How are West Virginia University, Morgantown, and West Virginia benefiting from the university’s membership in the Big 12? In more ways than you know.
On the morning of Monday, October 24, 2011, then–WVU President Jim Clements sat in his wood-paneled office in Stewart Hall, waiting for a call. It’s easy to picture him: always in a collar and tie, always with an upbeat, restless energy.
Clements was confident, but nervous. But excited. The Big East had gradually been coming unraveled, and WVU needed to make a move. “My view was, WVU could fit well within the Big 12 or the ACC or the SEC, but we had to get into a Power Five conference for the future of the university,” he recalls. “If we fell to a smaller conference, it would really hurt not just athletics, but academics and research.”
Now–WVU President Gordon Gee, who headed up The Ohio State University at the time and was also a past president of WVU in the 1980s, had a strong interest in the progress. “I was the chairman of the Big 10 efforts to admit Rutgers and Maryland around that time, so I was on the other end of this thing. Dr. Clements and I talked a great deal,” he recalls. “I would have loved to have seen WVU in the Big 10, but that was not to be.”
It was an open secret that the University of Louisville was also making a strong bid for the Big 12’s one open spot. Clements and others with an interest in WVU’s future, especially Athletic Director Oliver Luck, were working every channel.
“Most people think it’s the athletic directors who vote,” Clements says, “but it’s actually the presidents.” So in the days leading up to the meeting, right through Sunday and deep into the night, while Luck was calling the Big 12 athletic directors to persuade them to advocate for WVU, Clements had been calling the schools’ presidents and chancellors to make WVU’s case.
Now it was Monday morning, and the Big 12’s board of directors was meeting in Dallas. “I knew they were meeting that day. I knew the time they were meeting. I knew who was in that meeting, and I’d worked hard on every president and chancellor in that group,” Clements says.
Finally the call came. It was Interim Big 12 Commissioner Chuck Neinas. “He said, ‘Mr. President, the Big 12 would like to extend an invitation to WVU to join the conference.’ It’s a call I’ll never forget.”
Seven years in, it’s easy to appreciate the boost Big 12 membership has given athletics at WVU. What Clements foresaw but isn’t obvious to the rest of us is how that membership has also elevated the university’s academics and research. Morgantown magazine talked with some insiders about seven things the university, the town, and the state have gained over these seven years.
I. MORE EXCITING COMPETITION
This, for many, is the point. “Across the board, for each of the sports, the Big 12 is better competition than the Big East was. That’s what you want—to be with the best,” says Luck.
“There are only 65 institutions that make up the Power Five conferences,” says WVU Athletic Director Shane Lyons of the exclusive club that is the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. “Being in the Big 12 has stepped up our level of competition.”
And that lets WVU recruit a higher-caliber athlete.
“You’ve got unbelievable athletes in the conference, so we needed to rise to the occasion to be competitive, and I think by and large we have,” Luck says. His enduring attachment to WVU shows in the way, almost four years after he left for the NCAA, he still says “we.” “The Mountaineers opened their season on national television—it used to be regional television. Athletes know they’re going to be on TV every week. Those little differences, they’re not so little. They do make an overall impact on the quality of student athlete you’re recruiting.”
Take the example of men’s basketball, Lyons says. “Three of the last four years in the Sweet 16—you’re in one of the best basketball leagues in the country, with Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and down the line. Same with football, competing with the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and so on,” he says. “In the recruiting process you find that athletes, they want exposure, they want to compete at the highest level.”
II. LOTS MORE MONEY
We heard a lot about the monstrous piles of money to come when the Big 12 deal was in the works in 2011. They are indeed monstrous.
“Some things don’t necessarily change much—like how many Mountaineer tickets are sold for a football or basketball game, that may have gone up 10 or 15 percent,” Luck says. Those revenues are real and they support the athletic programs, but they’re not the big money. “What moves the needle is the television payout. You have to be in a big conference for that—the networks pay lots of money to broadcast Big 12 games.”
How much? “Last year, I believe we were around $35 million, our share as a member of the Big 12,” Lyons says. “In the Big East, at our high we were at about $8 million.” Those big new revenues cover more than a third of the $93 million athletic budget that pays for travel, scholarships, and operating expenses. Also, bigger and better athletic facilities—more on that below.
There’s another level to the money. Big 12 home games bring a new cadre of people to Morgantown and West Virginia, eating meals and staying in hotels. That’s an immediate economic boost, and it can also spin up into a larger, longer-term one. “I would hope that by having people from Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas and Iowa coming and visiting West Virginia and seeing our university, that they get a better understanding of what a wonderful place this is, what an opportunity it would be for business and industry to locate and invest here,” says Gee. This goes to the economic development aspect of WVU’s land grant mission. “Any time you get people outside your region coming and seeing you and leaving and saying, ‘Wow, that’s a neat place,’ then we have made progress.”
III. BEAUTIFUL NEW FACILITIES
It’s a good thing the Big 12 brings money, because there are standards to be met.
“The teams that we’re competing against, we have to make sure that our facilities are comparable to theirs, to some degree, to attract the best recruits—as well as to retain and recruit coaching staff,” Lyons says. He uses the example of baseball. “When WVU joined the Big 12, the vision was to build a brand new stadium. The new Monongalia County Ballpark has helped us be competitive in the Big 12, a solid baseball conference.” Football, too. “When competing with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU, obviously we have to continue making improvements in our own stadium and other football facilities.”
This extends to all of the Big 12 sports. Currently under construction is The Aquatic and Track Center at Mylan Park. And in August, Lyons unveiled a five-year, $100 million athletic facilities plan for the Puskar Center football complex, the Coliseum basketball complex, the Cary gymnastics facility, and a new WVU golf facility. This plan leverages the drive to compete into a $100 million Climbing Higher capital campaign.
The benefits of facilities improvements ripple out. Athletes, teams, and fans benefit directly. Morgantown benefits from the construction jobs, and residents also enjoy use of many of these resources—the opportunity to host the minor league West Virginia Black Bears at the Monongalia County Ballpark has been a great addition to sports entertainment in town, for example, and the new aquatic center and track will have public-use components. And both Morgantown and West Virginia will benefit from the ability to host Big 12 swimming championships and other events the facilities draw.
IV. NATIONAL CRED
“Think about this,” says Clements, savoring the memory of WVU’s explosion in 2012 onto the national stage. “The Mountaineers’ first Big 12 game was against Baylor, at home, and we won 70 to 63.” The fun didn’t stop there. “The first away game was in Austin, Texas. WVU travelled in full force, as the Mountaineers always do, and we beat Texas—in Texas—in front of the largest crowd the Mountaineers had ever had. It was a Saturday night, prime time, huge national exposure, and the game went down to the last minute. The football team was making a statement on the field—and then, during the commercials, we were stressing academics. It was a wonderful thing.” A triumphal thing, a thing a university president remembers six years later like it was yesterday.
Why does that matter? “Athletics is the front porch to the university,” Lyons says. “There are studies showing a correlation between the success of your athletics program and applications for admission to your institution. It’s no different than the marketing aspect of any product: When you’re getting a basketball or football game on ESPN, it’s putting you in 85 to 90 million homes.” It’s the kind of exposure WVU used to get from a major bowl game, but multiple times every year.
And growing awareness of the WVU brand deepens the pool of talent the university can draw from. “That increased exposure helps us with diversity in our enrollment, whether it’s geographic diversity, interest-area diversity, racial diversity, or ethnic diversity,” says WVU Provost Joyce McConnell. “Also, if you look at the quality of the schools that are in the Big 12, we’re in a really excellent group of universities. It distinguishes us as being part of a conference that has some academic power, and that makes a huge difference in terms of the faculty we attract and the opportunities for research funding.”
V. A LARGER ACADEMIC FAMILY
The Big 12 schools are a lot more like WVU than the Big East schools were. “Six look just like us,” Luck says: “Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech. I remember making the rounds with various people and saying things like, ‘Once you get to know people from Oklahoma State, you’re going to love them. They’re just like us.’”
It sounds feel-good, and fans can and do enjoy the collegial feelings—but the value of it goes much deeper than is apparent.
It turns out, the Big 12 uses its platform of athletics to support academics in a big way. “This is not something that they’re just pretending. They really put it into action,” says McConnell. As head of academics at WVU, she puts a provost’s spin on what Luck said: “WVU is a land grant, flagship, Carnegie Research 1, full–medical complex university. There are other land grant, Research 1 flagships in the Big 12, and the fact that we can share with them the scope of what we do and the kinds of complex questions that we face is huge.”
All of the Big 12 provosts get together twice a year. “It’s an incredible meeting,” McConnell says. “We share issues of curriculum, enrollment, the most pressing issues facing higher education and how we’ve been approaching them; we also might share something as small as a particular piece of academic software that has helped us.”
Most of WVU’s fellow Big 12 members are large, and among them they’ve tried a wide range of approaches to, for example, personalizing the student experience to help retain students. “So, we did not have a lot of living-learning communities where students were living together in residence halls focused on particular disciplines or issues,” McConnell says. “Our Big 12 colleagues have really helped us understand how those help students feel more connected to one another and to the institution, and so we’ve been creating more of them.”
Faculty get in on it, too. Each year, 10 or 15 professors at WVU and some at the other Big 12 schools get fellowships that enable them to visit other Big 12 member campuses for intense collegial exchanges related to their teaching and research. Fellowships at WVU in 2017–18 included work in areas as diverse as the use of sensors in infrastructure and collaboration on an opera. And beyond fellowships, the Big 12 network opens up other possibilities. “Let’s say some scientists at WVU want to find a partner university to do some high-level research,” McConnell says. “Reaching into the Big 12 and being able to share resources and funding and knowledge is incredible.”
Gee points out another level the Big 12 works at when it comes to research. “Federal support for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are very important for Research 1 institutions,” he says. “We have to constantly make sure, for our research stability and opportunities, that Congress is funding them. West Virginia has three congressmen and two senators, and they do a great job, but when we develop common cause in the Big 12 on an issue like this—there’s power in numbers.”
VI. A HUGE OPERATIONS LABORATORY
The educational enterprise, especially at a large, complex institution with graduate programs and research centers, encompasses areas as diverse as parking, food service, and Greek life. So while the Big 12 provosts get together to talk about the academic side, others meet around operational issues—the chief diversity officers, the development officers who do fundraising, the alumni CEOs.
Big 12 student government leaders get together, too. An issue they discussed when they assembled in Morgantown in 2016 was Title IX compliance and sexual assault. The students made a one-minute video titled We Believe You as part of the nationwide It’s On Us movement to end sexual assault.
Operations and academics overlap a lot, and McConnell finds help with both. “Some states, like Texas and Kansas, have laws that allow students and faculty and staff to carry weapons on campus,” McConnell says. “West Virginia’s Legislature has been contemplating that over the past two legislative sessions, so learning from their experiences has been very helpful in understanding what it would mean for our campuses.”
VII. A HIGHER VALUE EDUCATION
Does all of this result in a better education? People who understand the bigger picture say it does.
Their response is based on this: The value of an education is grounded in what a student learns in the classroom, but it isn’t only that. It’s exposure to surprising ideas, to people from challenging backgrounds, to inquiry down unexpected paths. It’s residency in a vibrant setting. It’s engagement with a proud local academic community and a proud larger academic family. It’s the attitude that future potential friends, colleagues, funders, publishers, and employers have toward that education.
“Any time you can be with interesting, excellent institutions, it does improve your ability to do things on your own campus,” Gee says, “if you’re willing to learn and change.”