CONNECTING STUDENT ATHLETES WITH COLLEGE COACHES
It hasn’t been a secret that conferences in college athletics are on the verge of major changes. Most of the talks center around where the money is: football.
Lost in the shuffle of major money-making programs are the numerous non-revenue sports.
West Virginia University’s non-revenue sports are among the top in the Big East Conference. Teams such as women’s soccer, men’s soccer, swimming and diving, and cross country have all earned conference championships or regular season titles within the past five years. The Mountaineers’ rifle team won the national championship in 2009, as well.
Women’s head soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown, who has won 189 games at WVU, recognizes the feats her team has achieved and those of the other non-revenue sports at WVU.
"We have a great program here and are lucky to have such a great athletic department to oversee these sports," Izzo-Brown said. "We are in good hands."
The non-revenue sports, while crucial to the University in terms of athletic talent and fulfilling conference and Title IX requirements, often go overlooked. While they do not bring money to the University, they still are an important facet in breeding student athletes.
According to the University’s latest gender-equity survey, the operating expenses for the 14 minor sports (excluding football and men’s basketball) totalled $7,098,543. Total revenue was $975,961.
WVU track and field and cross country head coach Sean Cleary understands why football is dominating the conference discussions.
"The rest of an athletic department lives and dies by the success of the financial status of the two giants," Cleary said of football and men’s basketball. "Fans may have their favorite sports to watch, but we cannot kid ourselves into thinking that the remaining sports are not all equal in that we rely on the wins and losses of the big two."
Cleary is overjoyed at the fact that his team performs in the Big East, a conference in which he calls the "very, very best in the country."
"The Big East has been very good to WVU," Cleary said. "I feel like so many coaches around the country are talking about conference realignment as if they need to leave the current set up, or be courted to leave, that the best decisions will be made for all."
Cleary said rumors regarding placing WVU in the ACC or SEC would be a step back for his program but would welcome the new challenge of competing in the two conferences.
Izzo-Brown, currently on the recruiting trail in Louisiana, said the biggest worry she, other coaches and even recruits have is about recruiting in general.
"The (recruits) and their families want to feel secure and part of that is knowing their competition within a conference," Izzo-Brown said. "It’s hard to sell something that we are kind of unsure of. It is very disruptive."
WVU men’s head soccer coach Marlon LeBlanc showed his loyalty to West Virginia earlier this year by turning down a job offer with his alma mater Penn State. His devotion also runs with the Big East.
"The Big East from a soccer perspective isn’t good; it is great," LeBlanc said. "One thing that people don’t understand about the Big East from a soccer perspective is how much travel goes into a conference game."
With 16 teams playing soccer in the Big East, travel gets tough to go from campus to campus as far north as Syracuse and as far south as South Florida.
LeBlanc mentioned that the proximity of schools in conferences such as ACC and SEC would be an attractive draw, but to leave what he said is "arguably the best conference in America," would shake up the men’s soccer program.
The total travel expenses for WVU sports teams in 2009 came to $4,844,464. A total of $1,089,625 is attributed to the travel expenses of all sports outside of football and basketball.
LeBlanc also presents an enticing point bringing Title IX into the equation. He feels more teams would be added in a bigger conference across the athletic program, which in turn may just spurn some extra cash to the University as a whole.
"The hopes are that with all the extra television revenue that they will be generating will trickle or find its way down to the smaller sports like soccer," LeBlanc said.
Newly named WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck said he’s received a large amount of e-mails asking if previous athletic teams would return under his reign.
"My response has really been that I’ve got to learn a lot more about that to make an educated statement on that topic, I just don’t know at that point," Luck said. "There were some great programs with some great athletes ... It’s about money, but I think given the climate of college athletics right now; it’s probably a challenge because of the uncertainty of where things might be four of five years down the road."
Luck is optimistic about the future of the department, but he too is unaware of which conference the Mountaineers will end up in. The former academic all-American quarterback for the Mountaineers and 1982 graduate said the situation is "about money."
Outgoing athletic director Ed Pastilong oversaw the department for the past 21 years. He has guided WVU from between conferences as an independent to the Big East Conference.
When Penn State decided to move to the Big 10 in 1990, Pastilong led an initiative to begin football in the Big East. Pastilong was also in charge at WVU when three Big East members, Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, bolted for the ACC in 2003.
He has grown close to those in the Big East and feels WVU needs to keep its allegiance to the conference.
"Our conference office, our presidents, our athletic department, we are continuously in contact with each other, monitoring the scene as best as we can," Pastilong said. "It’s very important that we remain calm. It’s important that we don’t overreact and that we maintain our allegiance to the Big East Conference. They’ve been very good to us."
In a statement released by the NCAA Interim President Jim Isch said, "As the conference landscape unfolds in the near future, the NCAA will be an active partner with our member schools and conferences to ensure maximum participation and education opportunities and a fair playing field for more than 400,000 student-athletes who compete in NCAA sports."
As conference realignment is expected to continue over the next year or two, WVU officials are confident the University will find its place among the top athletic programs in the nation.
Right now, all are happy with the Big East.
"Coaches in all sports seem addicted to the thought of leaving as if shopping around for a new girlfriend," Cleary said. "The grass isn’t always greener as the saying goes."
Tony Dobies, Brian Kuppelweiser and Brad Joyal contributed to this story.