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Dave Hickman: Luck recalls merger that wasn’t

MORGANTOWN — Cleaning out a crowded notebook and a cluttered mind while wondering how many people have suggested to Bob Huggins that when he begins rehab from hip replacement surgery, his players can probably recommend the location of a good treadmill:

Oliver Luck brought up an interesting bit of nostalgia this week during a conversation with ESPN’s Brett McMurphy. He harkened back to 2011, when both the Big East and the Big 12 seemed on the brink of collapse and were active, if not overtly public, in discussions to merge the two leagues.

“My favorite story that hasn’t been written,’’ Luck said during a visit to Orlando for an athletic director’s conference.

Well, actually it has been written.

It was in September of 2011, just after Pitt and Syracuse had announced their intention to leave the Big East for the ACC. At the same time, Texas and Oklahoma were being wooed by the Pac-12 and were set to take Texas Tech and Oklahoma State with them.

It seemed for a short time that perhaps the only option for the remaining Big East and Big 12 schools was a merger. No one was willing to go on record publicly about the talks for fear of losing a potential life raft, but privately they didn’t deny it, either.

“It’s the highest-stakes poker game I’ve ever been involved in,’’ Luck told me off the record at the time. I quoted him anonymously then, but there’s really no reason to do so now.

Turns out, though, that not only were talks going on, Luck and a few of his colleagues had pretty much mapped out how the new league would look. And, truth be told, it doesn’t seem like it would have been terrible. No, it wouldn’t have been top shelf, but the membership would have been enough to guarantee a continued seat at the big-boy table, something the Big East alone never managed to accomplish.

The plan, according to Luck, was to add Central Florida to what remained of the Big East, merge with the remaining Big 12 schools and TCU (which at the time was committed to the Big East) and create two divisions. The West would include Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, TCU and Louisville. The East would have WVU, UConn, Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida and UCF.

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a bad conference,’ ” Luck said. “We would have kept the affiliation with the [Big East] basketball schools because they loved the addition of Kansas. [The Big 12 schools] also liked it. They were nervous as hell, too. We had a series of phone calls. That was sort of our best option.’’

Well, the merger idea quickly died when Texas and Oklahoma pledged their continued allegiance to the Big 12. Because of that, the Big 12 was no longer in desperation mode, save for the need to add two schools, which it did with WVU and TCU a month later.

Still, Luck said the talks weren’t for nothing. As the relatively new athletic director at West Virginia, Luck had little relationship with any of the Big 12 ADs until he had to start talking about a possible merger. When the conversation switched to Big 12 additions, at least he had a few phone numbers in his contacts list.

“I think it may have helped us get in the Big 12 later,’’ Luck said jokingly. “They were like, ‘Hey, I’ve talked to that Luck guy before.’ ”

nnn

When last I talked to Cal Bailey for a story a month or so ago about his waning days as West Virginia State’s baseball coach, I couldn’t help notice a rather confusing discrepancy.

In every story I’d seen on Bailey up to that point, his age was listed as 71. But go ahead and do a Google search and see what you come up with. The only online reference to Bailey’s birth date is on baseball-reference.com. It is listed as April 8, 1945.

That would make him 69.

The thing you have to remember is that before he was a baseball coach, Bailey was a baseball player. And professional baseball is littered with players whose ages aren’t really their ages.

Such was the case with Bailey. Despite graduating from high school just a few months after turning 17 (he started school at 4 when he went to a Christmas play at an elementary school and the first-grade teacher told his parents he should be enrolled), Bailey was considered an old man when he went to a tryout camp in Parkersburg after kicking around in the Navy and a couple of years of playing college ball.

Syd Thrift, then Pittsburgh’s scouting supervisor and later the general manager of the Pirates, signed Bailey as a pitcher at that camp even though he’d never pitched before. By then he was 23 years old, but because a 21-year-old pitcher seemed like a better prospect than a 23-year-old, Thrift changed his birth date from 1943 to 1945.

“It wasn’t an uncommon thing,’’ Bailey said. “A 21-year-old had a lot more marketability than a 23-year-old. I was half bald-headed, I had an anchor tattoo from the Navy. Guys were always trying to sneak a look at my wallet to see how old I really was.

“That was just kind of the way it was back then.’’

And so now you know.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1


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