The Kinder Garden - 2/26/02

I'm always troubled when I hear definitive negative pronouncements concerning West Virginia University.

It's not that I think everything is peaches and cream at my alma mater. I realize there are problems and issues that need to be resolved. There are huge challenges to be faced and overcome. However, I just hate it when blanket statements are made without any thought behind them.

The latest one making the rounds is "such and such coach won't come to WVU because it's impossible to recruit there." To which I respond: "Horse hockey."

There is no reason that top athletes can't be recruited to West Virginia University. Sure, there are negatives, but every school and campus has negatives. Is Morgantown any less attractive than Lincoln, Nebraska? Or Storrs, Connecticut? Ever made the drive to State College, Pennsylvania? The directions include the line "Drive to the end of the earth, then turn right and go another 50 miles."

The arguments supporting this bogus pronouncement about the inability to recruit and build top programs at WVU are just as short sighted. "Inner city athletes won't come to a rural environment." "WVU doesn't have the tradition." "WVU hasn't won enough games to attract quality athletes." Statements like those provide a convenient excuse to NOT build a winning program. Other than that, their only use is to fertilize a garden.

If arguments like that were true, then the same teams would win the national championship and be in the Top 25 every year. While it's true that there are some teams that are in those ranks more often than not, there are always teams that rise and fall. Who would have ever thought Penn State would fall to the level they have in football? Oklahoma went from the penthouse to the outhouse before bouncing back with a national title in 2000. Basketball is even more cyclical. A quick look at Sweet 16 teams over the past few seasons shows the usual suspects, such as Duke, but also shows a good range of different teams.

Some people point to environment as a determining factor, and I'll admit it's one of the positives for schools in Florida and California. But if it were everything, then why doesn't the University of Hawaii have a few national championships? Miami and Florida State had very long periods of little success before rising to prominence. Was the weather bad in Florida throughout the 1960s and 1970s?

There are many other factors that can influence recruiting and the building of programs, but there's no magic formula. Successful programs exist in warm and cold weather climates. They exist in major cities, and in rural areas. They exist at public and at private schools. The key is to find the right coach (that's the difficult job) and give them the resources to accomplish their goals.

To counter these negative arguments about West Virginia, I offer exhibit A: the women's soccer program at WVU. Starting from scratch as a new program, in just six years Coach Nikki Izzo-Brown has the Mountaineers in the Top 25 and the NCAA tournament. What gives? WVU had no tradition. They obviously had no wins or past successes to build upon. And they were in the same city and state where you supposedly can't recruit.

The answer is fairly simple. The women's program hired a dynamic coach who put every effort into recruiting and building her program. She didn't listen to those that said that WVU would be a soccer wasteland, or that the program only existed to bring WVU into compliance with Title IX. She just went out, overcome the obstacles she faced, and built a Top 20 program.

WVU also has programs with a history of long term success, such as wrestling, rifle and women's gymnastics. That shows that not only can a succssful program be built at WVU, but that it can also be maintained.

I know that not every program at WVU can be as successful as those I've listed. I don't mean to downplay the difficulties in building, or rebuilding, a program. The administration at West Virginia University is going to have to support athletics with more money than they have in the past. The coaches are going to have to continue with the unbelieveable number of hours and hard work they've dedicated to their programs. And the recent down cycles in the two major programs will have to be reversed. Which brings me to my final point.

The fact that WVU has never had a perennial Top 10 program in football, or that it's been 40 years since we had one in basketball, doesn't mean that it can't be done. It will take hard work, and some luck. It's not guaranteed. But in the end, it can be done. Unless we let the naysayers win.

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