by Jim Buzzerd
What do you remember about the process of West Virginia University getting the invitation to join the Big 12 Athletic Conference?
I remember being on top of the process as much as I could. I remember being at a pre game party in College Park, Maryland prior to the WVU-Maryland game in September of 2011 when news spread that Pitt and Syracuse were leaving the Big East to join the ACC. This news angered me on multiple levels.
News flash, I’m biased in case you didn’t already know, but the ACC had already messed with my school’s athletic stability having already raided the Big East for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The Big East had somehow survived by adding Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. Heck, the Big East even had an automatic bid to a BCS Bowl. That was a good deal for WVU.
There had already been rumblings throughout college football about pulling the Big East’s automatic BCS bid. Already hanging by a thread, my gut told me the Pitt and Syracuse departure would likely kill the Big East football conference and WVU’s big time football presence. WVU and its fans have long wanted ACC membership and been turned down at every opportunity. That was bad enough, but now it seemed like they were trying to kill us off.
Killing our athletics may not have been on the ACC agenda, but I’ll never be totally convinced in my biased little mind. WVU needed to move quickly to find a new home and they were lucky to have movers and shakers like president Jim Clements and athletic director Oliver Luck working all angles to get West Virginia into the SEC or Big 12.
The SEC was a strong possibility, but they were courting Missouri and WVU seemed to be a back up plan. Missouri did indeed take a spot in the SEC, but that move left a vacancy in the Big 12 and WVU had an opening. Ultimately, WVU was invited into the Big 12 in late October of 2011.
Luck and Clements received virtually all of the credit, but it’s come to my attention that there was another player in the process who may have played just as an important of a role. Luck and Clements had an especially valuable ally in their fight to land in the Big 12- Don Nehlen. Clements asked the Mountaineers’ Hall of Fame football coach to reach out to Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas and help make their case. They’d been great friends for decades, dating back to when Neinas was executive director of the College Football Association and Nehlen was chairman of the coaches committee and the two worked closely together on a variety of national issues.
“Big-time,” Clements said. “That was key. That relationship was critical.”
“Chuck and I were really good friends. We had worked together for five or six years. He was the executive director of the College Football Association and I was the representative of the Football Coaches of America,” Nehlen said.
Nehlen said in an interview last week that when he spoke to Neinas on WVU’s behalf the commissioner told him WVU would need to play in 2012 and get an airport where they could land. I’m sure there is a little more to it that that, but Nehlen did seem to have a significant influence in getting WVU into a Power Five conference.
Nehlen arguably (some argue, not me) built the football program into a national brand when he came to West Virginia in 1980 and coached for 20 years. That’s the kind of stuff that gets stadiums named for you.