Manchin warns of Senate investigation into Big 12 expansion
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., promised an investigation into West Virginia University's dealings with the Big 12 Conference if reports are true that a Kentucky senator may have halted WVU's nearly done acceptance into the conference.
An announcement that WVU had been accepted into the Big 12 was expected on Wednesday, but those plans were abruptly canceled.
The New York Times on Tuesday reported that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the U.S. Senate minority leader, is lobbying for Louisville to be the school that enters the Big 12 to replace Missouri, which is headed to the Southeastern Conference.
"If the story that we have been told has any merit to it, I've been very clear, if a U.S. senator would have intervened after the process took place that's wrong and unacceptable," Manchin said at a hastily called news conference on Wednesday evening. "If that happened, I will ask for a Senate investigation. I don't believe that that's the way this game should be played."
The Big 12 may just be gathering more information before making a decision, and Manchin hopes that's the case. He said he expects the conference to have a decision by early next week.
But from what Manchin had previously heard, WVU's invitation to join the conference was "stronger than just verbal communication ... which leads me to believe there was some transferring of paper," he said. "All of a sudden that came to a halt."
Manchin said he is not accusing McConnell of interfering, and hasn't spoken to him about the situation.
"I would hope to think no senator would intervene at that level after a decision has been made," he said.
If an investigation is launched, Manchin said, the appropriate body to look into the matter would be the Senate Commerce Committee -- which is chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
"I can assure you he wants fairness," Manchin said.
Rockefeller released a statement Wednesday saying, "The Big 12 picked WVU on the strength of its program -- period. Now the media reports that political games may upend that. That's just flat wrong. I am doing and will do whatever it takes to get us back to the merits."
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also expressed concern in a released statement that politicians may be interfering in college sports.
"With 9.2 percent unemployment, it's disappointing that folks in Washington are meddling in our college sports," she said. "West Virginia University brings with it a strong athletic program, loyal fans and strong alumni base and deserves to be in the Big 12. If there is political interference going on, it needs to stop now."
Manchin said no investigation would be needed if WVU is accepted into the conference, which would be a "tremendous opportunity to really showcase the state." He hopes the Big 12's decision is based on merit and politics has nothing to do with it.
"I have reached out saying that I hope it is on merit and hope that's exactly where it stays is on the merits," Manchin said. "I still have faith. They're looking at it ... from the standpoint of what West Virginia brings and making sure we can accommodate and handle the travel back and forth ..."
"They want to make sure they've crossed all their t's and dotted their i's -- that's what I'm very hopeful of," he said.
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.