West Virginia, on the verge of joining the Big 12, brings a ton of fascinating history.
For starters, it counts as alumni the greatest clutch shooter of all-time and the worst-ever shooter under pressure.
The greatest, of course, was Jerry West, Mr. Clutch himself, so named because he buried winning shots galore for the Los Angeles Lakers. West was too great for just one nickname. His other is “The Logo,” because the NBA logo is based on a photo of West in mid-drive. Mr. Clutch also was a great defender blessed with super-quick hands and was the most successful NBA general manager not named Red Auerbach.
The worst shooter under pressure? Barney Fife, the bumbling deputy portrayed by West Virginia graduate Don Knotts on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Fife had such a shaky trigger finger that his boss, Sheriff Andy Taylor, made him carry his lone bullet in his shirt pocket, instead of in his pistol. It turned green from lack of use.
But conference realignment, we constantly are reminded, isn’t about basketball or tradition or the greatest sitcom character in television history. It’s about football. In part, football is about mascots and marching bands and painted faces and, most of all, TV ratings. West Virginia earns straight A’s in all of those departments.
The student mascot, The Mountaineer, wears a buckskin costume, a coonskin hat and a beard, except when a coed fills the role. The Mountaineer carries a period rifle and powder horn. The marching band, known as “The Pride of West Virginia,” has had as many as 390 members at a time. John Denver’s “Country Roads” isn’t the school’s official fight song, but it does get the biggest rise out of the wild crowds in Morgantown.
Never having seen a football game in either Columbia, Mo., or Morgantown, W.V., I can only go on how the atmospheres jump out of a TV set. Based on that, it’s no comparison. West Virginia’s a more exciting conference member than Missouri. A bonus: Mountaineers basketball coach Bob Huggins ranks among the most candid interviews in the game. And if Kentucky’s John Calipari or Butler’s Brad Stevens isn’t the best college basketball coach without a national title, then it’s Huggins. Missouri couldn’t keep its elite hoops coach, Mike Anderson, but West Virginia won’t have that problem. Huggins played at the school he coaches and enjoys hanging out with the buddies he made during his college days.
Missouri’s expected departure to the SEC spells an end to the great rivalry with Kansas, which has no reason to want to continue it. That’s one of the more unfortunate victims of conference realignment, but life goes on for Kansas and the Big 12.
Now Missouri must develop a conference rival. Upon departing the Southwest Conference in 1991, Arkansas left Texas, its chief rival, behind. The Razorbacks figured they would develop a new rivalry in no time. They still don’t have one. Provided Mizzou and Arkansas end up in the same division of the realigned SEC, they could become each other’s border rivals. They could play for a box of chocolates, or to give it a more local flavor, a bag of Tootsie Rolls.