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Big 12 brings the circus to town

ON TUESDAY, West Virginia University officials believed their school was in the Big 12.

Today, it's like they're in the big top.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the circus.

Unfortunately, though, the circus isn't about to begin. It's begun. Again. Anew.

WVU is not in the Big 12 today. There's absolutely no doubt, however, Mountaineer officials were told the deal was done on Tuesday. None.

One confirmed the deal to me on Tuesday and said a press conference was to be held Wednesday with "the Big 12 folks." Of course, that never materialized.

What has materialized is a side show at the expense of WVU. An amusement park without the amusement.

West Virginia is now in a "holding pattern" after the Big 12 board of directors put the brakes on expansion plans late Tuesday. After Mountaineer officials had been told they were in.

It had to stun those in Morgantown. Then came a report from the New York Times that, "two people with direct knowledge of the situation said that lobbying by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, including to David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma and former senator, helped slow West Virginia's admittance to the Big 12."

It was the spark that lit a fuse of outrage within West Virginia.

"Who the hell is running the Big 12?" asked one fan on one of the WVU message boards. "A bunch of hormonal teenage girls? I've never seen such a complete lack of professionalism displayed in my entire life."

The report of McConnell's involvement was especially touchy when quotes surfaced from a Sept. 21 ESPN.com story on congressional leaders getting involved with college athletics.

"I don't think the universities need any advice from Congress about how to run their business," McConnell told writer Pat Forde. "I have concerns about it, but I'm not an expert on why the universities are doing what they're doing."

So then, as one would expect, West Virginia's politicians jumped into the fray. Sen. Joe Manchin not only issued a statement, he held a press conference.

The press release issued before that presser would have made Manchin's uncle, A. James, proud.

"If these outrageous reports have any merit," Manchin said, "and especially if a United States Senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made, then I believe there should be an investigation in the U.S. Senate, and I will fight to get the truth.

"West Virginians and the American people deserve to know exactly what is going on and whether politics is interfering with our college sports."

OK, so, yes, Manchin inserted himself in the debate over a Marshall-WVU football series during his stint as governor. But on Wednesday he was on a roll.

"I hope they're just finishing up due diligence," Manchin said after his press conference via a phone conversation. "As of Monday, the decision was made. If there's something they missed and wanted to go back and check, I'm OK with that.

"But if the decision was made to slow this because of political intervention, that's wrong and I'll ask Sen. [Jay] Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce Committee, to look into whether there was undue influence."

Rockefeller, also of West Virginia, jumped into the mix as well. Boren, among others, received a call on Wednesday from the senator. And I'd imagine it's tough to turn down a call from a Rockefeller.

"The Big 12 picked WVU on the strength of its program - period," Rockefeller said in a release. "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."

Rockefeller representatives said the senator "was speaking with many of the parties engaged." Another said Rockefeller is "actively engaged on it and continues to be."

"There was something about WVU that made it the choice based on merits," said the representative. "Somehow that got shifted and Senator Rockefeller wants to get it back to merit."

Back to merit. Back to professionalism. There's absolutely no doubt Mountaineer officials were told they were in the league.

Despite a statement issued from WVU saying, "contrary to media reports, there is no press conference scheduled for Wednesday," there was a press conference planned for Wednesday. Big 12 officials, including interim commissioner Chuck Neinas and deputy commissioner Tim Weiser, were set to hit Morgantown. One report says a conference press release was even prepared.

Then the league's board of directors pulled the proverbial rug.

One would think members of that board would understand the fallout of such a move.

OK, so perhaps they didn't realize a political firestorm would follow. But men and women of such a position should understand the ramifications of such a double-back. They knew word had spread about the addition of WVU. That word came from WVU. It came from the Big East. And it indeed came from the Big 12.

If West Virginia isn't added, it's embarrassing for school president Jim Clements and athletic director Oliver Luck. It's embarrassing and hurtful to the school's coaches that are trying to recruit.

Of all, though, the Big 12 officials involved should be most embarrassed today. In a conference known for its instability, the officials appear to all as unstable, indecisive and unprofessional.

The way they brought in TCU is the way to go: quick and decisive. The current situation is not only agonizing for WVU and Louisville, the other apparent candidate, but the process is brutal for the hemorrhaging Big East. And why hurt those within that league any more than necessary? Isn't there supposed to be some collegial spirit somewhere in athletics?

Instead, it's turned into a circus.

And it's anything but the greatest show on earth.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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