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Clements: WVU can hang with big dogs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Indeed, it's football season. Teams are practicing. Media guides are hitting the mailbox. Heisman Trophy campaigns are underway. (I've got my Jordan Lynch for Heisman lunchbox and my Chuckie Keeton trading card. Um ... Chuckie Keeton?)

WVU president Jim Clements, meanwhile, has been on a campaign of his own: a capital campaign with a goal of $750 million. The school is 89 percent of the way to the figure.

"It's been crazy," Clements said Thursday. "But I'm looking forward to the [football] season. It's always something special this time of the year."

It is indeed. Fans are anticipating the first football game - in WVU's case Aug. 31 against William & Mary. There are position battles. There are injury updates. Followers gobble up team news like Joey Chestnut does hot dogs.

In a little over three weeks, the Mountaineer marching band drummers will dance onto the field and the fight song will be unleashed.

The bad news for Clements: Ticket sales in Morgantown have been down. That's to be expected after last season's collapse, in addition to the loss of standouts like Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and preseason projections.

But those figures will fluctuate from year to year. Small-picture stuff.

"Hey, we're Mountaineers," Clements said of the projections. "We're tough. We're going to be competitive."

A concern raised, though, is how the school will fare in the big picture. There's been talk of the five "power" conferences, including WVU's Big 12, effectively separating themselves from the other leagues.

The Mountaineers are fortunate to be in that upper class. In the near future money will flow into the athletic department to the tune of $29 million. Had WVU been stuck in the old Big East, now the American Athletic Conference, money would be comparatively trickling in. Ask Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida if they'd trade places.

When that great divide is firmly established, however, will WVU, which serves a small-population state, be able to hang with the big dogs?

According to Clements, the answer is yes.

"We are one of the big dogs," said the school president. "We're in a power conference. Last year the Big 12 had the biggest payout per school, and that payout is only going to increase. Our athletic budget has been going up."

Of course all schools in the power conferences will be making the same kind of coin from television contracts. The challenge will be to keep up with the Joneses.

WVU has done well with its new basketball facility. But go online and check out Oregon's new black steel-and-glass six-story football facility. That's a taste of the competition.

"We'll be able to hang," Clements said. "Our athletic budget is right in the range [of other power conference schools].

"We compete. Mountaineers will always compete. We'll compete with Texas and Oklahoma and all the rest. We're a land-grant institution the same as Ohio State and Penn State. We'll compete. We have to."

WVU certainly has of late. The football team has been to 11 straight bowls, which ranks eighth nationally. It has the 12th-best record in college football in the last 10 years.

The step up in competition, though, seemed to wear on the Mountaineers in football and basketball last season.

"We did well in baseball and gymnastics," Clements said. "In football, well, it's a tough conference. In basketball, it was just not our year. But we'll compete and work hard. When it's time for kickoff and to tip off the basketball season, we'll compete. We're Mountaineers."

Clements said he's been to a WVU football practice. ("We've got talent," he said.) He's happy with hoops coach Bob Huggins. He likes the Big 12. ("It's a great conference. I like that a lot of Big 12 schools are like us. All in the league have been great. We've received help with our basketball travel. And aside from athletics, we have much in common in research. There's been a whole lot of energy discussions going on.")

The Big 12 did help with travel, putting together Saturday-Monday and Saturday-Tuesday away combos that will require just one long trip apiece west.

On other topics, like possible stipends for student-athletes or further realignment, Clements deferred to athletic director Oliver Luck. Make no mistake, though. He believes his school will always be competitive, whether there's a great divide among schools or not.

"When we played Oklahoma last year, it was a great game," Clements said of the Sooners' 50-49 win in Morgantown. "Someone came up to me afterward and said, 'You know, I'd rather play Oklahoma on a national stage at night and maybe lose than be playing a smaller school and not know.'"

Whether it be the big or small picture, WVU will know for years to come.

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


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