By Cam Huffman
West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck has been on plenty of tours around the state. Now approaching his fourth year as AD, the former Mountaineer quarterback is used to fielding questions during the spring and summer months about the approaching football season and even a few about basketball.
But everywhere he turned Thursday when the WVU Coaches Caravan made a stop at The Resort at Glade Springs, he was being bombarded with questions about a sport that has traditionally been an afterthought in Morgantown — baseball.
Luck answered every one of them with a huge smile.
First-year head coach Randy Mazey’s run from being a unanimous pick to finish last in the Big 12 in its first season to being in contention for a title on the final weekend and eventually finishing third, has captured the attention of fans across the state, and the team’s assistance to victims after a tornado destroyed the town of Moore, Okla., just miles from where the team was staying in preparation for the Big 12 Baseball Championship, even made the team a national favorite.
For Luck, all of the buzz surrounding Mountaineer baseball was a validation of a strong belief he held when he took over as AD in June of 2010.
“Going back to when I was a student at WVU, I always thought that our baseball program was completely undervalued and ignored,” said Luck. “I guess we were ignored because we weren’t very good. But the administration didn’t really support the program very well. Just this year, did they get a full compliment of scholarships.
“I always thought the university was missing an opportunity. Baseball’s a very traditional sport, West Virginia is a very traditional part of the country, and when I took the job, I realized that we needed to upgrade our baseball program.”
Many questioned whether baseball would ever really matter in the Mountain State, but the crowds that have come out to watch the team this season quickly erased the question marks.
WVU set a new home game record with a crowd of 2,053 in the opening game of a three-game series with Kansas at Beckley’s Linda K. Epling Stadium on April 26.
“To see a couple thousand people come out was awesome,” said Luck. “We set records here in Beckley. That makes it special. We always knew there was a lot of Mountaineer fans down here, but for the fans to come out and help us sweep Kansas was a lot of fun.”
That attendance mark was quickly broken by a crowd of 2,535 that turned out at Hawley Field in Morgantown to watch the Mountaineers take on rival Pitt the following week.
Mazey’s club then drew 3,279 fans at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston when it hosted No. 10 Oklahoma and 2,250 for game to of that series, which WVU won over the No. 10 Sooners.
“I always had this feeling that if we were able to get competitive, people would support the program,” said Mazey. “That was validated this year. It’s satisfying to know that baseball can matter and be relevant in this state. That’s good, because you want to fill these months of April, May and June with sports. I’m just happy that my suspicion has taken hold.”
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The support from the fans in Raleigh and surrounding counties may also make WVU baseball a permanent fixture in the area.
Luck didn’t hesitate when asked if the Mountaineers would be back in the area next season.
“We’d certainly like to,” he said. “We’re building a park in Morgantown, but it won’t be ready until the 2015 season. We’d like to talk to the Eplings about bringing another series (to Beckley). We also have a lot of interest from both Princeton and Bluefield about doing a game on the border. We’ll look at that, as well.
“I think even when the ballpark is finished in Morgantown, we’d like to continue to come down. We have a lot of fans down here. It’s hard to get from Beckley to Morgantown. It’s easier for our kids to come down for a long weekend.”
Playing every game on the road, though, hasn’t been easy. The fatigue may have played a part in the Mountaineers losing five of their last six regular season games to fall out of the race for the regular season championship.
Mazey alluded to that fact after a loss to Marshall in Beckley on May 14, but Luck wasn’t about to rule out the idea of traveling around the state again next year, mainly because of his belief that Hawley Field is not a proper host for Big 12 baseball.
“Hawley Field, by Big 12 standards, was at the very bottom,” said Luck, explaining that the Big 12 didn’t say the games couldn’t be played there but that he didn’t feel comfortable with bringing league teams to Morgantown. “By Big East standards, it was at the very bottom. We didn’t have locker rooms. If a player had to go to the bathroom during a game, he had to go where the fans go. Can you imagine being a Pitt player and walking into the bathroom with West Virginia fans? It was absurd. It was worse than Little League almost.
“I don’t want to subject the University of Texas, which has a beautiful ballpark, or Oklahoma to having to go to the restroom with fans or having to change on their bus or in their hotel rooms. That’s just not the standard that we wanted to set.”
Luck, who joked that his title of AD actually stood for Andrew’s Dad — his son is the starting quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts — and not athletic director, said he’ll sit down with Mazey after the season is over and the coach has a chance to wind down for a few weeks and discuss the travel and the options for next year.
But a full schedule of Big 12 games at Hawley Field seems unlikely.
“The same things that bothered me going into this year, still bother me,” he said. “We may do one (Big 12 series in Morgantown), because we want to close down Hawley Field with a bang. It has been a great park for us since the 1970s, so we want to treat it responsibly.”
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Not every sport at WVU found the same success as the baseball team in the new conference. The football team started with a 5-0 mark, including a 2-0 record in Big 12 play, but fizzled down the stretch to finish 7-5. Bob Huggins’ basketball team suffered through one of the worst seasons in the legendary coach’s career. The wrestling team didn’t win a match, and the volleyball team didn’t find a conference victory.
But there was also a national championship in rifle and the school’s first-ever Big 12 championship from the women’s soccer team.
“It was a mixed bag, but I think we learned just how good the competition is — not just in the two sports everybody follows, football and basketball, but in a lot of the Olympic sports. We know where we need to improve, and that’s a good thing.”
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Luck will not only be focused on building the strength of WVU’s current squad in the coming years, but also on building a new program.
WVU has to add another men’s sport to meet Big 12 standards, and Luck said it’s likely men’s golf will be coming to Morgantown soon.
“We’re leaning very heavily toward men’s golf, and we expect to have an announcement sometime later this summer,” said Luck, who said that he is not a golfer and instead took a three hour walk around the property Thursday afternoon at Glade Springs. “We think men’s golf makes a lot of sense. It’s the most affordable sport, and it’s also a sport that could feature the great golf courses in the state of West Virginia.
“We’re here at one of them, Glade Springs, and there’s The Greenbrier, Pete Dye in Clarksburg and so many nice courses. And, there’s a lot of good, young West Virginia golfers coming out of our high schools. It’s sort of a shame that we dropped golf back in 1982. We had it for over 50 years.”
Luck said the program will likely begin play during the 2014-15 school year, and that will give him some time to find a coach and get everything in order.
Luck said that a number of courses — Lakeview Resort in Morgantown, Pete Dye Golf Club in Bridgeport, The Pines Country Club in Morgantown and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in nearby Farmington, Pa. — have all expressed interest in becoming the Mountaineers’ home course.
“We haven’t really made any decisions at this point,” said Luck. “I’m not even sure you need a home course anymore. I think the players like to play different courses to work on different aspects of their games.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.