In a world of canned answers, coach speak and 30 second soundbites of sound and fury that say much while signifying nothing, WVU athletic director Oliver Luck is a breath of fresh air. He speaks calmly, articulately and oh, so frankly. As we learned last year during the Marshall rain delay and again during the ESPN telecast of a rain-soaked yawner against Bowling Green, Luck is unafraid to confront the shifting sands of realignment with a candor that addresses situations as they are, not as folks (conference commissioner, other ADs, coaches) politely pretend them to be.
Luck made an appearance as the final "surprise" guest during Wednesday's National Signing Day show which was streaming on WVUSports.com. Before we get to his comments, let me say first that Tony Caridi, Jed Drenning and the entire WVUSports crew did a beyond-outstanding job with the coverage.
Quick aside: The show, which lasted around 2 hours and 45 minutes, was jam-packed with great background on the newcomers and wonderful insight from the entire coaching staff. The production value was high, the content was relevant and interesting and for 2:45 things flew by. I spoke with Jed tonight and the response they got from fans was very positive, so expect to see this again next year with possibly even more coverage. If you haven't seen it yet I can't recommend it highly enough. I know the intent is to provide it on YouTube, but the link isn't up yet. Keep your eyes peeled, though - it's worth a watch. We'll be sure to shoot it out when we get it.
Anyway, back to the fireworks. Tony and Jed had Luck on during the show's final segment for an interview that centered on some larger topics like the growing strength of WVU's brand nation-wide, specifically within the context of a recruiting class featuring kids from 14 states other than West Virginia with 4 of those being west of the Mississippi River. But when they made it to conference realignment, Luck let lose with a nice quote that was at once logical and unflinching in its boldness:
"there is additional movement to come in conference realignment. We can't allow what happened to the Big East happen to the Big 12 as far as only having 10 teams. We're happy where we are right now but nobody believes conference realignment is over. But, it is important for us to have eastern partners in the conference."
I mean, wow. Let's unpack that puppy real quick.
"There is additional movement to come in conference realignment."
No shocker there. Conventional wisdom would tell you when programs like Rutgers and Maryland are getting snatched up by the Big Ten, things are winding towards a conclusion but conventional wisdom and conference realignment don't often share the same room. Or house. Or city. With the SEC currently and Big 10 and ACC potentially perched at an odd 14 team membership that presents myriad scheduling challenges, there is every reason to believe that the ground could shift again.
"We can't allow what happened to the Big East to happen to the Big 12 as far as only having 10 teams."
This was an interesting line of reasoning that I hadn't heard a lot before but makes sense. WVU has a unique history among Big 12 schools, having come from another "major" conference that was raped and pillaged to the brink of extinction. After the formation of the Big 12 in 1996, the Big East and the ACC were the only 2 of the Big 6 with single digit membership. The ACC was the larger of the 2 and we saw how that turned out.
At some level, a conference strength is derived from sheer volume. Now it's a thin line, because that volume can pretty quickly have a diluting effect on a conference, but you need to have numbers sufficient to survive in the event that some other conference does come along and pick off one of your members. As the WVU AD Luck is clearly sensitive to this subject and seems to feel 10 is insufficient for long-term stability.
I'd pay a pretty penny to be a fly on the wall when he and Texas AD DeLoss Dodds talk that one over.
"...it is important for us to have eastern partners in the conference."
(emphasis added because, I mean, holy freaking crap dude)
That was an amazingly blunt shot across the bow of the ACC, the conference of the 5 remaining "majors" that most agree is least stable. Rumors have swirled for several months that Florida State and Clemson are open to options (remember the Noles were one of two schools to vote against the ACC's exit fee increase last year) and Virginia Tech was high on many people's list when the SEC was looking last year.
It's currently taken as an article of realignment faith that the SEC has no interest in bringing schools on-board from states where they currently have member schools, so that would seem to eliminate FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech. That gentleman's agreement could find itself quickly cast aside however if surrounding forces (see: Big 10 or Pac 12 expansion to 16) drive the desire to expand and the choice is between one of those three or a less-desirable second-tier ACC power.
Perhaps Luck, as the leader of an athletic department which has already dealt with the consequences of a passive conference leadership once before, doesn't want to see history repeat itself and would this time like to see his conference be the aggressor.
Certainly he'd prefer a conference membership at 12 with 6 team divisions and 8 game conference schedule (similar to the old SEC format). One fewer conference game leaves him with more freedom in a non-conference schedule to set up series with teams like Pitt and Virginia Tech or even (gasp) Penn State. That means easier road trips for fans and some connection to old rivalries. And if a couple of teams in that division were a little closer than the current 870 miles to Ames Iowa (WVU's closest conference compatriot at present) all the better.
The fact is the ACC's current TV deal with ESPN pays each school around $17 million a year while the Big 12's deal pays each school around $20 mil. That $17 million figure also places the ACC last among the five "majors." It's no coincidence that if you were to rank leagues by their stability that ranking would almost certainly match a ranking of TV contract annual payouts.
There are clearly moves left to be made, and on Tuesday Oliver Luck left no ambiguity as to where his gaze is firmly set. Signing Day was huge for the next four years of Mountaineer Football, but what happens next could have reverberations long after that.
Luck joins the show at around the 2 hour 29 minute mark.