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Whole new ballgame

Chip Ellis
WVU athletic director Oliver Luck speaks to the Rotary Club of Charleston Monday.

On Monday, West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck visited Charleston, home to one of the nation's finest small baseball parks.

And he revealed he's working on getting one of those parks for WVU and Morgantown.

"We have a number of challenges [moving to the Big 12]," Luck told a rather large Rotary Club of Charleston gathering. "There are some very good sports in the Big 12 and one of the sports we have to massively upgrade is baseball.

"We've had a relatively modest record of success with our baseball program. I don't need to tell baseball fans how good Big 12 baseball is. We have to massively upgrade our baseball program and that includes our infrastructure."

He asked for a show of hands of those who've attended baseball games at Hawley Field, the Mountaineers' home in Morgantown.

"I don't see many hands up," Luck said. "Hawley Field is not in the best of shape. I would argue when Big 12 teams come to Morgantown, which they will, folks will be very disappointed. We don't have any locker rooms. It looks more or less like a high school stadium many of the kids in the Big 12 played in.

"We're looking at a number of different possibilities of upgrading our baseball situation. One involves a Senate bill that was filed last week: Senate Bill No. 631."

That bill was introduced on Feb. 17 and referred to the Committee on Government Organization and then to the Committee on Finance.

"It would authorize a TIF district, which is tax increment financing district in Monongalia County," Luck said. "There is a new mall area called the University Towne Center. This addresses a second phase of its development. We've spoken to the developers up there.

"If, in fact, we're able to get the legislation passed, we very well could be looking at a small minor-league-style ballpark for WVU's baseball team as well as, potentially, a short-summer minor-league team. That's a model Penn State has successfully used."

The bill would permit Monongalia County to levy a special district excise tax for the benefit of the Towne Center development. Luck pointed to the partnership between Penn State and the State College Spikes, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates playing in the Class A short-season New York-Penn League.

The Spikes and Penn State collaborated on a mutually beneficial working relationship and built Medlar Field at Lubrano Park on the PSU campus. Penn State plays its home schedule from March through May, while the Spikes' 38-game home schedule runs from mid-June to September.

"We want all our teams to be able to compete," Luck said. "We don't want to have any doormats."

The athletic director also said study is underway to add another men's sport to meet Big 12 requirements.

"We're looking at adding one of three, all at WVU at one point before being chopped off: men's golf, tennis and track and field," Luck said. "We have a group in Morgantown analyzing the costs of all, the scholarship limitations and the effects on Title IX.

"We should be in a position in three or four months to make some decisions on which sport we will add."

Luck touched on a variety of other topics at the Civic Center meeting, primarily involving WVU's conference shift from the Big East to the Big 12:

  • On the decision to leave the Big East:
  • "There was a clear dividing line coming. Increasingly there were the haves and have-nots in college football.

    "Given our size, I believed West Virginia was one of those 'tweeners.' You have the big schools like Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Florida and then you have 'tweener' schools. There was the risk of the 'tweener' schools being left behind. As we looked at our conference affiliation with the Big East and saw the things that were happening, it became pretty obvious to me West Virginia University needed to really work hard to secure a place among the haves."

  • On joining the Big 12:
  • "As our Mountaineer fans get to know the other members, I think they'll find a lot of commonality. WVU is a big flagship public university, a land-grant university serving largely a rural constituency. That's a very apt description of most of the schools in the Big 12. Iowa State, that description applies. The two schools in Kansas, Kansas and Kansas State, that applies. The two schools in Oklahoma. Or Texas Tech."

  • On travel:
  • "I'll say this: Had we remained in the Big East, more than likely we would have been in some sort of western division. The schools in that division are awfully far from Morgantown, in fact much further than the Big 12 schools.

    "That's San Diego State, Boise State, SMU, Houston and Memphis. More than likely we would have been in that division with our friends from Louisville. The travel would have been just as bad, if not worse."

  • On side benefits:
  • "You'll find very good academic institutions [in the Big 12] - institutions driven by research. I told my school president, Jim Clements, we have a tremendous opportunity on the research side to align ourselves with the University of Texas or the University of Oklahoma.

    "We all know the Marcellus Shale deal is something we want to take advantage of in our state. Also we want to be environmentally sensitive as we begin the process of drilling. There are great carbon-based institutions like Texas or Oklahoma or others where we can find some real synergies in terms of research."

  • On the reaction of basketball coach Bob Huggins to the move from the Big East to the Big 12:
  • "After the departure of Pitt and Syracuse, I think Big East basketball will take a little bit of a hit. I can tell you Bob Huggins is very excited. When things looked like they may go south before the formal invitation to the Big 12, Hugs called me up and wanted to know what he could do to make sure the move was successful."

  • On recruiting athletes:
  • "In football, it will change a little bit. But I think it will change in an additive sense. We'll maintain our foothold in Florida. I think we'll maintain our presence with kids from the D.C.-Baltimore-New Jersey-Pennsylvania-Ohio areas. But I think one thing we'll add is Texas. We had four or five in this most recent class.

    "I don't think our recruiting will change much in basketball, but I also think Coach Huggins will do what he did at Cincinnati. If you go back, he recruited a number of high-profile players out of Texas, like Kenyon Martin from Dallas."

  • On recruiting students:
  • "I firmly believe this move to the Big 12 can be a real benefit of the recruiting of students - not student-athletes - to WVU. As we move into the Big 12 and make ourselves known, we'll have a chance to recruit a lot of very good students. Texas exports more college students than any state in the country."

  • On potential Big 12 expansion:
  • "I think it very well could continue. The Big 12 shouldn't do what the Big East did, which was sit there and be satisfied with eight teams."

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

     


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