Monday, November 7, 2011

The Incredibly True (Probably) Story of WVU’s Courtship of (and by) the SEC

The rumors were everywhere – on message boards, radio talk shows, in newspapers, and even tweeted about on Twitter. WVU  was headed to the SEC.

 The consensus in West Virginia was the deal was nearly done. SEC officials were in Morgantown and the financial paperwork prepared  for the SEC was accepted. WVU, the crown jewel of Big East football, would defy the odds and win the day.

It would have been a great story—the “little program that could” defies modern corporate TV’s greed to win over the mighty SEC and earn a spot in the fabled conference—except it wasn’t true.

Mountaineer officials are not talking. They refuse to discuss the SEC, at least not on record. They story they tell in private is a glimpse into the fascinating dog-eat-dog world of conference realignment featuring moves and counter-moves of deception and positioning that would make Niccolò Machiavelli blush.

I’ve been able to piece what I believe is an accurate account of WVU’s efforts to get out of the Big East and into a more prestigious BCS conference, but for the sake of this post I’ll restrict the story to WVU and the SEC.

Despite the rumors and leaks to the contrary WVU was never close to being in the SEC. Not as 14, 15 or even 16. 

Many Mountaineer fans will take issue with that statement and claim WVU was so close to being a member of the SEC that you could actually see Birmingham from Morgantown—yet the facts tell another story. One that is surprisingly straightforward for the convoluted conference realignment fiasco.

WVU was destined to play second-fiddle to Missouri in terms of SEC expansion.

Commissioner Mike Slive was authorized to approach both Missouri and WVU to round out the conference at 14 after Texas A&M was accepted into the SEC.

Missouri was the SEC’s first choice and they said yes.

And that was as close as West Virginia came to membership in the SEC – waiting on deck in case Missouri said no.

Why Missouri?

Missouri was chosen for several reasons. First and foremost the Tigers had the television market to make expansion palatable to the SEC.

The SEC is a conference that values tradition and is slow to embrace change. SEC presidents had to be convinced by their television partners to expand and would only do so if the economics of expansion justified the change.

The 6 million households in Missouri, when combined with the huge designated market area (DMA) of Texas A&M, made SEC expansion extremely profitable and therefore worthwhile.

Mountaineer fans can take some comfort (or angst) from knowing that Missouri wasn’t the SEC’s first choice. Six other schools were on the SEC’s expansion list before Missouri.

Virginia Tech and Oklahoma were preferred but both said no. Other top candidates for SEC expansion—FSU, Clemson, and Georgia Tech—were in the footprint of existing SEC schools and North Carolina State had political ties (and other issues) that would keep them bound to the ACC.

Missouri’s candidacy for SEC membership was a product of elimination.

In the SEC’s expansion plan West Virginia was 8th on the list.

Mountaineer fans shouldn’t take this as an insult to WVU. The SEC’s expansion agenda was driven by television and television alone. The SEC respected WVU’s football program and thought the Mountaineers would make a great fit. Television was the deciding factor, not strength of program.

The SEC approached Missouri and the Tigers quickly said yes and West Virginia was no longer under consideration.

So what about the continued SEC rumors?

And what about those rumors of SEC officials in Morgantown?

The SEC rumors continued unabated despite all credible reports to the contrary. Why did the rumors persevere? Were they deliberate?


Some believe the continuing SEC chatter was part of a deliberate disinformation campaign to try and force the ACC to grab WVU before the SEC did.

The stakes were certainly high enough for WVU to try and manipulate the ACC. The potential ramifications of West Virginia remaining in the Big East required Oliver Luck to act decisively to protect WVU’s interests.

No one at WVU will outright deny that disinformation was used and the only conclusion I can make is that a majority of the SEC rumors were encouraged by WVU.

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