As West Virginia prepares to enter Big 12, FOX Sports Southwest takes a closer look at the Mountaineers.
By KEITH FLETCHER FS Southwest
West Virginia's very statehood is wrapped around a sense of bold independence. Up to 1862, West Virginia was a part of one land mass and state of Virginia. It then became the only state literally torn in half by the Civil War. Virginia was a decided Confederate state, but enough people in the western part of the state wanted to remain in the Union that a movement to secede was made and West Virginia became our 35th state in February of 1863.
Chartered in 1867 as the Agricultural College of West Virginia under the Morril Land-Grant,
WVU was off and running. Women were allowed admittance in 1889. The school began playing football in 1891 with blue and gold established as the school colors, taken from the West Virginia state seal. Basketball began in 1903. They have always been the Mountaineers and a personified mascot draped in traditional buckskin with rifle first appeared in the 1930s. Two women have held the role of Mountaineer. The first in 1990 was Natalie Tennant, the current Secretary of State for West Virginia.
WVU's most famous alum is probably NBA Hall-of-Famer and coach, Jerry West. A statue of him stands outside the Coliseum. Renown comedian and wide-eyed actor Don Knotts is a native of Morgantown and attended classes for some time at WVU, but never graduated. In fact, when you drive into town from Interstate 79, you'll come into Morgantown on US-19, aka WV-7, aka Monongahela Blvd., aka Jerry West Blvd. The road will go right by the Coliseum and into WVU's campus, where it changes names to Beechurst Ave., then to University Ave., aka Don Knotts Blvd. Bring your GPS.
The Appalachian Mountains are in the heart of southern and easternmost part of the state, but Morgantown rests in the foothills, with downtown registering a modest 950 feet of elevation in the atlas. But, a 20-minute drive to Cooper's Rock will put you at 2,200 feet. By comparison, Lubbock sits at over 3,200 feet of elevation. Morgantown is mountainous in a hilly sense, not by that of high, jagged slabs of stone and thin air like in Colorado. When you come to Morgantown, be prepared to take stairs. Just about everything is on a hill or incline.
WVU is two campuses. Two separate and distinct campuses separated by anywhere from 10-20 neighborhood blocks from one another. The Downtown Campus is the original site of the school, but it took until the 1950s to realize that the school's growth was going to be stifled and hopelessly landlocked. It then acquired hundreds of acres of land to the west and northwest of campus. The Evansdale Campus is home to the WVU schools of medicine, pharmaceuticals, dentistry, engineering and law, the University Hospital, a massive and lavish Student Recreation Center, as well at Milan Puskar Stadium, the Coliseum and every other WVU athletics venue or facility.
Connecting these two, unique campuses is the PRT, generically named the Personal Rapid Transit in 1973 when it became first fully-automated public transportation system in the world. It even predates Disney's Epcot Monorail. Little gold and blue PRT carts holding no more than 25 people at a time zig-zag across the landscape shuttling students around the Downtown and Evansdale campuses, and is open to the public on football game days, shuttling people to and from remote parking sites.
The school newspaper is The Daily Athenaeum (www.thedaonline.com).
West Virginia is a blue collar state full of coal miners and loggers. It was a red state in the 2008 presidential election but, typically, the WVU community itself leans a little more to the left. Morgantown less than an hour-and-1/2 drive south of Pittsburgh, just six miles south of the Pennsylvania border. Sports bars like Kegler's or Varsity Club are prominently draped in Mountaineer gold and blue, but pro jerseys and photos are of Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. In fact, most Morgantown cable systems carry the Pittsburgh affiliate TV stations as well as locals.
This is a cold-weather state, but Morgantown typically receives under 20 inches of snow annually. However, just a 45-minute drive southeast into the higher elevations of the Appalachians will see upwards of 200 inches of annual snow.
Morgantown straddles the Monongahela ("mo-nahn-ga-HAY-la") River. Locals have no fewer than four passable pronunciations, but preferred among students and accepted local slang is "The Mon". The river flows south-to-north and joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio River near Pittsburgh, part of that city's three-river confluence.
The town sits on the foothills of the Appalachians. So whether the Mountaineers live among mountains or large hills, it is a full-360 panoramic of forested mounds in the landscape, easily making this one of the most scenic in the Big 12. High Street is the main drag of campus activity, where students come to study in coffee shops, find a cheap wedge of pizza or pepperoni roll, or a good college pitcher of Natty Light for under $2.50. In West Virginia, last call is at 2:30am with last serve at 3:00am. Students may favor the likes of Bent Willey's, whereas grad students and recent alumni may go for Chic-n-Bones. For the veteran crowd, present company included, there is fine dining and drinking further away from campus. One gem is Mountain State Brewing Company. Besides the beer, the specialty is pizza cooked in a stone kiln in the middle of the restaurant, as well as other homemade specialties like banana pudding. Outside is a sun deck overlooking The Mon. Further south on University/Don Knotts Blvd. is Sargasso, more of a 5-star steak and seafood scene with a resident wine snob overseeing an impressive stock. Familiar chain restaurants from Chick-fil-A to Applebee's and Texas Roadhouse are within striking distance of campus. The Varsity Club, across the street from the football stadium, is owned by a WVU football letterman and is famous for its jumbo chicken wings.
The unofficial signature food item of the state of West Virginia is a pepperoni roll – pepperoni and often various other cheeses or items rolled into a baked pastry.
Football: coached by Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers come off a 10-3 season, co-champs of the Big East, and a win over Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. The full and proper name of the playing facility is Mountaineer Field/Milan Puskar (pronounced "PUSH-kar") Stadium with a listed capacity of 60,000, but the record books show dozens of crowds in excess of that and an all-time high of 70,222 in 1993 against Miami. After every home win, players lead the crowd in a singing of "Take Me Home, Country Roads", John Denver's 1970s love letter to the state of West Virginia. Denver actually performed the song live upon the stadium's opening dedication in 1980. If Mountaineer Field has a familiar look to Big 12 fans it's because it was taken from the blueprints of Iowa State's Jack Trice Stadium. The timing couldn't have been more ripe for WVU to make a move to the Big 12. Quarterback Geno Smith is being touted as a Heisman Trophy hopeful, and rightly so. Many publications are including WR and return specialist Tavon Austin in the same conversation, and rightly so. Continuing its ties to the Big 12, earlier this year Holgorsen hired Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State to coordinate his defense.
Men's Basketball: coached by former K-State coach Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers have made the NCAA Tournament seven of the last eight seasons and all five years of Huggins' tenure. In Big East play, the Mountaineers are the only program with a .500 or better conference record each of the last eight years. Home games are at the WVU Coliseum, opened in 1970 with a capacity of 14,000.
Women's Basketball: coached by Mike Carey, just completing his 11th season at WVU. The Mountaineers not only come off an NCAA Tournament season for the fifth time in the last six, but an NCAA 1st Round win over Texas, before losing in the 2nd Round to #1-seed Stanford. Home games at WVU Coliseum.
Baseball: WVU's biggest work in progress. Home field is Hawley Stadium, capacity 1,500, and the school's most obvious immediate need for updating heading into the Big 12. This year's team was 9-18 in Big East play and did not qualify for the conference tournament. Coach Greg Van Zant's firing was announced hours after the last game. He had completed his 18th season at WVU and last took the team to the NCAA Tournament in 1996. On June 6, TCU assistant Randy Mazey was hired as the new Mountaineers head coach. In the last 6 years under Jim Schlossnagle, Mazey helped the Frogs reach the Super Regionals three times.
Women's Soccer: coached by Nikki Izzo-Brown, this is another sport where WVU will hold its own in the Big 12 in facilities, coaching and athletes. The Mountaineers are the reigning Big East champions and come off their 12th straight NCAA appearance. Facility-wise, Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium meets or exceeds that of any other school in the Big 12.
Women's Volleyball: coached by Jill Kramer, who enters her third season at WVU this fall. She played at TCU. The volleyball program is still seeking its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The volleyball team plays home matches at the WVU Coliseum.
Wrestling: coach Craig Turnbull is a local legend, having just completed his 34th season on the Morgantown campus. With 274 wins, he's the seventh-winningest active coach in collegiate wrestling. He has coached individuals to five NCAA titles.
Women's Gymnastics: coached by Jason Butts, having just completed his first year at WVU. The Mountaineers come off an Eastern Atlantic Gymnastics League championship, an organized league of teams from different conferences who do not have enough competing members to compete as a stand-alone conference.
Women's Cross Country/Track & Field: both coached Sean Cleary in his sixth season. The cross country team has a Top 10 finish at the NCAA Championships four of the past five seasons. For the track team, two Mountaineer women competed at the recent NCAA Championships - Jessica O'Connell and Chelsea Carrier-Eades, both seniors. Carrier-Eades took third in the Heptathlon. WVU currently does not field a men's track or cross country program.
Women's Tennis: coach Tina Samara just finished her second year at WVU. The Mountaineers come off a 4-16 season, 1-6 against the Big East.
Men's Swimming & Diving: swim coach Vic Riggs, diving coach Michael Grapner. Men finished fourth at the Big East Championships this past season and did not advance a swimmer to the NCAAs.
Women's Swimming & Diving: swim coach Vic Riggs, diving coach Michael Grapner. Finished third at the Big East championships in 2012 and advanced four swimmers to the NCAA Championships.
Women's Rowing: coach Jimmy King just wrapped up his fifth season with the WVU crew. Finished seventh out of eight competing teams at the Big East Championships.
The Mountaineers also field varsity squads for men's soccer and coed rifle that will not compete for Big 12 honors in their new league. Not uncommon for a school to have a sport without conference competition, such as Oklahoma's men's gymnastics or Baylor's tumbling & acrobatics. WVU presently does not field a varsity men or women's golf program to compete in the Big 12.
There are bits and pieces of West Virginia University that relate very well to other Big 12 schools. Milan Puskar Stadium is modeled after Iowa State's Jack Trice Stadium, yet sits within yards of residences and neighborhoods just like KU's Memorial Stadium. WVU is a land-grant school, like Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The school sits on the banks of a river just like Baylor, yet the campus is on rolling hills steeper than that at Texas.
In leaving the Big East, WVU is cutting conference ties with its most hated rival, Pitt. It's everything Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Missouri was, without the longevity. Easing the pain of the rivalry separation in Morgantown is the fact that the Mountaineers had won the last three straight.
The next two metro areas with the largest alumni are Pittsburgh and Washington DC. WVU plays James Madison at FedEx Field, the Washington Redskins home, in Week 3 of this season, September 15. It's WVU's version of Texas Tech and Baylor facing off in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
There is a passionate base for the school and especially the football program. Last year the Mountaineers averaged 56,532 in seven home games, which ranks fourth among schools in the 2012-13 Big 12 alignment, behind Texas (100,524), Oklahoma (85,161) and Oklahoma State (57,229).
West Virginia will compete very well right away in football, men and women's basketball and women's soccer. The locals will support them well. The only other Division I university in the state is Marshall, a member of Conference USA, which means that a vast majority of this state takes ownership in the Mountaineers. The Mountaineers will continue their in-state rivalry with Marshall next year, in what is dubbed "The Coal Bowl". That's actually WVU's season opener on September 1.
The overwhelming sentiment of the Morgantown locals is a collective exhale in leaving the Big East, and a guarded enthusiasm in entering the Big 12. Whatever uncertainties surrounded the league when WVU accepted its invitation has since subsided and been replaced with various levels of excitement.
"I just get the impression that after all these schools have gone through ... there's a great sense of camaraderie," WVU athletics director Oliver Luck told the Charleston Gazette after the recent Big 12 spring meetings in Kansas City.
As things go in college sports, when football and men's basketball are doing well, the bills are being paid and self-esteem of the school and its surrounding community is high. In that regard, the WVU football team comes off a conference title and Orange Bowl win, while the men's basketball team comes off an NCAA Tournament season. Suffice to say, Mountaineer Nation has its chin up being the new kid on the block. WVU season tickets for 2012 have already eclipsed 30,500.
As WVU coaches, athletes and fans make their way around the Big 12, they will likely get an inferiority complex over facilities. Milan Puskar Stadium is a rowdy place, but still has a traditional pressbox and small VIP level, but not the endzone-to-endzone expansion of suites and high-roller playgrounds. The basketball teams do have nice, new practice facility set apart from their playing arena – as is the new trend in keeping up with the basketball Joneses. Otherwise, athletics director Luck has his work cut out for himself in the years ahead.
There's already clamoring locally for the city or Monongalia County to step up and help build a new stadium that would be fitting of the Mountaineers in the Big 12 and possibly even attract a new minor league team. The current WVU baseball field does not have locker rooms.
Main concerns of the Big 12 move locally stem from the obvious geographical separation from the conference mainland.
"I know a lot of people here pride themselves on making every football game, home or away," said Brittany Hubbard, a WVU junior and bartender at Mountain State Brewing Company. "Now (with the move to the Big 12) they're afraid they might not make them all and may miss a game."
But as the move to the Big 12 Conference becomes official, the mood of West Virginia is summarized in its first team t-shirt relating to the upcoming changes. The back of the gold shirt features a Big 12 logo with an "Inaugural Big 12 Season" banner across it. The front features a Mountaineer with the words "Keep Climbing".