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It’s Not Supposed To Be This Hard For West Virginia

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Three down years in football and two down years in three in basketball make all of this harder

West Virginia v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

January 1, 2019.

Whether we knew it at the time, or not, that date will live on as a critical turning point in West Virginia Mountaineer athletics.

Since joining the Big 12, West Virginia has always been an outsider but they’ve held their own. Basketball, since it began Big 12 play was 143-78 through December 31, 2018. From January 1, 2019, until today, the team is 62-53. The football team was 61-41 through December 31, 2018. Since then, the team is 17-18.

It isn’t supposed this hard to be a Mountaineer fan but since the calendar rolled over to 2019 it has been one punch in the gut after another. The two money-generating sports have been bad or uninspired, and that affects everything else. It affects how you view the program. It affects how others view the programs. It affects how recruits view the program.

So, why has the football team settled under .500 for three years and why has the basketball team been under .500 twice and only made the NCAA tournament once in the past four seasons? The truth of the matter is, it’s complicated.

For three seasons the West Virginia football team has, to say it nicely, underperformed. Some of it could be expected with a coaching change and a senior-heavy team in 2018. It was going to take time to build the roster back up from graduations and transfers that naturally occur during a change. The fact that the team went 5-7 in year one was both a blessing and a curse. Without the bottoming out, the expectation of a long uphill climb was negated.

Then COVID hit. The pandemic and its disruptions certainly caused challenges to the program, but to use it as an excuse now seems silly. West Virginia wasn’t the only team that endured the pandemic and other teams faced similar challenges of a coaching change in 2019 followed by the pandemic.

It’s not supposed to be this hard for WVU.

Now the crux of all of this has been the large, exorbitant amount of transfers the program has endured. When a coaching change occurs, typically you expect players from the previous coach to not jive with the new coach and to seek new homes. That happened and was expected. You expect others to stick it out for a year, understand they’ve been recruited over and/or are not in favor with the new coach and to seek new homes. That happened. However, we’re entering year four and seeing kids who have only ever played for this coaching staff, kids [yes, they are still in fact kids, whether they are 18, 19, or 20] who are starters, leaving.

Why? There has been no clear answer and to be honest, each case is slightly unique. The latest player to transfer is Nicktroy Fortune, a player who started as a freshman and sophomore before he was injured. His replacement played well but should we simply expect his replacement to take his spot because he played well for a few games? Should we not expect Fortune, if recovered from his injury, to not compete? We don’t know because he’s now entered his name into the portal. There are the cases of Daryl Porter, Jr, Jackie Mathews, Josh Chandler-Semedo, and countless others who all have a unique situation and all have something in common. They transferred.

It’s not supposed to be this hard for WVU.

Is it true that this current coach is harder than the previous coach? I think that can be stated. Is it true that this coach is tougher on players than other coaches in the conference? I don’t know but I find it hard to believe. Is this coach tougher on players than Nick Saban? I think we can all say no to that. Yet, players are leaving this coach. They are leaving this school. Is the lack of wins the cause or the effect? Can we judge this coach on wins and losses when each year he’s suffered a large exodus of players and needs to break in new players?

I once asked what the expectations were for a program like West Virginia. In a much larger statement than I thought, the expectation was winning program [understood], and to compete for a conference championship every 3-4 years. Three times a decade, West Virginia should be a top 2 program in the Big 12. They seem higher than they should, to me, but those are the expectations of fans. Fans who play their own hard-earned money and fill the stadiums and buy the merchandise. Fans who have supported this school through 125 years of football. Fans who are clinging to the hope that they can see their passion win a championship. So those are the expectations we should expect coaches, administrators, and players to try to live up to. Yet, this program hasn’t seen that. Not since joining the Big 12 and certainly not since the change.

It’s not supposed to be this hard for WVU.

Now basketball. For a while, the basketball team was everything we expected. Tough. Hard-working. Grinders. They made life miserable for players, for opposing fans and for opposing coaches. They pressed. They hand-checked and eventually you buckled. The team made a Sweet 16 3 years in a four-year span. While the Final Fours and potential championships didn’t come, the team seemed close. And then the bottom fell out. After Jevon Carter - a potential top 5 player all-time at West Virginia - graduated from the program, there was a void. A void in leadership. A void in talent? A void in desire? There was a void and the program faltered.

The program cleaned house and in the next two years, the program was back to being where we thought. Ranked. It would have made the tournament in the COVID year and did make the tournament the following year. Then this year. An All-American, Player of the Year candidate left the program. Another player was lured away. Another was drafted. The replacements weren’t capable or weren’t good enough, to bring the program back to the place the expectations required. The team struggled once conference play took hold and the result was no NCAA Tournament. No NIT Tournament. Refusal to play in the CBI Tournament. Players exiting the program immediately following the end of the season.

It’s not supposed to be this hard for WVU.

I’m not sure there is a definitive answer for the state of the program. Certainly wins would help but wins aren’t the only thing about this program. It has been a while since this program has had excitement and the program feels like it is dangerously close to losing donors or perhaps needing multiple years to get involvement from donors. Fans are relegated to waiting for the next sport to break their heart and perhaps the shock has overtaken them because each disappointment feels less like heartbreak and more like another notch on the bedpost.

The University is working through unique times and certainly looks like they are trying to right the ship. There is no doubt they are aware of what is happening with their two big revenue-generating sports. The teams can get back and have shown the ability to compete. It’s just not supposed to be this hard for WVU.