A third-century ago, West Virginia University’s football program was at a crossroads, the quarterback at the time now says, and the contrast between two choices was a stark one.
Oliver Luck, a three-year starter and two-time Academic All-American at West Virginia who went on to play five seasons in the NFL for the Houston Oilers before returning to WVU as athletic director, looked back on his college days.
“We were playing in a stadium that was built when people got around by horse and buggy, about the time of the advent of the steam shovel,” Luck said, exaggerating to make a point. “We could stay in that stadium and remain with Furman and VMI or take a bigger step and try to compete with schools like Penn State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Ohio State.”
If not for West Virginia’s pushy president at the time, the Mountaineers to this day might be grouped with Furman and VMI, instead of Texas and Oklahoma.
The pushy president at the time now can claim a second Big 12 school. Before becoming Kansas University’s chancellor, Gene Budig had been West Virginia’s president.
“Gene was the driving force behind getting the new stadium built, and that was the platform (for the growth of West Virginia football),” Luck said in a recent telephone interview.
Budig’s legacy as American League president can be found in cities across the country in the form of retro baseball stadiums — a project he and National League prez Leonard Coleman relentlessly pursued. Seeing what a new stadium, opened in 1980, Luck’s junior season, did for West Virginia might have been a factor in motivating Budig to push, push, push the ball forward on new baseball stadiums.
When Big 12 defections occurred, Budig decided not to watch from a distance. He dialed up then-acting commissioner Chuck Neinas and with KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and others in the conference to lobby for what he considered the perfect addition to the conference.
“West Virginia brings one of the biggest football and basketball national TV audiences to the Big 12,” Budig said. “They long have been one of the premier institutions in attracting viewers. This opens a new and very large audience for the Big 12.”
Luck confirmed that a search committee firm, which was contracted by the Big 12 when it sought a permanent commissioner, contacted him to test his interest.
“I told them I wasn’t interested,” Luck said. “I’ve got a lot of work still to be done here in Morgantown.”
Upgrading Olympic sports is on his to-do list, and he has no illusions about the Big 12 being anything but a big step up in competition from the Big East in football.
“It’s a conference you can’t bring your B game or C game,” Luck said. “That’s something we have to learn. Nobody knows that better than Dana (Holgorsen).”
Entering his second season as the Mountaineers’ head coach, Holgorsen came from working as the coordinator of Oklahoma State’s high-octane offense. He also had worked for Mike Leach at Texas Tech. That training and a good quarterback led Holgorsen’s team into the 2012 Orange Bowl, where it thrashed Clemson, 70-33.
Geno Smith (4,385 yards, 31 touchdowns, seven interceptions) returns at quarterback for his senior season. Smith isn’t projected to follow Oliver Luck’s son, Andrew, as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but he is a talented prospect and a candidate to obtain something that eluded Andrew Luck’s grasp, the Heisman Trophy.
Smith will be missed after this season, but West Virginia shouldn’t have trouble recruiting quarterbacks because Holgorsen’s is an enjoyable offense to run. Plus, joining the Big 12 should help the Mountaineers recruit in Oklahoma and Texas.
“It already has helped,” Luck said.
Maybe not as much as the new football stadium helped a third-century ago, but when entering with perennial football power TCU a football conference loaded with heavyweights, every advantage is needed.