Guest Written by Donald Pownell:
In starting this article, I want to put forward that WVU has one of the most accomplished yet unrecognized athletic programs in the country. We have an athletic department which provides an array of programs which exceeds most universities. These programs range from traditional programs of football and basketball to the non-revenue sports such rifle, wrestling, baseball, golf, swimming, and track. Not only do we offer more opportunity for athletics but excellence in our programs is expected both in performance and academics. If you research history this a proven fact. Also, an important fact we were one of the first, if not the first, recognized “southern” schools to embrace the recruiting of African-American athletes. To me the amazing part of this story is that we did this with basically no money, historically ALL our competition had significantly greater financial assets. We have no major media markets to promote us. And, we have a population of less than two million people. What we have accomplished and continue to accomplish is amazing. Year in and year out no one with our resources and population accomplishes what we do in intercollegiate athletics.
This backdrop provides the basis for a broader story which to me remains unexplained, why have we had such a challenging time gaining a conference membership. Major conferences by and large are an advent of modern day athletics. The Big 10 being the oldest, 1896; PAC 12, 1959; ACC, 1952; SEC, 1932; and the Southwest conference, 1914 which is now the Big 12.
The southern conference which was formed in 1921 later spawned the SEC and ACC. WVU was offered and accepted a membership into the conference in 1950. At that time we left the WVIAC. By this time the SEC had already been formed but the ACC had not and most of the teams who formed the ACC were members of the Southern Conference. Now the ACC split off in 1952. WVU aggressively pursued membership and while it was a natural for WVU to be a member for some reason we were never offered membership.
From that point forward the Southern Conference would remain a minor conference. However, WVU was competitive on a national level at this time. This was a time in which many of the old timers remember as our golden years in athletics. In many ways this is true. In football, we produced Sam Huff, Bruce Bosley, Freddie Wyant, Joe Marconi, and Chuck Howley. We went to the sugar bowl, beat PSU twice, and beat Texas in Austin. In basketball, we produced Jerry West and the “Hot Rod”. We went to the NCAA finals and beat the famous Adolph Rupp and Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington. Throughout the 1950’s we played teams from major conferences and won.
We did play the southern conference to the extent possible to our benefit. By the 1960’s, we needed a vehicle to better promote our brand. So, in 1967, WVU officials deemed it in their best interest to leave the southern conference. However, we did not have an invitation from another conference. WVU chose to be an independent and associate with other major eastern independent schools; Pitt, PSU, Syracuse, Boston College, Villanova, and Temple. This was a great decision and helped to leverage us up in terms of schedule and national recognition. From the start it was our desire to leverage these relationships into an all sports conference.
In the 1970’s talks started in a meaningful way to take place between the schools. The major issue concerning starting the new league revolved around football. Most schools believed that football was the money maker and would drive future revenues. This in fact proved to be true. However, this put PSU in the drivers’ seat for negotiating terms and conditions for the future league. This situation was resisted by Syracuse. In fact, this issue became insurmountable. Syracuse went their way and formed Big East basketball, which operationally proved successful but in the end, did not prove financially sound. PSU to promote their brand went to the big ten which proved to be a home run for them. What’s interesting we continued to play Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College in football, but we were not invited to play Big East basketball. In fact, Syracuse refused to even continue to play us in basketball. Pitt cut us down to one game per year
With PSU out of the way Syracuse came back to form a new Big East football league separate from basketball. This was not considered an enjoyable time for WVU. After several years of negotiating all the parties did agree and at last an all east athletic leagued was formed. We thought we had a last reached our goal, being part of the nationally recognized league.
Now something very interesting happened which everybody alive who had anything to do with it will deny it. Up to that time this had never happened and most likely will never happen again. Once the Big East got going for some reason the ACC saw them as a market threat. The ACC sought for pure market reasons to put the Big East out of business. This was done with the complete knowledge and support of ABC and ESPN. The ACC pirated three schools from the Big East which they felt for market reasons would leave the Big East with the inability to secure proper television contracts and bowl games for football. This was a correct analysis and the Big East did in fact finally fold as a major conference.
If you have noticed there is a thread that is woven through this story. In 1952 WVU was in the Southern Conference with many of the same schools who formed the ACC, we were not invited. Big East basketball despite being heavily involved with the teams who formed Big East basketball, we were not invited. The reorganization of the ACC, we were left out. WVU with its highly successful athletic programs, in fact more successful than most of the schools who are now in the ACC has been left out. We had have been affiliated with most of theses teams since the 1950’s and this is the third or fourth time depending on how you count that we have not been invited to the party. One can only speculate why this situation occurred so many times.
But it all ends well. We were invited to become a member of the Big 12 in all sports and participate in all revenue on an equal basis. That is not want happened when we were finally invited into the Big East. I am convinced this is a natural fit for us. We are all land grant universities serving primarily rural people. I attended the Big 12 basket tourney last year and strongly recommend it to all fans. While there you meet many fans and you quickly realize, hey these guys are just like us. An Iowa State fan told me, we grew up eating beans and cornbread just like you. And he’s right. We could not be in a league where we have as much in common with the other teams we play. We have a home among friends and I am very happy. I urge all my mountaineer fans please don’t look past the future. In fact I have no interest in rekindling supposed relationships with those where relationships never existed. Go west young man go west.