MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The signs are everywhere -- literally.
Giant billboards erected this spring dot the rolling campus of West Virginia University with the catchphrase "Big things are coming."
One could argue they've already arrived.
As of Sunday, the Mountaineers are members of the Big 12 Conference, a move that caps what arguably has been the most historic year in West Virginia sports history.
Athletic director Oliver Luck muscled his school into the prestigious conference using the courtroom, deep pockets, even political influence in order to leave the Big East and position the program for the future.
It all started, said Luck in a recent interview on campus, by tapping into an idea he knew to be true in pro sports: money flows uphill.
"One of the things that happens is money, attention, and interest flow uphill in defiance of the laws of gravity," said Luck. "As I was sort of watching all this stuff happen in college football, I said, you know, it's likely the majority of all this money from broadcast partners -- Fox, ESPN, Comcast, ESPN3, ESPNU -- all this will sort of ultimately flow to the big boys.
"I really felt that a school like ours -- we're not Florida or Texas. My North Star, if you will, was making sure we'd be in a conference where we could play with the big boys."
Luck was just a year on the job, returning to his alma mater after decades in pro sports, when there were hints of massive change in the landscape of college football.
"I felt we were in choppy waters. I thought it could be a significant time for my alma mater. And, as a former player, student, I didn't want to see us on the wrong side of the schism," said Luck. "I didn't realize it would happen so quickly."
The university's athletic teams, he argues, have unique status in the state.
"This is what West Virginia has," said Luck. "Pennsylvania has the Steelers, the [Philadelphia] Eagles, Penn State, Pitt, Temple. Ohio has the [Cleveland] Browns, [Cleveland] Indians, [Cincinnati] Bengals, [Ohio State] Buckeyes. West Virginia has us.
"We somehow had to figure out a way to stay affiliated with one of the top conferences."
Agreed, said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who lauded Luck for steering the program into a conference he called "an elite big-time conference."
"West Virginia University is our brand," said Manchin. "The Big East was falling apart as we knew it. The handwriting was on the wall."
More evidence came later when Pitt and Syracuse announced they would leave the Big East and join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Manchin said he explored options, even making a phone call to his longtime friend, Alabama football coach Nick Saban, to point out how well the Mountaineers would fit into the Southeastern Conference.
"He sincerely agreed," said Manchin, "But the powers that be thought Missouri would be a better fit."
When that chapter closed and Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, the door to the Big 12 opened.
But the move did not come without some drama.
First there was a political tussle as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lobbied the Big 12 on behalf of the University of Louisville, then suits were filed by West Virginia and the Big East.
Ultimately West Virginia agreed to pay the Big East $20 million, half of which is fronted by the Big 12. The university will repay a portion of that to the conference with interest.
The Mountaineers don't get a full share of Big 12 television money until the 2015-16 season, but eventually that will dwarf Big East television payouts.
Luck said the first spending priorities will be coaches' salaries, recruiting budgets and facility improvements.
"I think what's going to happen over the first year or two, our soccer team will go out and come back and say here's a couple of ideas of what they're doing at Texas Tech, Iowa State. Can we do that? Do we have the dollars? Does it make sense?" said Luck.
After a 70-33 bashing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl and with an offense well-stocked with returning talent, expectations for the football team have skyrocketed for coach Dana Holgorsen's second year.
But is it fair to expect much so soon?
"I think so," said Luck. "Dana knows the Big 12 better than anybody. I feel very confident that both he and [basketball coach] Bob Huggins, being former Big 12 coaches, really understand what we're getting ourselves into."
According to figures compiled by USA Today, the Mountaineers rank around the middle of the pack in Big 12 operating budgets.
Texas spent $133 million in 2011, a figure widely reported to soar to $153 million in 2012. Oklahoma ranks next at $94.3 million, followed by Kansas ($71.9 million), Oklahoma State ($66.9 million) then West Virginia ($61.7 million).
"I don't like the idea of just spending money to "keep up with the Joneses. Texas says we are the Joneses. And they are," said Luck. "We have to be smart."
First Published June 29, 2012 4:00 AM