whether that snag is a mere speed bump or an outright stop sign remains to be seen.

The Big 12 board of directors Tuesday night apparently put the brakes on any immediate expansion plans. That could have something to do with the league's continuing uncertainty about Missouri's plans, but more likely it could be second thoughts about settling on West Virginia as the replacement for the Tigers.

Apparently, politicians are getting involved.

The New York Times on Tuesday reported that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the U.S. Senate minority leader (and a Louisville alumnus), is lobbying for Louisville to be the school that replaces Missouri in the Big 12. And he apparently has some sympathetic ears.

Among the Big 12 presidents who decide such matters is Oklahoma's David Boren, who in addition to serving as Oklahoma's governor in the late 1970s also served in the Senate from 1979 to 1994. McConnell has been in the Senate since 1984.

The Kansas City Star, in its final editions for Wednesday morning, topped an earlier story about West Virginia's move to the Big 12 with a caution that it wasn't a done deal. "Mountaineers moving to Big 12? Not yet'' read the headline.

"It remains an ongoing process,'' Big 12 associate commissioner Bob Burda said of expansion talks.

It was that newspaper that reported that two sources familiar with Tuesday's conference call of the Big 12 board of directors said that the league's presidents had hit the pause button on expansion. Now it appears that was perhaps the result of McConnell's push for Louisville.

All of this comes after a day in which West Virginia officials were so certain of a move to the Big 12 that a news conference was in the works to announce the move. Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas was making plans to be in Morgantown. The league had already begun crafting a news release.

The first alarm that went off came shortly after 9:30 p.m. Tuesday when WVU issued a statement saying that no news conference had been scheduled. It was also learned then that a visit by Neinas and other Big 12 officials to Morgantown tentatively scheduled for Wednesday had been called off.

And by Wednesday morning, WVU officials who were quite willing to discuss the move to the Big 12 off the record on Tuesday had clammed up.

"I'm not talking today,'' said one highly-placed source at the school.

When asked if that signaled trouble with the move to the Big 12, he simply repeated himself.

"I'm not talking today,'' he said before hanging up the phone.

How much of an about-face the Big 12 will do is unknown. A majority of the presidents might still be in favor of West Virginia or perhaps McConnell's influence has reached deeper. It could be next Monday before anyone knows. That's when the league's board of directors (the presidents) is scheduled to meet again.

Even if the push for Louisville isn't strong enough to elevate the Cardinals above WVU in the Big 12's pecking order, it seems logical that the conference could simply be slowing down the process because it had gone too far too fast. Missouri is widely believed to be leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference and the league wanted to be proactive and have a replacement at the ready. On Monday, those same presidents approved West Virginia as the replacement.

But Missouri has yet to officially inform the Big 12 it is leaving. Still, sources at West Virginia indicated Tuesday that Missouri's ultimate decision did not matter, that WVU was going to be added as either a replacement or an addition.

The Big 12 board of directors, while reportedly unanimous in their support of West Virginia on Monday, never took a formal vote to invite the school. It was merely an endorsement of an expansion plan with which the league's staff could work.

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

 

 


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