WVU hopes civility comes with new conference
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gone are the days of flying projectiles not made of pigskin at Mountaineer Field.
No more will West Virginia University fans encourage rivals to consume unsavory items.
Forget about the flaming couches. They're history.
At least that's the change some university and Morgantown community members believe will happen with WVU joining a new athletic conference.
"I think the move to the Big 12 does give you a different opportunity as far as making a first impression," said Matt Wells, assistant athletic director for marketing and sales.
WVU enters a new athletic era this weekend, leaving behind the Big East and storied rivalries to take on Baylor in its inaugural Big 12 contest.
The university officially became a member of the conference in July, but Wells said Athletic Director Oliver Luck has pushed to tone down unsavory fan antics for months.
It's not the first time the school has tried campaigns to increase fan friendliness, Wells said, adding most fans don't need the reminders. But he admitted those who fight, get drunk and set things ablaze get the attention, and maybe the move a new conference could be the hook that gets them to shape up.
"I think that overall it's important to be more civil and to be gracious hosts," Wells said. "We want to win, to kick their butt on the field. . .(but) we think we can still do that and have a great atmosphere."
That atmosphere ultimately comes down to fans wanting to be more accommodating, Wells said. But Luck has emphasized the importance of a fresh start with student and community groups, and Wells thinks changes already are evident.
Chris Northrup, executive director of the student fan group known as the Mountaineer Maniacs, agrees. The first two opponents of the season - Marshall and Maryland - are the only teams on WVU's schedule that could be considered rivals, and Northrup said fans were fine during those games.
While he can't speak for all 60,000 people at any home game, he said he's not nervous about the antics that have led to WVU fans' less-than-stellar reputation. He does think fans need to recognize the difference between rowdiness and rudeness.
"I hope we'll create on-field rivalries but that over the years the fans will stay a little bit more friendly than we were in the past," said Northrup, a senior.
Northrup and Luck pitched the same concept at the beginning of the year in a meeting with students. Several hundred students came to the meeting in the Mountainlair to hear the two, Northrup said. They discussed the idea that new fans and teams will be coming to Morgantown, and it's just fine to let the Mountaineers do the talking on the field, Northrup said.
He thinks the message sank in. He's seen more self-policing from the Maniacs, a concept the group already encouraged. He has sent invitations to his counterparts at other Big 12 schools to tailgate with the student group before games, and the group has emphasized sportsmanship more this season than in any since his arrival in Morgantown.
"You only get one chance to make a first impression," he said.
Local residents want that impression to be positive as well, said retired postmaster Tommy White. White is the coordinator for a group called the Goodwill City ambassadors; volunteers who meet fans from rival teams and see if they need any help or information on game day.
White said last weekend's Maryland game was the first time the ambassadors were deployed. He thought the roughly 20 people did a great job, and he heard positive feedback from both Terrapin and Mountaineer faithful alike.
He thinks such a local initiative is critical as WVU moves into the Big 12. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, White said he wants the new fans from his homeland to experience the same hospitality he has enjoyed since 2007.
"I want those people to see the beauty that we have up here," White said. "I want them to see that 'Almost Heaven' portion."
The ambassadors will be out in full force this Saturday, with people roaming and stationed throughout the parking lot, White said.
They've received a little training from university police about interacting with unruly fans, but WVU Police Chief Bob Roberts said incidents have been down this year.
Everyone is putting in the work to create a new WVU reputation, he said. But he's confident there's more to it than the move to a new conference: Mountaineers want visitors to enjoy their time in West Virginia.
"All too often people see the negative and they don't see the good," Roberts said. "This is an opportunity to help people see what the community is all about."
WVU football - and the push for civility - will be put to the test Saturday in Morgantown against Baylor. Kickoff is slated for noon.