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Geography a worry, but mostly thumbs up on WVU's move to Big 12

Now that fans have had a chance to digest the news of West Virginia's impending move from the Big East to the Big 12 and have been given ample time to react, perhaps its time we let a few guys with direct knowledge of the program have their voices heard.

For starters, former Mountaineer coach Don Nehlen was all for the move.

"I'm happy we're in a stable league, that's for sure," Nehlen said. "I thought the Big East was starting to crumble, big time. The distance bothers me a little bit, but on the other hand there's some awfully good teams in that league and I think we'll be very competitive. I think it will be a big boost for football and basketball and all the rest of the programs."

First-year University of Charleston coach Pat Kirkland spent the five previous years on the WVU staff. He shared in Nehlen's enthusiasm for the move.

"That's been the big talk of everyone for quite some time," Kirkland said. "It was more of a situation where the Big East probably wasn't certain, and kind of knowing that, they put themselves in the best situation possible. The Big 12 gave them an opportunity for certainty. It's exciting for them and it's exciting for the fans. Football-wise, with the exception of the SEC, the Big 12 may be the best conference in college football. Having the opportunity to play teams like Oklahoma and Texas, that's a great opportunity for them. If you can succeed in the Big 12 then you've really done something."

But it isn't all beaming smiles and rousing endorsements. One of the all-time great Mountaineer players, Sam Huff, had a differing opinion.

"I love West Virginia and I want to see them do the right thing but is this all about money?" Huff asked. "How many people from West Virginia are going to Texas to watch a football game when they can see Fairmont State play, or Marshall? You're centrally located in Morgantown, you've got an airport and a great stadium. People have to come to you."

The biggest sticking point for Huff is the geography issue, one that both Nehlen and Kirkland acknowledged. With WVU heading to the Big 12 and Syracuse and Pittsburgh going to the ACC, who knows if these classic rivalries will continue?

 "The big problem with this expansion is that those rivalries are starting to disappear," Nehlen said. "I certainly don't think that's good. What it amounts to is you've got to make new rivalries, but it's difficult to make them when they're 900 miles away. I hope Pitt doesn't go off of our schedule, and Syracuse has been a big rivalry as well. I played all those schools 21 times. 

"When I was growing up, the game I always wanted to see was Nebraska and Oklahoma. Now they don't even play it. I just hope we don't destroy all of these great rivalries."

Huff sounded a little fed up altogether, insisting that geography should be the say-all, end-all when it comes to scheduling in college football.

"It would make sense to me to play Maryland, to play Penn State, to play Pitt, to play Marshall," Huff said. "The fans in Morgantown want to play Pitt, Penn State, Maryland, Virginia. They don't have to go very far from that. That's what the people want. They want to drive a few miles, save a few bucks, and see some quality football. That hasn't changed since I played. Take care of your home base, that's my thinking. But I don't think like [school officials] do."

WVU football coach Dana Holgorsen and men's basketball coach Bob Huggins both have experience coaching in the Big 12. Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State while Huggins was the head man at Kansas State for one year before coming to WVU.

"Dana and Bobby both playing in that league certainly can't hurt us," Nehlen said. "I don't know if it's a big advantage, but it's certainly a plus. They know the ins and outs, they know the fields and courts, they know the hotels to stay in, they know where to fly in too. So they know a lot of things that will help." 

Assuming the men's basketball team will stay competitive - it has found significant success in what is presumed to be America's best conference over the past few years, and there's nothing to signal the program wouldn't be fine - Mountaineer fans' biggest worry may be the competitiveness of the football team when it takes on a full Big 12 schedule.

Currently the Big 12 has six teams ranked in the BCS Top 25 (Texas A&M will be in the SEC next year) while West Virginia is the Big East's only representative at No. 25.

Huff has his reservations, but Nehlen and Kirkland stay steadfast.

"I think we can fit in there with them," Nehlen said. "I think Texas is down a little bit, Oklahoma looks human, Oklahoma State look I like pretty good, Kansas and Iowa State are in the middle I suppose, and K State is having a good year. I think we'll be able to fit right in there.

"The big thing I think is we're going to have to be able to compete week in and week out more effectively than in the Big East. In the Big East, every team is not a great football team and they're not even all good teams."

"We had great success against good teams," Kirkland said of his time in Morgantown. "We beat Mississippi State two years, we beat an Auburn, we beat Georgia, we beat Oklahoma. Now it's every week. One thing West Virginia has always done is recruit well and nationally. That's what helped them get into the Big 12. Kids know that West Virginia is a good football program so they'll continue to recruit well even if there is a little change geographically."

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@wvgazette.com.

 

 


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