By John Antonik
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – This time, West Virginians are watching and wondering rather than watching and worrying.
On Thursday, Colorado announced its decision to exit the Pac-12 Conference after this season to return to the Big 12, where it once called home from 1996- 2011. The Buffaloes were original members of the Big Eight Conference in 1948 and joined the Big 12 when programs from the Big Eight and Southwest Conference merged in 1996.
“They’re back,” was the brief statement released by Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark early Thursday evening.
From strictly a football perspective, Colorado’s history includes a national championship in 1990, 26 conference titles, a Heisman Trophy winner (Rashaan Salaam), 29 bowl appearances and 719 victories, which is 42nd among all NCAA programs. Although Colorado has struggled recently on the gridiron, optimism has been renewed with the hiring of coach Deion Sanders. He’s kept the Buffaloes in the news from the moment he was hired on Dec. 4, 2022.
The addition of Colorado, a traditional program from another Power 5 conference, clearly strengthens the Big 12, which is a much different dynamic for Mountaineer fans to process these days.
For years, West Virginians have watched with concern as their conferences got picked apart.
In 1952, after just two seasons in the Southern Conference, West Virginia saw Clemson, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest leave to form the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953.
Virginia Tech, left out with West Virginia when the ACC was formed, eventually dropped out of the Southern Conference in 1965, three years before West Virginia departed in 1968 to become an Eastern independent.
Eastern independence served Mountaineer football well until the late 1980s when Penn State delivered the jolting news that it was planning to transition to the Big Ten Conference in the early 1990s.
For years, Penn State coach Joe Paterno championed an Eastern all-sports conference and former WVU athletic director Leland Bryd recalled three different attempts to form leagues between 1972 and 1981.
But petty differences and a lack of foresight got in the way each time.
“(Former WVU AD) Red Brown was here in ’72, and Pitt dropped out of that. Pitt would not go along with it,” the late Byrd recalled in 2014. “Walt Cummings, assistant AD from Pitt, and Frank McInerney (athletic director) from Massachusetts were on that committee working on it.
“They wanted to get Syracuse and Boston College to come in as an all-sports conference, but we needed Pitt and Penn State to agree to that. At that time, Penn State agreed but Pitt would not. They had just brought in (coach) Johnny Majors and he was going to do his own thing.”
Byrd said another attempt at forming an Eastern all-sports league was made in the late-1970s right before the Big East basketball conference was created.
However, the most serious attempt at forming an Eastern all-sports conference occurred in 1981 and was championed by Paterno, who was then serving the dual role of head football coach and athletic director. Paterno was also on the College Football Association (CFA) television committee, so he understood the value of locking up the Northeast television market.
“I was covering the meetings in Cape Cod and what really sticks with me was (Paterno) talking about this future league and potential television revenues, and nobody talked about television revenues back then,” Bob Smizik, retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter, recalled in 2014. “Pitt was definitely a key factor there. Penn State wanted Pitt, and if it could get Pitt, obviously West Virginia would come along, but more importantly, Boston College and Syracuse would come along and that would throw a real wrench into the Big East.”
“Pitt thought this over for several months, did a lot of investigating, and I know it was not happy with the way Paterno had stacked the revenue sharing or revenue distribution for the new league, and decided to go with the Big East instead,” he said.
“The problem we had with the Eastern Conference was, at that time, Pitt and Penn State were just like cats and dogs,” former WVU coach Don Nehlen once recalled. “Joe, I think, did this in good faith, but he was monopolizing (Eastern) recruiting and Pitt, at that time, was awful, awful good. At times, when they had (Dan) Marino, Hugh Green, Rickey Jackson and all those guys, they were better than Penn State, so no matter what Joe said Pitt went against it.”
After that, Paterno and Penn State were done with Eastern sports and by the late 1980s were in deep discussions with the Big Ten.
In the meantime, the Southeastern Conference expanded to add South Carolina and Arkansas in 1990, the Big East Football Conference was formed in 1991 and Penn State made room on its schedule to begin Big Ten play in 1993.
The remnants of the Southwest Conference joined forces with the Big Eight to form the Big 12 in 1996, and eight years later, the ACC began picking off Big East teams. Miami and Virginia Tech were the first to go in 2004, and Boston College followed suit a year later.
The Big East fortified itself with the additions of Cincinnati, Louisville and USF, but became vulnerable once again when its television contract was up for bid in 2011. Syracuse and Pitt opted to go to the ACC in response to the SEC adding Missouri and Texas A&M, the Pac-10 adding Colorado and Utah, and the Big Ten bringing in Nebraska.
The Big 12 backfilled its lineup with West Virginia and TCU, and three years later, the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland, and the ACC added Louisville.
More recently, Texas and Oklahoma announced in 2021 that they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, and the Big Ten countered a year later by picking off USC and UCLA from the Pac-12.
The Big 12 remained intact by adding BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston in 2022, and then renegotiated its television contract ahead of the Pac-12 to create enough stability to entice Colorado to return for the 2024 season.
That’s where we sit today.
Nehlen saw this game of musical chairs coming decades ago when he was serving as president of the College Football Association. He remembers one meeting when Georgia coach Vince Dooley and Nebraska coach Tom Osborne got up in front of the group talking about the need for the bigger programs to separate from the smaller ones.
“They got up and said, ‘Hey, we need to have a league or a group of about 64 or 65 schools and to hell with the rest of these guys who are always telling us how to recruit,” Nehlen recalled. “I knew eventually we would end up this way.”
Well, we are about there. Stay tuned.