An Ode to February Afternoons in Morgantown
In a terrible mood per usual, Tony Soprano makes an observation on nostalgia to some pals.
"'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation."
This is partly true. Dwelling on the past can keep us from focusing on the better parts of our future and things in the here and now. A future that consists only of reminiscing sounds like a prison. And in that case, Saturday mornings in February I serve a life sentence at the behest of Mountaineer Basketball.
Growing up, I was lucky enough that my family and I could consistently join the Coliseum to watch a matchup of the biggest and best the Big East had to offer. Jay Wright and Nova. Jim Calhoun and UConn. The ever-ethical Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals. Jamie Dixon and Pitt. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. Mike Brey and the lovable Fighting Irish. I shouldn't have to say anymore. Tradition was strong here.
Competition was STACKED. Every late season Big East matchup was a dog fight. And while I look to avoid an "old man get off my lawn" tone, the fact that these guys had stuck around and played each other maybe more than ten times means there was genuine animosity. These guys hated to lose.
And whether you had floor seats or were upstairs like me, you could feel it.
My uncle Shawn, cousin Taylor and I used to load up around 9:30, and make our way to Morgantown to see the spectacle. We would always stop at the Burger King by the mall and I'd hammer down a double stacker and Taylor would commit an act against God by using 30+ ketchup packets.
We'd pull off of the University exit, park by the track, and walk our way to the Coliseum. Nothing on our minds except the cold wind on our face and the ensuing competition we were lucky enough to witness.
I gazed as Da'Sean Butler score 43(!!) against Villanova.
I watched, jaw on the floor, as Roy Hibbert canned a 3 to beat us.
I remember Kevin Pittsnogle, the original 3 shooting big man, knocking down another 3 at the top of the key. All the old-timers and basketball fundamentalists (of which there were plenty at those games) hated it but couldn't argue the results. Who would ever think, a big guy not in the paint?
We saw Da'Sean Butler hit big shot after big shot. He was an offensive force and a leader Huggins could count on. The moment was never too big. He was a hero in Morgantown. We watched him battle with the stars of the Big East.
Kemba Walker, Roy Hibbert, Luke Harangody, DaJuan Blair (equipped with no knee cartilage), Hasheem Thabeet, Jimmy Butler. All came to prove themselves on those cold Saturdays.
And I remember the scene, with not a dry eye around, of seeing Bob Huggins leaned over an injured Da'Sean in the Final Four against Duke. I don't think Duke missed twice in a row that day.
That was Mountaineer Basketball. Through all the hard coaching and battles in the Big East, we had a group of warriors. The culture was strong. It thrived on competition.
Joe Alexander, Mike Gansey, John Flowers, JD Collins, Truck Bryant, Kevin Jones, Alex Ruoff, Darris Nichols. All these guys had the DNA to represent the blue collar mentality that West Virginians love.
Why's it feel so different now?
3 things are certain in life. Death, taxes, and the temptation of bigger TV money through football. Enter Oliver Luck.
The Big East, while providing compelling basketball at the top of scale, was a sieve as far as football revenue went. It was the only conference to have more than one school not show a profit. Rutgers and UConn operated at either breakeven or losses. Note UConn allegedly sat out due to COVID, not mentioning they couldn't afford to run the program.
To give you an idea of the money at play, in 2018-19 (assume the totals have gone up every year), the Big Ten generated more than 780 million dollars in revenue, paying out 55.6 million to each of the 12 members. Urban Meyer is the closest thing to Midwest Jesus we've seen.
SEC generated 720 million in the same timeline, paying out 45.3 million to 13 schools. This is before the mega deal signed with ESPN/ABC. The rich continue to get richer.
Big 12 paid out between 38 to 42 million for members.
I'm not even counting playoff and bowl bonuses for the top of the class.
This is serious cash. Schools are even more reliant on it after in stadium revenues were slashed due to COVID.
Flashback to 2010, in the Big East WVU was a giant comparatively in football revenue. (Note - the number I saw being 15 million generated in revenue, miniscule to the powerhouses of the SEC) It needed new partners to dance with. This was simply not enough in the changing TV landscape.
Luck had this part right. He saw that, inevitably, the money will run through blue blood football. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Baylor (also in Texas.) It was a savvy financial move. Paired with a behemoth of the sports business in ESPN, and while slow moving to optimize the wave of streaming money, has offered an alternative in ESPN+ to pair with the Big 12 and eschew it into the future of modern sports viewing. Cash included.
If there is one thing that I know, it's that after struggling for years to find the game on ESPNU, Mountaineer faithful couldn't wait to pay extra (5 dollars a month or 50 a year) to watch the Mountaineers in non-primetime matchups.
Running a business, this is a no brainer call. The beckon of untold millions for simply switching conferences and playing the same sports against different opponents and different places is merely the price of doing business.
But these are kids you grew up with in your neighborhood. All your memories are playing together. Not every transplant is painless and not every consequence is obvious.
What's the price of tradition? What's the price of Big East bloodlines sacrificed for the bottom dollar? What's the price of the eternal Backyard Brawl? What's the price of the look on John Thompson III's face as Da'Sean contorts to hit a contested buzzer beater in the Big East tournament?
You tell me.
Has this change resonated with student athletes? We have had continued success in basketball, lesser in football. Did an "offensive genius" in Holgorsen inspire you to watch and care about the Eer's in the same fashion Bill Stewart did? WVU had it's DNA altered during this relationship, and now it's searching for a way to regain that old moxie. WVU will continue to struggle to recruit against the Texas and Oklahomas of the conference. The travel alone is enough to dissuade athletes. It feels like the talented Florida pipeline we had in the 2000's is long gone to greener pastures.
In Bob Huggins we've had a cornerstone of WVU athletics. While we continue to have success under his regime and are consistently a winning program, the last few years we have struggled to retain big time talent. Javon Carter has been a shining light and his mythos feels like a throwback to the players of the glory days. It's why he resonated so strongly with the fanbase. Harris, Konate, Tschibwe leaving the program dealt tough blows, and while I know that culture comes first and guys must buy in, this has been a repeating issue of the past years. Is it location? Is it coaching? Is it a generational case of "kids these days"? Maybe it's the end result of a direction this train has been moving since 2013.
I watched McBride's buzzer beater against Texas Tech, and was proud to see him hit a huge shot for a Mountaineer Victory. But deep down, I tried to understand what was missing. Nostalgia is tough to reckon with. I wonder what my uncle Shawn, the biggest WVU fan I know. is thinking. Are my rose colored glasses poisoning my view of the future? I'm looking for an answer.
Tradition takes a lifetime to build. Lost tradition is sometimes lost forever. I can't help but miss those February afternoons.
Jake Smith is an engineer, son, athlete, scholar, corn chip connoisseur, lover, and "a stand up cat". You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org