Oliver Luck’s job is to stare through Morgantown’s windshield and keep West Virginia on track. Still, he can’t help but glance in the rearview mirror from time to time.
He reminisced with a friend recently about what he saw.
Chief rival Pitt lost to Navy. Syracuse lost 56-0 to a 5-3 Georgia Tech team. Rutgers lost to Houston by five touchdowns. That all happened in just the last two weeks. Title favorite Cincinnati lost its quarterback and two road games to Illinois and South Florida earlier in the season.
“UConn can’t seem to win a game. South Florida can’t seem to score many points,” the Mountaineers AD told Fox Sports Southwest this week, “and those are the teams that comprised our schedule and our competition.”
Luck’s aim isn’t to take shots. He just can’t help but see another reminder of how much more uphill the Big 12 climb is for a program that won Big East titles in its final two years in the league, and totaled six league titles since 2003.
“I think we all knew that it was going to be a step up in terms of what we had experienced in, I would argue, all the sports we sponsor,” Luck said. “The first year last year and going through this fall season has just confirmed that it is in fact a step up. There are lots of talented players and talented coaches. If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you’re more than likely to lose.”.
The basketball teams combined to go 8-28 in Big 12 play last season. In consecutive seasons, the two football programs have taken turns falling well short of preseason Big 12 title hopes. Only Oklahoma State earned more first-place votes than TCU in the preseason media poll, but the Frogs have four losses in Big 12 play before November.
“We’re not playing well enough to do the things we wanted,” Patterson said. “Last week, the tweak went from trying to win the conference title to trying to get to a bowl game. Now it’s four one-day seasons. You’ve got to win three out of four to get to six. That’s what the goal is.”
West Virginia (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) travels to face TCU (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) on Saturday, and the two teams have lost their last seven Big 12 games combined.
The most difficult part of Big 12 membership for both teams has been similar.
“Managing our own expectations,” TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte told Fox Sports Southwest this week. “I’m not talking about fan expectations. I’m talking about our own expectations.”
That’s not expecting to win less, it’s expecting more out of the talent and resources on each campus. That’s the only way either program can return to the success each was accustomed to before ex-Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas extended invitations to the conference in the fall of 2011.
“It gives us an opportunity to reset our expectations, and those expectations are high,” Luck said. “In order to be competitive in the conference, it gives us a chance to take a look at what we do in all of our sports.”
A leaky WVU defense gave up more than 38 points a year ago, last in the Big 12. That undid a 5-0 start and an early top five ranking, thanks to an offense led by quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The defense is much better in 2013, but West Virginia’s starting quarterback, Clint Trickett, and top four rushers and receivers are all new to the team this season.
“We lost a lot of firepower,” Holgorsen said. “With that said, have to build your program to where you replace guys that move on to the NFL.”
West Virginia fell from the top five to a 7-6 finish last season, capped by an embarrassing blowout loss to former Big East foe Syracuse. A loss for either team on Saturday may mean no bowl game.
“It’s clear that we need to improve how we recruit, how we’re coaching the kids, how we do everything,” Luck said. “When I say recruit, it’s not just up to the coaches, it’s what kind of facilities we have, where do we need to get better, what kind of academic support services do we have, training tables, dormitories, all those things that are an integral part of recruiting. It goes beyond just the coaches.”
West Virginia hasn’t missed a bowl game since 2001, Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Morgantown. TCU hasn’t missed the postseason since 2004, and has played in a bowl game in 15 of the last 16 seasons.
TCU’s been unable to weather personnel losses from injuries and suspension. Starting quarterback Casey Pachall left the team four games into 2012 and missed five and a half games with a broken arm in 2013. Starting running back Waymon James tore his ACL in the second game of 2012, and three starters were kicked off the team in January 2012 after a campus drug sting. Those were just the highlights.
“You can go down the list, but all of it really doesn’t matter,” Patterson said, “because my job is still to win by one point.”
Del Conte’s not willing to take a stab at guessing if the last two TCU teams would have won the customary 11 games the Frogs were used to in the Mountain West. The two BCS bowl teams the Frogs fielded, including a Rose Bowl win at the end of the 2010 season, had one major advantage over the first two teams it fielded in Big 12 play.
“When we went to the Rose Bowl, our starting 22 never got hurt. The Fiesta Bowl? Our 22 never got hurt,” Del Conte said. “We’ve been decimated with injuries.”
Nobody at either school’s willing to make excuses, but doesn’t change reality.
“Everybody would like to have a (Texas Tech tight end) Jace Amaro. When it’s tough, when it’s a 3rd-and-8, there’s very few people in our league that can go out and cover him,” Patterson said. “I’ve always said great players make great plays, good players make good plays, average players make average players, bad players make bad plays. So where do you fall?”
Del Conte is a man known to reference Fast Times At Ridgemont High, among other 80s film classics, during staff meetings. He’s comfortable lounging in a chair with his feet up on the round table in his office, dreaming of an ambitious renovation to Daniel-Meyer Coliseum he plans to open for the 2015-16 season. It will be the facility’s first major upgrade since 1962. The hope is the facility goes from the Big 12’s worst to one of it’s nicest. The football stadium did exactly that with a 2012 renovation.
“There may be bigger stadiums, but there won’t be nicer ones,” he said.
Once the basketball stadium’s upgrade is complete, so will the heavy lifting of Del Conte’s job, which as he puts it, is “to give the coaches the tools they need to succeed.”
TCU’s long, winding journey through four different conferences since the Southwest Conference’s breakup before the 1996 season ended with a Big 12 invitation in 2011.
The fan commitment has been there. Season ticket sales are at an all-time high. West Virginia and TCU both set new records for donations in the first fiscal year after joining the Big 12. In February 2012, the Mountaineers opened up a state-of-the-art, $24.1 million, 64,000-square foot basketball practice facility.
It’s hard to think of the money during Del Conte’s Sunday morning visits to Yogi’s in Fort Worth after TCU games. He misses seeing smiling faces chowing down on bagels at the local eatery, just like any TCU fan. The celebration Sundays don’t come around as frequently as they once did. TCU lost seven Mountain West games in seven seasons. It has lost nine games in just a season and a half of Big 12 play.
The on-field results haven’t been what the Frogs wanted to see in their first two seasons in their new home, but Del Conte operates these days with a comfort in knowing the next step for the program will come in Fort Worth, not in the board room of a new conference the Frogs can’t control. TCU is home, even if life hasn’t been as peachy there as it imagined.
“We’ve been working ourselves since the time the Southwest Conference broke up until now to get back in,” Del Conte said. “Competition-wise, I think it’s just an adjustment period. I understand people’s angst and our fans’ angst, but at the same time, the faith in our coaches by our administration has never wavered, and they all have a plan to be successful.”
Patterson led the way in that category. He’s turned down a number of suitors since arriving in 2000 to stay at TCU, and hasn’t given Del Conte reason to doubt that seven-win seasons won’t be the norm for the Frogs as recruiting allows the program to grow.
“We knew going into the Big 12 we didn’t have the depth at every position,” Del Conte said. “A lot of those schools have been in the league forever. We’re a newbie. You could say the same thing for West Virginia.”
Holgorsen was one of the hottest names in college coaching when he took over at West Virginia in 2011, and won a Big East title and an Orange Bowl in Year 1. Two years later, with the Mountaineers either headed for no postseason or a mediocre bowl game, the recent struggles have spawned unrest. Luck declined comment on Holgorsen’s future or an assessment of his current performance, citing a personal belief that commenting on coaches’ performance in midseason is “inappropriate.” Luck himself is embroiled in discussion about his future. He’s reportedly the lead candidate to replace DeLoss Dodds as the Texas athletic director. On Monday, Luck declined comment on if he’d had contact with the Longhorns or their representatives.
The losing has taken a toll, but both programs’ plan is similar. An upgrade in competition necessitates an upgrade in on-campus talent.
“Anytime you take a program that’s averaged 9-10 wins over the last six years or whatever it is, it’s tough. Kids are resilient. It’s tough on the coaching staff,” Holgorsen said, adding that he’s pleased with the team’s response to recent negative results. “We’ve got a lot to play for. We’re not going to accept losing. Keep playing. Keep improving.”
For two proud programs used to winning big on the football field, the past two seasons haven’t been full of much joy. The transition and proving themselves hasn’t gone according to plan, even though both sides knew it was possible.
“We have all the tools necessary. Gary’s one of the most sought-after coaches in the country. We have a phenomenal coach. Nothing’s changed. We just moved and there’s a calibration you take. That’s all that’s taking place,” Del Conte said. “Managing my own expectations and our fans’ expectations? I don’t want to manage. I always expect to win. I expect us to compete for Big 12 championships in every sport, but I also have to be a realist, even though my expectations don’t change.”
Earlier this week, Patterson found himself scrolling through quotes from West Virginia players and found some common ground.
“Like the one senior from West Virginia said, ‘This is not how I thought I’d go out.'” Patterson said.