Why all of West Virginia now hates Mitch McConnell

The Senate GOP leader may end up ravaging West Virginia's beloved college football program

Topics: War Room,

Why all of West Virginia now hates Mitch McConnellSen. Mitch McConnell (Credit: Reuters)

If you follow college athletics, you’re probably familiar with the conference realignment chaos now playing out, which is set to make big winners of some schools — while inflicting grievous and possibly permanent damage on others. If you don’t, then you probably don’t care much about the minutia of the whole saga, and it’s too dense to convey here anyway. For the purposes of this post, this is what’s important to know:

  1. Affiliation with a marquee athletic conference in football — the biggest money-making sport, by far –  is now vital to the health of any major college athletic program, since the marquee conferences command lucrative television deals and control access to college football’s premier post-season bowl games. It is essentially impossible for a school to win college football’s national championship without being a member of a top conference,
  2. West Virginia University is currently a member of what can charitably be described as an endangered athletic conference — the Big East — and (like every other football-playing Big East member) has been desperately trying to relocate to another stable, top-tier conference.
  3. West Virginians love their state university’s football team; on a game day in the fall, Mountaineer Field becomes the largest city in the state, with 60,000 fans filling the stands and staying after the game to sing John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
  4. As of Tuesday afternoon, everyone in the state was breathing a big sigh of relief with news that the leaders of the member schools of the Big 12 — one of those marquee conferences — had approved adding West Virginia as a member and were about the announce it publicly.
  5. Then Mitch McConnell got involved.

Yes, that would be Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, and as odd as it may seem, he’s emerged as a key player in a college sports drama. The reason: McConnell is a Louisville man. He grew up in the city, attended the University of Louisville, and remains a rabid fan of its sports teams. And the Louisville Cardinals are in the same position as the West Virginia Mountaineers: They are members of the dying Big East and they’re desperately angling for a lifeline from the Big 12. So when word broke Tuesday afternoon of West Virginia’s impending invitation to join the league, this happened:



But everything changed Tuesday evening, as the Big 12 backed off its assurances to West Virginia. Hard lobbying from another candidate from the Big East, Louisville, has created a heated race for the remaining slot in the Big 12 that Missouri is expected to vacate soon. (Missouri is still headed to the Southeastern Conference after it sorts through its exit issues with the Big 12.)

A person with direct knowledge of the situation said it was “too close to call” between West Virginia and Louisville.

Two other people with direct knowledge said that the lobbying of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, had helped Louisville. His communication with Oklahoma’s president, David Boren, a former senator, and Texas Tech’s chancellor, Kent Hance, a former congressman, played a role in raising Louisville’s fortunes. Hance confirmed that McConnell called him to push Louisville.

And just like that, West Virginia’s seemingly imminent move to a safe conference home is on indefinite hold, and the future of the school’s football team — and the foundation of its entire athletic program — is in peril. Needless to say, this has enraged McConnell’s Senate colleagues from West Virginia. Democrat Jay Rockefeller termed McConnell’s apparent intervention “just flat wrong. I am doing and will do whatever it takes to get us back to the merits,” while Joe Manchin one-upped him by suggesting an investigation.

In reality, of course, McConnell is only the latest politician to throw his weight around to protect and promote a college athletic program that matters to him personally (and to many of his constituents).

There’s the old story of Ann Richards, Baylor ’55, who used her gubernatorial clout in 1994 to force the University of Texas and Texas A&M to take her beloved Bears with them as they moved to the mighty Big-12. Texas Tech was included in that package too, mainly because of the clout of its alumni in the Texas legislature. This move killed the old Southwest Conference, leaving the rest of its members — Rice, Houston, Texas Christian and Southern Methodist — to suffer in lower-tier athletic anonymity. Fans of those schools still lament the ’94 deal.

More recently, Mark Warner used his power as Virginia’s governor in 2003 to pressure the Atlantic Coast Conference into revoking an invitation it had already extended to Syracuse University. Warner wanted the conference, which already included the University of Virginia, to add Virginia Tech instead — and he got his way. Syracuse’s athletic director later explained how it went down: “Yes, it was the governor of Virginia exerting a certain influence on the ACC on behalf of Virginia Tech, saying again they would pull Virginia out of the ACC if Virginia Tech wasn’t invited.”

There are even indications that Rockefeller and Manchin have been working behind the scenes to muscle West Virginia into the Big 12 now. It just seems that, for whatever reason, McConnell has more pull — at least for the moment. Still, if his Louisville team ends up playing at Mountaineer Field again in the future, McConnell would probably be wise to stay home and watch it on television.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>