By Bob Redd
For The Register-Herald
More than 400 people filled the Chuck Mathena Center to welcome coaches and administrators from West Virginia University Wednesday evening for the annual Southern West Virginia Mountaineer Athletic Club Coaches Caravan.
“I’m really glad to be here to see us jump into the Big 12 and ready to see what happens,” said Mountaineer fan Brock Smith of Bishop, Va.
That sentiment was shared by nearly everyone at the event. Helmets from nine of the 10 Big 12 schools were on display on the stage of the CMC, where fans mingled with Bob Huggins, Dana Holgorsen, Oliver Luck, Mike Carey and others prior to dinner.
Each corner of the stage seemed to feature a coach and a swarm of fans gathered around with camera and items for autographs. Those doing the signing and posing for the pictures were accommodating.
After dinner in the foyer and outside, in between the raindrops, those in attendance gathered in the auditorium to hear from WVU athletic royalty.
Jim Ferguson, chairman of the event, opened with a few remarks and got the crowd roused, saying that, “All our sports teams compete with the best the NCAA has to offer, and behind that are the passionate fans of West Virginia University.”
He led a round of “Let’s Go, Mountaineers,” recognized committee members and then turned the podium over to master of ceremonies Tony Caridi, play-by-play announcer of the Mountaineers.
Caridi honored former football coach Bill Stewart with a moment of silence. Stewart died of a heart attack on the golf course at Stonewall Resort on Monday. His funeral will be held Friday in Morgantown and he will be buried later that day in his home town of New Martinsville.
Caridi then recognized Frazier Miller for his dedicated work to WVU, and basketball coach Huggins presented him with a Mountaineer statue.
Caridi talked about the changing landscape of college athletics and recalled the day in College Park, Md., when WVU was preparing to play Maryland, that word came of Pitt and Syracuse joining the Atlantic Coast Conference and how disappointed WVU was in that they were not going to that league.
He then talked about last week’s announcement of the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference agreeing to have their champions play in a bowl, and that coupled with the Big 10 and Pac 12 playing in the Rose Bowl creates four power conferences, down from six, and said, “The greatest thing that has ever happened to WVU was not being in the ACC.”
The crowd roared with applause.
Athletic Director Oliver Luck took to the podium and spoke to the status of the athletic department. Luck talked about the upcoming basketball schedule and said it’s good to have Virginia Tech back on the schedule.
“WVU vs. VPI, it’s been too long they’ve been off the schedule,” Luck said. “I want to fill up Blacksburg with Mountaineers.”
WVU and Virginia Tech will play the next two seasons on the hardwood.
Luck also asked for the cooperation of fans as new teams who may not know where West Virginia is — who think the capital is Richmond — visit Morgantown.
“Extend a hand and welcome Big 12 fans to West Virginia. Begin a tradition of hospitality because West Virginians are the best people in the country. Welcome them to your tailgates, give them a beer. But you don’t have to do that for Marshall,” he joked.
Luck talked about the fact that Holgorsen coached eight years in the Big 12 and Huggins also coached there.
“We’ve got guys who really understand this conference,” Luck noted. “This is a great opportunity for us.”
Football coach Dana Holgorsen was next.
The second-year coach, being a part of the caravans for the first time, spoke of the great welcome he and the coaches received in Princeton and Mercer County. Holgorsen talked a bit about last year’s team and looked to the future.
“Last year was very challenging and you lived it with us,” Holgorsen said. “That team last year were true Mountaineers. We figured out how to win. The team was thankful Mountaineer Nation could experience that with them.
“We’re stepping our game up in recruiting and it’s an exciting time to be a Mountaineer. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Women’s basketball coach Mike Carey brought the crowd to laughter joking about Huggins. After the fun, Carey talked of the women’s team.
“We’re excited about our program,” Carey said. “We lost one senior and have 10 returning players.”
While the Big East Conference was tough, the Big 12 has reigning national champion Baylor and the NIT champion Oklahoma State. The Big 12 had the highest conference RPI in the nation in the 2011-12 season, with seven out of 10 teams in the NCAA tournament or NIT.
Huggins rounded out the speakers and he returned the barbs Carey threw his way and again the crowd roared with laughter. When the laughter subsided Huggins told the audience, “You have no idea how much we appreciate you.”
In talking about the 2012-13 team the veteran coach said, “The good news is we have eight freshmen back. The bad thing is we have eight of those guys back.”
Huggs spoke about the crowds in the Big 12 and how WVU needs to step up and meet the challenge those teams set in terms of attendance and fan support. He closed by telling a story about how the great resource of West Virginia is not coal, but its people.
The evening concluded with the awarding of door prizes and silent auction items.