West Virginia University's invitation to join the Big 12 Conference was a "done deal," with league officials booking flights to Morgantown for a Wednesday news conference, when the move was suddenly halted, Sen. Joe Manchin said in a television interview Thursday.
If that weren't enough to incense West Virginia fans, billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens, an Oklahoma State University booster, stepped into the fray, raising concerns to a reporter about the isolation of Morgantown when it comes to air travel. The runway is too short for large planes used by many teams.
But, while Big 12 officials refused to comment on the controversy that has reached Capitol Hill, Manchin, D-W.Va., told MSNBC that conference officials had reserved hotel rooms for the news conference and confirmed to Mountaineers officials "they were in" before alleged 11th-hour political pressure derailed the deal.
An outraged Manchin had a news conference in his Charleston, W.Va., office Wednesday to suggest a Senate investigation might be in order, after a report in the New York Times that political pressure by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., might have stalled the Mountaineers' invitation to the Big 12 and turned things in favor of Louisville.
He spoke on Chuck Todd's "Daily Rundown" on MSNBC via telephone Thursday. Manchin is the first person to outline the events of Tuesday on the record and in such detail.
"I can only tell you that officially West Virginia was invited to be part of the Big 12," he said. "It's a very prestigious conference. We were very pleased. ... And I don't fault any senator or any politician for rooting for their school and making sure that the facts are heard. That was done. That's the process. After they made their selection, they contacted WVU on Monday and again on Tuesday morning to confirm they were in. WVU accepted."
Manchin said Big 12 officials also wrote a news release they shared with West Virginia officials that would be used in the news conference.
"They even spoke specifically about finances. A [news] release was issued from the Big 12 to WVU officials that they would be using on Wednesday," Manchin said. "Rooms were booked. Flights were booked. And then all of a sudden Tuesday afternoon? That's not what we should be doing out of Washington. That's not the type of politics to be played.
"We've got more problems than this. But, on the other hand, I applaud everybody for rooting for their school, fighting. But, after a decision had been made, what type of politics intervened?"
West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck and university president James Clements had no comment Thursday.
In the MSNBC interview, Manchin again stopped short of accusing McConnell of any wrongdoing, but said he is hopeful the Big 12 is simply completing its due diligence and will extend an invitation to West Virginia.
McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate, is an alumnus of the University of Louisville.
"I'm not alleging anything," Manchin told Todd. "But here's the thing. Mitch has every right to lobby up until the decision is made. If a decision is made on the merits and West Virginia was chosen because of the strength of our school and our program and what we've accomplished, then that should have been said. Mitch lost fair and square. If he jumped in and played a different card -- and this happens? I don't assume that happened. I am very hopeful that the Big 12 is still doing their due diligence and they're just doing the final paperwork [and will] finalize the deal that they made. If that doesn't happen, then that's when I said I would ask for a Senate investigation to find out what degree of politics was played."
A CBSSports.com story Thursday cited unnamed sources claiming the portrayal of McConnell's late push is not as it appears, and that three senators -- Manchin, Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and McConnell -- were involved "for weeks." McConnell's office has not made any public statements.
David Boren, a former Democratic senator who now is president of the University of Oklahoma, told online newspaper Politico he had spoken with both McConnell and Rockefeller about the respective programs.
"To the best of my knowledge, no improper political influence has been exerted," Boren told Politico Thursday night. "Neither senator sought to improperly influence my decision. I simply listened to the positive remarks made by each and thanked them for their calls and information provided. No commitments were sought from me and no commitments were given."
For now, it appears the Big 12 is still researching its options. West Virginia and Louisville remain members of the Big East Conference, which also has been searching for new members after Pitt and Syracuse announced recently that they were leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Of the problems brought up about West Virginia, the small size of the airport in Morgantown has seemed to draw the most concern.
Pickens told the Oklahoman: "Morgantown ... I remember, you've got to fly into Pittsburgh then drive a couple hours. That's pretty isolated."
When the move to the Big 12 appeared to be a done deal, Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville questioned how difficult it would be to get in and out of Morgantown in an interview on ESPNRadio in Dallas.
"I thought it would be Louisville [added to the Big 12]. I thought they would be a better fit for the situation of the Big 12," Tuberville said.
"West Virginia's going to be great, it's just that the distance to travel is going to be a little different for everybody and for fans getting in and out [of Morgantown]."
While Air Force One has landed in Morgantown, along with charters from multiple basketball teams through the years, the football team flies out of nearby Clarksburg, W.Va. -- about 35 minutes south on I-79.
Morgantown Municipal Airport is in the midst of a master plan that will include expansion of its runway from 5,200 feet to 7,000 feet, which would allow larger and heavier planes.
"If we're going to talk Big 12, then can you put a team, coaches, trainers, cheerleaders on a 757 and launch it out to Des Moines, get that weight of an airplane off the ground in 5,200 feet?" said airport director Mike Clow. "Probably not. At least, not safely."
Clow said the project is several years from breaking ground.
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com or 412-263-1959.