By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Sometimes things just work out.
That’s how it was with West Virginia University’s move from the Big East to the Big 12, a most unintended consequence of the turmoil in which college athletics finds itself.
Somehow, some way, without a master plan, it seems that the Mountaineers have been planning the move ever since James P. Clements was named president at WVU.
Did he somehow have a vision of the future, somehow see the Big 12 in need of WVU? Certainly not, but when it came time to make a move and hire an athletic director, he turned down former AD Ed Pastilong’s offer to stay on and turned to Oliver Luck.
He could not have chosen another man more equipped to ready WVU for the Big 12.
He is a former WVU quarterback himself, and now he finds himself leading his school into a conference made for quarterbacks.
He was making his home in Houston, in the heart of Big 12 territory. If he wasn’t traveling in Big 12 circles, he surely was acutely aware of the football revolution going on in such places as Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and Texas Tech, had seen the conference itself transfer from a wishbone, run-at-all-costs league to an aerial circus.
It seems almost curious that he should wind up here as the ACC raided the Big East, stole away Pittsburgh and Syracuse, ripping the heart out of the football conference so much that TCU would soon follow.
Had Luck foreseen this? Did he have a master plan to try and move WVU to the Big 12 even before Texas A&M and, probably Missouri, opted to follow Nebraska and Colorado out?
“I don’t think there was any master plan, not on my part and not on the president’s part or the board of governors,” Luck said.
“We always try to respond quickly and do what’s best at the end of the day for our university. It is a very fluid landscape, has been a very fluid landscape, but I think it would be erroneous to think this was a master plan going back 16 or 17 months.”
Certainly, Luck is speaking the truth here, yet it is curious that he went and secured the services of an untried head coach who was rooted in the Big 12 and whose brand of football is the wild, spread-’em-out and throw-at-’em brand of football that conference is espousing.
True, Dana Holgorsen was about the hottest assistant in the country, but WVU was in a situation that it would have seemed to be requiring a more experienced coach, considering that three nine-victory seasons in a row are not normally grounds in this or almost any other program for firing the coach.
Luck had no plans or thoughts of going to the Big 12 at the time but you might say he “lucked out,” as there will be no real transition period when — and if — WVU shows up playing in that conference next year, as planned.
The Mountaineers will be well schooled in the way of the style of football that is played in the Big 12.
West Virginia does not have much experience playing Big 12 teams over the years, but it has had success when it has met them.
And, quite interestingly, the conflicts have been among the most memorable in WVU history.
Counting only the schools that remain in the conference, without Missouri, which seems destined to leave, WVU owns a 9-4 football record in those games while having gone 4-4 in the only eight men’s basketball games it has ever played against them.
The most memorable football encounter came nearly five years ago when WVU had what probably was its best team, that one Rich Rodriguez coached to the verge of playing in a national championship game against a very beatable Ohio State team only to be upset by Pitt.
The loss seemed to threaten the entire program, especially when Rodriguez defected to Michigan before WVU could play in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
WVU’s history with the Sooners was long and interesting, going back to 1958 when the Sooners crushed the Mountaineers 47-14, something they repeated in the next meeting in 1978, winning by 52-10.
But Don Nehlen came on the scene in 1980 and established his program as one to be reckoned with when, on Sept. 11, 1982, he went into Oklahoma and ran and threw the ball at will, stunning them in Norman, 41-27.
“It’s got to be the greatest win of my career,” Nehlen said after the game. “I’ve only been here three years, but it’s sure as hell the greatest victory in the last 25 games anyway.”
And that win would remain signature until the Fiesta Bowl, when interim coach Bill Stewart injected his team with enthusiasm and stunned Oklahoma in that Fiesta Bowl, 48-28, rushing for 349 yards, of which 150 belongs to quarterback Patrick White and 113 to Noel Devine.
“That was a colossal win for us,” Stewart said at the time.
Another game comes to mind, this a bowl loss, again with Nehlen coaching.
The Mountaineers came into the Sun Bowl of 1987 with a team ready to explode on an undefeated season in 1988, but they ran into an Oklahoma State team that had Thurman Thomas at running back with Barry Sanders backing him up.
Each is an NFL Hall of Fame player, Thomas showing it in the game by gaining 157 yards and four touchdowns during a snow storm. Oh, WVU outrushed Oklahoma State easily with 356 rushing yards to 194 for the Cowboys.
A.B. Brown actually outgained Thomas with 167 rushing yards and two TDs while Major Harris rushed for 103 yards.
The next greatest game was on the basketball floor. It was a Sweet 16 game against Texas in the Georgia Dome in 2006. John Beilein’s team fell behind by 14 points but roared from behind. With five seconds to go, Kevin Pittsnogle hit a long 3 to tie the score, seemingly sending the game to overtime.
But Kenton Paulino came rushing down the court and launched a desperation 3 at the final second and it somehow was straight and true, leaving the Mountaineers beaten, 74-71, each with a stunned, unbelieving look on his face.
“It’s sad for these five that have worked so hard and to have it end one day is very difficult for everyone to grasp right now,” said Beilein. “But I’m so proud of them for the way they fought back tonight and the way they have fought back throughout their careers. They can hold their heads high for what they have accomplished.”
Now, WVU will get a chance at revenge ... every year.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.