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School president says WVU would survive Big Ten expansion

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Dr. James P. Clements thinks West Virginia University is well-positioned to remain a viable major power in intercollegiate athletics if Big Ten Conference expansion raids the Big East.

Clements, who became president last July 1, and associates have discussed the matter with other presidents and athletic directors. Now they're waiting to see how many schools the Big 10 will add. A decision is expected in 12 to 18 months.

In a lengthy, exclusive interview late last week, Clements touched on numerous sports topics. Here's what he said about the projected conference shakeup:

"We all want to keep the Big East together and strong. Regardless of what happens, how many schools the Big 10 adds, and what the SEC and ACC do, we are well-positioned.

"WVU is a great school. We do great research; we have great academics. ... We've got an unbelievable history in football as a football powerhouse, and we're ranked 15th in the national Directors' Cup. We have great men's and women's basketball programs.

"So we're going to be fine. No matter what happens."

The entire interview follows.

Question: How do you think the Big 10 expansion efforts will affect the Big East in general and WVU in particular?

Answer: All indications are that the Big 10 is going to expand. So all of us in major athletic programs are watching very closely to see what happens.

We don't know whether they will add one team, three teams or five teams. It will depend on how many they will add. So we're watching very closely.

As you know, some of the other conferences like the SEC and ACC have now said 'we might expand.'

If it's one school, that won't have much of an effect across other conferences. But if it's multiple schools, then many conferences could be affected from the Big 12 to the Big East to the SEC and the ACC. We simply don't know.

What I can tell you is that we're following that very closely. We've had a lot of discussions across the country with presidents and athletic directors just to get their feel for if something like five teams get into the Big 10, what would that mean to all of us and how are we going to respond?

I think it's going to happen maybe more quickly - the Big 10 has said 12 or 18 months. They're diligently trying to determine which schools might be good academic and athletic additions.

So we're going to keep our eyes on it closely.

Q: You and your people obviously have already done what you can toward making certain WVU remains a part of a major competitive conference nationally.

A: I love the Big East Conference. Those are good academic schools. Their basketball conference is as good as it gets.

WVU winning the Big East Championship in Madison Square Garden was magical. So we all like the Big East Conference and want to keep it together and strong.

Regardless of what happens, how many schools the Big 10 adds and what the SEC and ACC do, we are very well-positioned. WVU is a great school. We do great research, and we have great academics. We are the major research class university of our state.

We have an unbelievable history of football as a national powerhouse. We've got great basketball programs. We're ranked 15th in the Directors' Cup.

So we're going to be fine, no matter what happens. Whether there are five mega conferences, four mega conferences or if there are no mega conferences, WVU is well-positioned. We're going to be fine, no matter what.

Q: Just how important are intercollegiate athletics to an institution of higher learning such as WVU?

A: For us, probably more than any. Unbelievably very important. We don't have any proceeds from the state (for athletics). So the donors are Mountaineers.

I went down with Coach Bill Stewart and four football players for the memorial service for the 29 miners who lost their lives in that explosion

And the players and head coach brought so much happiness to the people there. It was a very sad time in their lives. Everybody just wanted to have pictures taken with the players. And they got autographs as if they were professionals.

So for us, I knew about WVU many, many years ago because I've always been a Mountaineer fan. I loved watching the Mountaineers 20 years ago, even in the Major Harris days.

And my son (age 18) always wanted to go to WVU since he was old enough to understand because of my following Mountaineer athletics. So for us it's really important.

The run to the Final Four has been incredible in terms of marketing the institution nationally. Every weekend for a month and a half, the number of students that have applied to the university has gone up. All of the NCAA tournament games were televised by CBS.

Beating Kentucky, Missouri and Washington, Georgetown and Pitt made students decide 'I want to be a Mountaineer.' So that is very important to WVU.

Q: Do you think WVU should continue meeting Marshall in both football and basketball? If so, what should the terms be for scheduling?

A: What I've been told, there are different views on the Marshall football series. Some people think it's very good economically for the state because the money stays in West Virginia. Other people have said it is better if we schedule other teams from out-of-state so out-of-state money comes in.

I don't really know the economics behind that or which figures are the most accurate, so I leave the scheduling to the athletic director and the coaches.

I don't get involved. But what the coaches have told me, it is really important to have seven home games a year (in football). Because our athletic program is one of the few in the country that are self-supporting. There are only about 10 in the country that can make that statement.

If we only had six home games, we couldn't make it financially. So we need to have seven home games.

So what they have said, in order for this to work financially it has to be a two (in Morgantown) to one (in Huntington). But I leave that to Ed Pastilong for football.

For basketball, I went to the Capital Classic in Charleston this year.

It was sold out and the game was great. I again let Coach Huggins and Ed Pastilong make the decision on that series.

Q: Were you surprised that WVU finished 9-4 in football last fall and 31-7 and a Final Four finish in the NCAA men's basketball tournament and 29-6 and second place in the Big East for the women's basketball team this winter?

A: No, I wasn't surprised. We have great head coaches and assistant coaches on both sides. I think we're stacked with great coaches for the men's team and the women's team.

I went to watch both teams win lots of games and was aware of their achievements. And every player on the women's team is coming back.

Q: Have you discovered anything in the athletic department that you don't like?

A: I have been really impressed. I think we've got really good people. I think they're hard-working, loyal people. People here are good and so passionate about Mountaineer athletics. I see so many positives.

I've been unbelievably pleased with what I've seen from the students to the staff to the coaches and to the fans.

We did have just one incident, the Pitt basketball game here, which was unfortunate. But we responded.

We had 25 people appear before a committee the next morning. The whole strategy and things we put in place worked.

ESPN noticed and that was important.

Q: Were you a student-athlete in college?

A: My assistant told me that you might ask that question, so I brought in something to show you. This is from 1982. It's the Randallstown High School athletics honor award dinner and I was on the Maryland state football championship team two years in a row. I was captain of the football team and pitcher on the baseball team.

When I went to the Gator Bowl, I had Bobby Bowden sign this because he was the speaker at that 1982 dinner.

Football was probably my best game (6-foot-1, 198-pound linebacker and offensive guard).

I had many opportunities to play in college. But I'm not the biggest of guys.

But I was an 18-year-old boy and made a decision that day. It was going to be hard for me to be an athlete in college and for me to be serious about my grades and to have any kind of social life.

So I am very impressed when I see someone like Reed Williams or Liz Repella. Both are nearly 4.0 scholars and superstars on their teams.

So I decided to become a scholar and not play any sport in college.

But the truth is when I get down there on the sidelines, I just want to get out there and play. I was a pretty good athlete in my day, though.

Q: Do you think that public financial support and that of TV and corporate sponsors are good for college athletics? If so, in what way other than financial?

A: Corporate support is important. We have so many companies in this region that support athletics. Without them, we couldn't do what we do.

We need the financial support, but we also need them showing up at games. We need to honor student-athletes when they graduate or help bring others on the campus.

So I think corporate support is important. The signs at the stadium and the advertisements in the brochures, TV and radio coverage of the games are very, very important. And a lot of those companies buy suites at the stadium.

So it's an important part of the program. Without them, we couldn't be as successful as we are now.

Q: If college athletics are not in the entertainment business or a minor league for professional clubs, as one prominent person said recently, exactly what would you consider them?

A: I've always loved college sports more than minor league sports. They are student-athletics, so they aren't professional or even minor league players. Only a small percentage of them will go on and play in the pros.

But they have a great experience as student-athletes and most go on and get their degrees and hope they get good jobs. They learn a lot of important skills.

A lot learn about giving speeches. Not only do they learn things in the classroom but also out on the field.

So athletics have their place. But we are an academic institution first. Sports are a part of it, just as research is.

Q: How does WVU's graduation rate for student-athletes compare to that of WVU non-athletic students? And where does it rank among competitive universities?

A: I think our student-athletes graduate a few percentage (62 percent compared to 58.3 percent) points higher than the rest of the student population. I think academically if you compare us nationally in terms of our athletes, we do well.

We do really well in some measures, while in other measures we could do better.


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