Chris Del Conte and Oliver Luck were bouncing off the walls.
It wasn’t Christmas Day, but it might as well have been when the athletic directors of TCU and West Virginia were reminiscing about their inaugural seasons in the Big 12 during last week’s spring meetings.
“For us geographically, it’s been unbelievable,” said the effusive Del Conte, the Horned Frogs’ boss. “Think about it. We are back home.”
“I think (the excitement is) every bit as high as when we went into the conference,” said Luck, the main Mountaineer. “Generally, what I hear from our colleagues has all been very positive. They’re happy to have us. We’re absolutely delighted.”
Just imagine the revelry if either had actually won a league title. No couch would be off limits.
Our apologies. West Virginia won the regular-season women’s soccer crown. So there’s that.
Otherwise, not so much.
Well, 12 of TCU’s 20 teams reached post-season play, and nine were nationally ranked. WVU receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were All-Americans. TCU and West Virginia did win national titles in rifle. TCU’s Lorraine Ugen won the long jump. WVU’s Nikki Izzo-Brown (Big 12 soccer) and Jon Hammond (national rifle) took coach of the year honors.
But overall, they’ve got work to do. Just don’t tell them they didn’t win in this game of musical conference chairs.
And we dutifully point out that our beloved Longhorns lost to both in football, and those games were at home at rowdy Royal-Memorial Stadium. OK, the September showdown with the ’Eers qualified as rowdy. But many Longhorn fans had already checked out by the time the Frogs came to town on Thanksgiving night and beat the Longhorns. However, that might have been a good thing because Texas was close to a berth in the Cotton Bowl against you-know-whom, and you know how that might have turned out.
So, thank you for that, Gary Patterson.
Overall, however, it’s been a win-win scenario. For the eight franchise members of the league, but especially for TCU and West Virginia and not just because the two newbies both are $11 million richer thanks to record revenue. For TCU, that was a bump of more than $9 million over the intake from the Mountain West, and the ’Eers were at least $4 million more to the positive than before.
The two additions stabilized the league, galvanized it against other predators, extended the Big 12 brand to the East Coast and made Geno Smith a household name until he became a draft day punch line.
But other names could have been substituted for theirs. Notre Dame was always target No. 1, but it aligned with the more academically prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference. DeLoss Dodds coveted the Irish and courted Pittsburgh as well, but lost both to the ACC, and he couldn’t sell the Big 12 on Louisville.
TCU was plucked for its rich football tradition (read: Davey O’Brien and Sammy Baugh), richer endowment and regional presence in the Metroplex. It might have been chosen originally over Baylor, had TCU-touting Speaker of the House Gib Lewis remained in power and had Legislature heavyweights Bob Bullock and David Sibley not promoted the Bears.
West Virginia has Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez to thank for its appeal as well as being a better television draw than others. Also, it’s the state school. Louisville made more sense from a standpoint of less travel and superior facilities and overall athletic success, but it didn’t quite have the football muscle then that it has now and will always be little brother to Kentucky in its own state.
TCU, as Del Conte said, found a home in a league the Frogs always wanted to join. By joining on the rebound, it cut its travel time and expense, it renewed regional rivalries with programs with which it’s shared a history, it was spared the turmoil of the Big East mess and it should eventually benefit in men’s basketball where it needs all the help it can get. It set attendance records in five different sports and is renovating its basketball arena. And it did beat Kansas in hoops.
West Virginia experienced a drastic falloff in its football fortunes after holding off Texas and was largely disappointing in men’s basketball. But that fanatical fan base won’t let football slip for long, and Bob Huggins is the second-best basketball coach in our league.
“Every fan wants everybody to win everything,” Luck said. “Certainly some fans were disappointed. It was a down year for Huggins. We started like a house afire and then cooled off significantly. I don’t think that has dampened any enthusiasm for the upcoming year.”
In baseball, which has been almost non-existent in Morgantown, West Virginia surprised with a third-place tie with Oklahoma. Luck beamed over the fact that in 119 years of baseball, seven of the program’s eight largest crowds came in the final month of the 2013 season. And it’s building a new $16 million baseball park with the help of a property tax and sales tax from the county and state.
“Our baseball team surprised a lot of folks,” Luck said. “Our volleyball team didn’t win a match. We’re learning how competitive and what a challenge this conference is.”
West Virginia also has requested travel allowances, including Saturday-Monday basketball games on the road, early tipoff times and one or two Big 12 road games before the January semester begins. The Big 12 appears willing to comply.
But that’s life in the Big 12 in 2013. One not-that-big, happy family.