Country roads … take me home …
to the place … I belong …
John Denver’s 1971 hit has become the anthem for WVU athletics, frequently sung by the school’s fans or played by the marching band. Mountaineer fans make it clear on game days West Virginia will always be their home.
But now West Virginia’s athletic program might need a new home in another sense. With all the conferences changing, where does it belong?
Rumors abound these days and a few have mentioned WVU as a school with interest from the Big 12. The school boasts a prominent football program which, among many accomplishments, won the Sugar Bowl following the 2005 season and the Fiesta Bowl after 2007 (don’t ask Bob Stoops about that one).
The basketball team has been good too, winning the 2010 Big East tournament and then advancing to its first Final Four in 51 years. Bob Huggins (a WVU grad) took over for John Beilein and has established his old school’s team as a force in the Big East.
West Virginia has made the NCAA Tournament all four years with Huggins as coach. The Mountaineers won 21 games last season, beating Clemson in the NCAA opener and losing to eventual Final Four team Kentucky. In 2010 they beat top seed Kentucky, claiming a Final Four and a 31-win season and finishing No. 3 in the coaches poll. The year before that, the Mountaineers won 23 games and finished seventh in the conference (all six Big East teams ahead of them were ranked).
Though the state of West Virginia cannot claim any large metro areas (Charleston is the largest at 154th nationally), it certainly would expose the Big 12 to a new audience. Additionally, the school boasts an almost Nebraska-like statewide popularity.
Milan Puskar Stadium is regularly filled to its capacity of around 60,000 and Mountaineer fans are probably the best travelers in the current Big East.
Considering the options of Louisville, TCU, BYU and West Virginia, the Mountaineers’ best cases as an addition to the Big 12 are their fanbase and their athletic balance. I would estimate they have more fans than BYU and Louisville and far more than TCU.
They are also very relevant in both football and men’s basketball – BYU and Louisville are still struggling a bit with football, and TCU is not a strong basketball program.
West Virginia would not be the league favorite for Big 12 football if Texas and Oklahoma both stay, but would join Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech as routine challengers. In basketball, WVU would become an immediate contender for the league title and improve an already solid basketball conference.
There’s no guarantee the Big 12 will add anyone at the moment, but West Virginia would be a great pickup.