As history tells us already, West Virginia University appears to not only have weathered the conference re-alignment storm, but come out of the foul weather with fair skies and sunshine. Part of the reason for that likely rests with what history had already told Athletic Director Oliver Luck.
Even before his son Andrew Luck was slinging footballs from his cradle, Oliver Luck was busy doing work in the state of Texas. And it was about that time that the fabled Southwest Conference not only ran into trouble, but began to fall apart.
Although the official demise of the conference that began in 1916 didn’t come until 1996, things had begun unraveling significantly in the decade prior. Need proof? Mention the Southwest Conference today and the words “scandal” often roll off the tongue. If it’s not first, then Southern Methodist University is sure to follow and, for matters of record, the words are one in the same. Of the powerhouses that made up the once legendary conference, only Arkansas, Baylor and Rice got through the 1980s without major football recruiting violations. And it was in 1987 that SMU got – for only the third time in NCAA history – the fabled death penalty.
While the death penalty proved to be the end of the dominance that was SMU football at the time, the real death blow to the conference came in 1994. After Arkansas departed for the SEC in 1990, four years later the foursome of Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech accepted the invitation from the Big Eight to form the Big 12. Left to fend for themselves in other, lesser conferences were SMU, Texas Christian University, Rice and Houston.
Outside of the death penalty and recruiting sanctions, does any of this sound familiar? It certainly did to Oliver Luck. Because he followed that history and because he followed college football closely through ties with his alma mater at WVU and his son’s incredible play at Stanford, Luck was very much aware of current and past history as it related to conferences. What he saw, he said, was that change in the conference landscape similar in magnitude to the Southwestern Conference was coming. What he admittedly didn’t see was change coming as quickly as it did.
“Not that I’m prescient or anything, but I did believe that the next seven to eight years that there was going to be some very challenging times in college athletics, and by that I mean football because it’s the real engine that drives every department,” said Luck. “One of the reasons I took the job is that I potentially saw difficulties for my alma mater and I didn’t want to have my school to find itself in a sticky wicket.”
The “sticky wicket” Luck referred to was a fault line between the haves and the have nots. While the haves he said included schools such as USC, Texas, Ohio State and others that would be safe no matter what the situation, he knew West Virginia – despite having a national reputation and impressive BCS resume – could very easily fall into the “have nots” category through no fault of its own.
“You have schools in the Sunbelt and the MAC and they kind of knew their situation, but then you had some ‘tweener’ schools. WVU has the legacy, but this is a business and we’re a small state and not considered a major media market,” said Luck. “I was worried that we could find ourselves on the outside looking in. I knew being on the outside looking in could cause anguish that could take decades to recover from or possibly never recover from.”
It’s here where Luck was quick to point out the demise of the Southwest Conference. There were plenty of those schools that carried forward from the conference’s breakup and continued to sport robust programs that thrived on the field and/or financially. And then others such as those mentioned above – TCU, SMU, Houston and Rice – in a situation where it took decades to recover. Some still have never regained the prominence they once held.
“It’s been decades since some of those schools were relevant again. TCU had to go out and win Rose Bowls before it got into the Big 12. Nearly (two decades later) SMU and Houston both joined the Big East and, well, I’ll stop my comments there,” said Luck with a chuckle.
As a Rhodes Scholar, Luck understands the importance of education. As a practical person, he understands that it’s football and not a school’s engineering program that often paints the national perception of a school and, without question, the athletic program.
“The perception of those schools changed, and the perception changed quickly. I know that from living down there,” Luck said.
Still, even with the knowledge something was likely heading Morgantown’s way in the form of a changing conference landscape, Luck just never figured he’d step into his new job and have to deal with it almost immediately. He figured it would happen within five years of being on the job, and it happened within his first two. The maneuvering began almost immediately following Luck’s official start as AD on July 1, 2010. Since then, alignment changes involving Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Syracuse and Pitt all played a part in Luck and WVU opting to be proactive behind the scenes instead of reactive in front of it.
Unlike Big East Commissioner John Marinatto, who seemed to be waiting by the AP wire to see what his next move should be, Luck was already playing chess. Any questions as to who said checkmate have been answered. WVU is in the Big 12. Marinatto is out to pasture with the legacy of not only destroying perhaps the greatest conference brand of basketball in recent memory, but saying with a straight face that moving Villanova to Division I status on the football side of the ledger was the answer to saving the Big East’s football brand.
It wasn’t that Marinatto fiddled while Rome burned, because that would have actually counted as doing something. Outside of appointing a non-football Big East member Notre Dame as the head of the football expansion committee, Marinatto’s reactions to the entire conference issue made one to wonder if he had antlers and the high beams of an 18-wheeler were in his face.
Sadly, a few of the moves made by Marinatto in reaction mode may have saved the Big East had they taken place earlier, even years ago. Instead, the Big East ship was already sinking when Marinatto was making his moves. The Commissioner put the spin on it, but it was clear to anyone with a third grade education that he was serving meatloaf to the public and peddling it as filet mignon. No one bought it, and Luck wasn’t about to make a reservation at the table.
Instead, Luck was busy completing a deal with the Big 12 and then, it seems, he didn’t. And then, officially, he did. Of course, it was at this time that Marinatto’s ineptness was replaced by the alleged sleaziness of Kentucky’s Senator Mitch McConnell as the individual drawing the ire of the Mountaineer faithful. It was McConnell who was tagged as the person stopping the first announced move of WVU to the Big 12 by lobbying member schools to take Louisville instead.
Did it happen? Officially, McConnell said he didn’t do anything improper, but we all know that’s not the case. The only one that could have been fooled by the distinguished gentelman from Kentucky was Marinatto, and that’s assuming Marinatto even knew WVU was considering leaving the Big East.
Of course, McConnell getting involved meant the media was going to get involved in the matter to a whole new level. And once the situation drew media attention, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin's Pavlovian instincts kicked in and he pounced like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert and, well, it got ugly.
“There’s so much popularity and passion with college football that you know there’s going to be mud thrown around,” said Luck. “(Congress has) an incredible bully pulpit so I wasn’t surprised even though many folks would prefer Congress focus on issues other than football. I guess they realize college football isn’t just business it’s big business, it’s a billion dollar business. It’s been that way for a long time and anyone paying attention knows that.”
Fortunately for WVU, Luck has been paying attention all along to the past. Because of that, the immediate future is secure for the Mountaineers.