Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

Country Roads Take Me Home
to the place I belong,
West Virginia …

Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver 1971)

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” begins John Denver’s iconic ode to the Mountain State.

Too bad Mike Slive is no John Denver fan.

When news broke today that West Virginia agreed to join the Big 12, it marked a missed opportunity for the Southeastern Conference.

Slive, the Ivy League-educated (Dartmouth 1962) Southeastern Conference Commissioner, has by all reasonable accounts been a truly successful leader of the nation’s premier college football league. As anybody who follows the sport knows, he presides over a group that has captured the past five BCS championships, boasts the top two teams in the most recent rankings, and far surpasses all competitors in attention, attendance, and zeal among fans.

Still, nobody’s infallible and I believe it was a mistake for the SEC to pursue Missouri and take a pass on West Virginia.

Deciphering first, second, and third-tier television contract rights, numbers of potential viewers, and marketing footprints of Mizzou vs. the Mountaineers sails far above this old professor’s comprehension and interest. But, as a southerner with interest in the league going back to the 1960s I think I have a feel for the SEC – and West Virginia was a better fit than Missouri.

Yes, the Mountaineer football program is probably a notch above the Tigers (but not by much), basketball is about a stalemate. Columbia is certainly more cosmopolitan than Morgantown, and the UM academic reputation exceeds that of WVU (an important consideration for the pseudo-academician Slive and the twelve conference presidents who actually make decisions in the SEC). The state of Missouri has bigger cities, bigger television markets, and may bring a bigger dollar windfall when the SEC renegotiates its contract with ESPN (which still has a dozen years remaining).

All that said – West Virginia is a better fit.

Geographically West Virginia is a better fit. The state is contiguous (touching Kentucky) with the rest of the conference. Missouri borders conference states too, but WVU would fit nicely into the SEC East Division as a counterpart to recent league addition Texas A&M. Just watch, Missouri will be placed in the East initially (so as to save the annual Alabama-Tennessee football game), a glaring exception to the league’s current east-west geographic balance and an affront even in this age of map-twisting silliness.

More significantly, West Virginia – the state and university – is a better fit culturally. Whatever aspirations Mike Slive and the SEC presidents have from an academic perspective, the conference will always be sneered at by the likes of the Big Ten and the Pac-12 (welcome to the South boys). West Virginians sound more like us, act more like us, and wanted to join us (in contrast to Missouri – which openly pined for the preening Big Ten only to be rejected).

The SEC missed out on the Mountaineers … leaving this professor with only a misty taste of moonshine and a teardrop in my eye.

West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home country roads.

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