- David Ubben, College Football
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Texas A&M looked likely to leave the Big 12 in late August. Rumors and speculation reigned on the topic of who could replace the Aggies.
At least one report placed Pittsburgh on the supposed "Big 12 short list."
West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck saw it, and thus began the Mountaineers' road to the Big 12.
"If Pitt is on the short list, there’s no reason that West Virginia shouldn’t be on the Big 12 short list," Luck told ESPN.com. "That’s when, to myself, I began to think, because normally, you don’t think Big 12 and Pittsburgh. You don’t think Big 12 and West Virginia.
"I remember saying to myself and saying to my wife, 'If that story was accurate, and Pitt used that as leverage to get in the ACC,' I remember thinking: Well, this is certainly a possibility.”
Luck was driving with his family to the Mountaineers' road win over Maryland on Sept. 17 when he got the call. He was just outside Hancock, Md. Pitt and Syracuse were leaving for the ACC.
"We love to hate Pitt, but we have 104 years of history together," Luck said. "When those two schools left, that was a blow to the Big East. I don’t care how you cut it, it was a blow to the Big East."
Weeks later, Texas A&M made its move to the SEC official. The Big 12 plugged its vacancy with TCU, who canceled plans to join the Big East.
"I think it was pretty obvious that the league was going to struggle. We hadn’t added a new member since 2005. Sitting in these AD meetings, there was no expansion committee to speak of," Luck said. "You’re down to five members with no clear-cut expansion candidates, with no activity, so at that point I think people -- and not just me -- realized that we needed to look around and make sure first and foremost that we were going to be in a conference that maintained high standards and high-quality opponents."
Missouri was toying with a move to the SEC, but West Virginia was also a candidate to join A&M in the SEC and become the league's 14th member.
"Missouri held a lot of the cards," Luck said. "We and the SEC and the Big 12 in a sense waited on a final decision on Missouri’s status, and that then prompted additional opportunities and decisions."
Missouri chose to leave for the SEC, becoming the fourth Big 12 member in less than two years to abandon the league it helped found 15 years earlier.
The Big 12 needed a 10th member, both to fill its schedule and television contract.
West Virginia looked around and saw Rutgers as the only original football member of the Big East when the Mountaineers joined in 1991.
"We didn’t really leave the Big East. It left us," Luck said. "We had joined a conference that had certain schools like Virginia Tech, and now we were finding ourselves with only one original member.
"The conference had fundamentally changed."
The Big 12's members had granted their media rights to the conference for six years, establishing some stability for a league that lacked it in recent years.
Compared to the Big East, though?
"We couldn’t afford to find ourselves on the outside looking in," Luck said.
He watched schools like Houston, even with its Hall of Famers and Heisman winner, get pushed out of the adults' table at college football. It took TCU 30 years to win its way back in.
"It’s much easier to stay in than get knocked out and try to get back in," Luck said. "That was always the fear. I’m not trying to say the Big East is on the outside looking in, but clearly, with the loss of so many good teams in the last 10 years between VT, Miami, BC, Pitt, TCU, there’s a lot of top-20 football teams that had left and are playing in other conferences."
West Virginia's mind was made up. It wanted out. The Big 12 needed help. Luck never saw WVU leaving its East Coast history behind, but the school's future and the decisions of the league's members made it a necessary choice.
"I didn’t give [the Big East] any explanation. I said we’re leaving. We never flinched. We never blinked. We said we’re not going to be playing in the Big East any longer beyond this season. We made it very clear we had no intention of compromising," Luck said. "We said, 'We’re leaving, don’t waste your time trying to convince us to stay. We’re gone.' I think that helped the process. It certainly accelerated it, because they realized very quickly that there was no turning back from us."
A lawsuit slowed the exit, and WVU was forced to pay the Big East $20 million -- four times the original exit fee -- to leave for the Big 12.
If that means West Virginia has found its league home forever, there's no doubt in Morgantown that the move will be worth it. Donations and season-ticket sales have been "unprecedented."
"Our episode was a challenging one for us, but I think we find ourselves in a really good spot. It was hectic. There was some anxiety involved," Luck said. "It’s a little bit of an adjustment to say, well, now we’re going to be playing Texas and TCU and Oklahoma and Baylor and those Texas schools. But I think it’s been a very positive change."
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