The Winner of Conference Realignment: West Virginia University

March 7, 2012

As the clouds disperse and the new patterns take shape, one clear winner emerges from college conference realignment.  Maybe only one real winner.

West Virginia University.

At some point, someone within the university may claim that some grand design existed.  We know that none did.  We also know that the university made careful and prudent decisions at each step and deployed its strongest asset, a powerhouse legal team, to create and defend positions whenever necessary.

Look back a decade when Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech abandoned the Big East.  What happened to their programs?  Boston College’s basketball and football faded into obscurity.  Miami is known for its graceful and hard hitting gargantuan athletes . . . in basketball.  Virginia Tech wins titles, ‘tis true.  Usually in the same season as a loss to a team like James Madison.  Nothing has changed in Blacksburg except the opponents and the shrinking attendance.

WVU might have won the exact same number of titles had the league not changed.  But few argue that their departure did not make it easier.  The Mountaineers dominated football title winning and even, frankly, underachieved in the process.  Rising to the level of conference flagship helped recruiting.  WVU picked up some of the most dynamic athletes in the sport, including Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Tavon Austin, and many others.

Rich Rodriguez left; WVU eventually hired Dana Holgerson.  John Belein left; WVU hired Bobby Huggins.  The premiere sports brought home Final Eights and a Final Four, plus three BCS bowl victories.  Conference realignment made the Big East the best basketball conference around, at least temporarily.  Under Huggins, until this year, the Mountaineers maintained a winning conference record and won the tournament one time.

The ACC has not fared as well.  Its basketball remained static, declining relative to the Big East.  Football actually declined since the 1990s when Florida State ruled the sport.  It has won two BCS bowls, as opposed to WVU’s three.  Yes.  One team won more BCS bowls than the whole ACC combined.  And let us not forget last year’s Orange Bowl.

Conference realignment has put West Virginia basketball on the cusp of being elite.  West Virginia football already is.  That would have been a laughable statement as late as last fall.  Then again, sports experts also laughed at the idea that Eli Manning was an elite NFL quarterback.  Both Eli Manning and WVU football proved themselves to be elite by getting to the big stage and winning when it counted.

Speaking of big performances, no one should forget WVU’s brightest stars, its lawyers.  They savaged Rich Rodriguez, helped to humiliate the ACC, then spanked the Big East.  If a national title could be handed to a university’s law team, WVU would win it hands down.

And now West Virginia University rides off into the sunset, quite literally.  Pitt and Syracuse fans snickered when they received ACC invites last fall and WVU still looked to have no lifeboat of its own.  Thank goodness that the ACC did not deign to bring the university from the Titanic to the Bismarck. WVU now follows Horace Greeley’s advice and heads west, away from Navy and Memphis and towards Texas and Oklahoma.  As ACC revenues decline and they realize that Pitt and Syracuse are Boston College and Miami all over again, they will continue to rue the day that this process ever started.  Meanwhile, Florida State and Clemson started vague exploration committees.  We know what that means.

It is hard to think of another school that has benefited and stands to gain so much in the end from realignment.


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