Cheers To The Big East, The Best 19-Year Fling The WVU Mountaineers Ever Had

As this whole WVU-to-the-Big XII saga played out, one of the most fascinating things for me to observe has been the varied reactions among the WVU fan base. The problem with the move to the Big XII seemed to be the anger it evoked from the Big East brass and other members of the conference. And I can understand why they would be upset, losing their flagship program just after two founding members decided to leave for greener pastures. I'm just sad it had to end that way.

I'm not saying the Big East is without blame here. Far from it. The Big East is and has always been a basketball league. The football conference was handicapped from the start after Penn State was rebuked and decided to pack its wagon, ford the Ohio, and start a farm. Say what you want about the ACC raid in 2004, but since then, the Big East has had several opportunities to improve its football and was negligent (at best) in failing to do that. The recent additions are too little, too late, and if we're being honest, probably weren't enough to keep WVU, Pitt and Syracuse in the conference anyway.

But is all this really deserving the anger that many Mountaineer fans have toward the conference? After all, the Big East has provided the springboard by which WVU became the school it is today (in football and men's and women's basketball especially, to say nothing of the olympic sports). Should WVU fans be as bitter toward John Marinatto and the remaining conference members as many are showing? I, for one, don't think so.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not that old in the context of the history of WVU athletics. I was at WVU during the start of the "golden era" of Mountaineer sports, which included the Sugar Bowl and Elite Eight seasons. I wasn't even alive during the dark ages of the 70's. But I think I have a decent grasp on how WVU got to that point.

Yes, WVU has had some success over its history---a Sugar Bowl and Final Four in the 50's, a couple Sweet Sixteens in the 60's, a Fiesta Bowl in the 80's, and a Sugar Bowl and Sweet Sixteen in the 90's. That's it. Success? Sure. Fleeting? Definitely. Before 1980, WVU was best described as a regional program. It was able to compete with similarly-situated schools, but nobody was going to confuse it with Ohio State, USC, Texas, UCLA, or North Carolina.

West Virginia was accepted into the Big East conference and began full round-robin football play in 1993 and basketball play in 1995. Certainly the tenure of Don Nehlen was a huge factor in WVU becoming a national program in football. However, the structure of college football was altered fundamentally in the early 1990's when the SEC and Big XII expanded, the Southwest Conference dissolved, and most of the Eastern Independents joined conferences.

At that point, it was no longer viable for WVU to remain an independent in football and still play a competitive schedule while maintaining the necessary revenue streams to improve facilities, pay coaches, and sustain a quality program. Problem was, West Virginia was simply not an attractive option to other conferences.

The Big East provided a more than adequate home (actually, it was the best option available) at a time when many Mountaineer fans thought we would be better off competitively in Conference USA. However, new Big East revenue streams and the ability to play quality competition on a consistent basis helped elevate WVU's programs. In the early 1990's when WVU entered the conference, it lagged behind Miami and Syracuse in football and pretty much everyone in men's and women's basketball. And for the first decade of play, that was pretty much the pattern.

But a funny thing happened when Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College left for the ACC. The football power vacuum left by those departures, coupled with the hirings of two excellent coaches in John Beilein and Rich Rodriguez, gave WVU the chance to be the Big East's flagship football program and to compete in basketball at a level it never had before. And the Mountaineers took full advantage, finishing first or second in football every year since 2003 and making (and winning) 3 BCS bowl games. The basketball team has enjoyed unprecedented success as well, making the NCAA tournament (including two Sweet Sixteens, an Elite Eight, and a Final Four) every year since 2005 except the 2007 NIT championship season. That level of success would not have been possible but for WVU's fortuitous inclusion in the Big East, and, one could argue, the departure of those three schools to the ACC.

So really, given the way things have turned out, WVU likely would not be in the position to get an invitation to the Big XII if it wasn't for the Big East's invitation back in the 1990's. Sure, things looked bleak as of late as long time rivals departed and the possibility that WVU could be left to compete with UCF, Houston, and San Diego State on a yearly basis became more real. And I certainly understand the gnashing of teeth over the Big East's attempt to prevent WVU from leaving immediately for the Big XII, but really...what was the Big East to do at that point? They were just protecting themselves, albeit vindictively, in a desperate situation with their backs against the wall. I can't blame them for that.

I know it's tempting and fun to throw up a middle finger to the Big East as we grab the bottle of Jameson and kick down the door, but really...what do we have against them? Yes, we did our part to step up and "save" the football conference. But we may never have had that opportunity had Miami and Virginia Tech not left. We wouldn't be who we are today---including leaving for a far better position in the Big XII---if the Big East hadn't given us the chance to be in a BCS conference to begin with. There's no sense in adding insult to injury by gloating about taking the very opportunity that Big East membership helped prepare us for. So please join in me raising a glass to the Big East conference---the best 19-year fling the Mountaineers ever had.

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