MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- First things first: Thanks for the big welcome, Morgantown. The WVU administrative staff, coaching staff, fans I encountered and local media all provided outstanding hospitality. It definitely made my first visit to Mountaineers country a memorable one. I'm looking forward to my next visit in the fall. Keep winning, 'Eers, and I'll be there. In the days and weeks to come, I'll have a ton of stories and some video from my visit, so be prepared for that. Keep checking the blog and you won't be disappointed. Until then, here are a few parting thoughts from my three-day stay, campus tour on Thursday to see the WVU facilities, and tour of Morgantown. Some of this is directed at you, 'Eers. Some of it is a mini-guide for Big 12 fans who are curious about this strange land they'll be frequenting soon.
The WVU campus is a bit odd. Its split between an Evansdale campus that features newer buildings like the creative arts center and engineering building. The other half, called the downtown campus, features older, more historic buildings. You've read a bit about it on the blog before, but the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system shuttles students from one part of campus to the other. Imagine a monorail with tiny cars that go about 35 miles per hour and fit five to 10 people. WVU folk seem to hate it for its unreliability, but you'll be intrigued. Trust me on this. The downtown campus transitions seamlessly from university buildings to an area of restaurants, bars and other establishments. In that sense, it reminded me of the north part of Missouri's campus and parts of Oklahoma's campus. I'm sure there are others, too. The downtown campus features some very cool, very classic architecture. The school's administration building, Stewart Hall, looks very much like a castle.
The downtown area centers around High Street (save the jokes, folks. This ain't the Pac-12 blog), which features your standard fare of restaurants, bars and stores. It very much has the feel of a college town, and the center of downtown isn't very hilly, unlike the rest of the city. That makes it pretty walkable, as opposed to most of the rest of the city. We'll get to that in a bit. There are lots of local joints, with chains like Jimmy John's, Dairy Queen, Buffalo Wild Wings and Cold Stone Creamery mixed in. (See what I did there?)
If you saw the first broadcast of ESPN's "College GameDay" last season from Morgantown before WVU's game against LSU, the backdrop was the frat houses on the hill, but the show was shot in the thick of the downtown campus, which is nowhere near the stadium, really.
Getting around Morgantown is a lot different than most Big 12 cities. The landscape demands it. The city is full of narrow, winding roads that look like they go nowhere, but open up to a new part of the city over another hill. It'll be a bit jarring, especially for those of us used to wide-open highways in cities like Dallas and elsewhere in Big 12 country. In three days, I'm not sure my car ever topped 40 miles an hour in the city.
To answer a burning question I got several times during my visit from curious Big 12 fans: I'd say I only saw a slightly higher than normal rate of beards while in Morgantown. Sorry to disappoint. Not everybody has one. I didn't see a single coonskin cap, either. What gives?
WVU play-by-play man Tony Caridi and his Sportsline crew couldn't stomach the idea of me leaving West Virginia without tasting a true, original pepperoni roll, the staple of native West Virginian cuisine. We made our way to one of the originals, Colasessano's in Morgantown, and, yes, it lives up to the hype. I eschewed the peppers on mine, but the sauce and generously cheesed roll were delicious. It's essentially a sub sandwich with flavorful pepperoni enveloped with provolone cheese and homemade bread with meat marinara sauce. There are some bold flavors going on. It's delicious and not to be missed. I'm no Don Draper, but here's a slogan they ought to try out. This advice is on the house. "Colasessanos: Our name is impossible to remember, but our pepperoni rolls are impossible to forget." (Do it, y'all. I won't even demand royalties.)
As I mentioned in my last dispatch, most fans will probably fly into Pittsburgh somehow. (Seriously, airlines. You will make bank if you ramp up the number of fall Friday flights between Pittsburgh and Big 12 fan hubs Kansas City, Dallas and Houston. Probably San Antonio, too.) From Pittsburgh, it's about a 90-minute drive or so (usually less) to Morgantown. There was a bit of construction when I was there. Teams, however, will typically fly into the Clarksburg airport, about 25 to 30 minutes from the school. University charters won't have problems getting to Morgantown, but if you can't get a direct flight to Pittsburgh, it might be a bit of a haul for fans making their way to West Virginia.
Milan Puskar Stadium won't wow in size, but I've seen and heard plenty about how loud it gets during games, a decibel level no doubt aided by the school's status as the only Big 12 school that sells beer in the stadium. I guess they caught Owen "Runaway Beer Truck" Schmitt after all. It seats 60,000 -- here's a photo -- and I'm excited to see it in action. WVU sounded like it wanted to upgrade its press box, but it's roomy and large already, and should easily be in the Big 12's top half, probably in the top third. (You're wondering. I'm answering: Texas Tech has the nicest press box in the Big 12 and it is not close at all.) The suite level was nice, but there aren't many. Even college sports are leaning that way, and whenever WVU makes its next stadium upgrade, you can bet "more $uites" will be at or near the top of the wish list.
The views from the stands, though? Oh my. Top-notch. They'll surpass Kansas as the best view from the stadium and press box in the league.
The locker room is solid, albeit a bit small. I did like WVU's tradition in the lockers. Each player has a plaque with names of notable players who wore the number they did. Quarterback Geno Smith shares his number with athletic director Oliver Luck. Marc Bulger also has a plaque in the No. 10 locker.
I got a look inside the month-old, $24.1-million hoops practice facility on Thursday, though. Oh. My. Goodness. You won't find a facility like this in the Big 12. The opening to the facility has an interactive museum for fans of the women's and men's programs, complete with touchscreens that provide a wealth of highlights and video of current players and coaches, among other exhibits. They also have nods to the original fieldhouse on campus, with the original goal and scoreboard from the first-ever game (a 26-23 victory over Salem University) hanging in the new-age lobby. It's open to fans from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week. There are 64 flatscreens in the facility, but none is bigger than the wall-size screen that adorns the wall beside the staircase in the atrium of the players-/staff-only section of the facility. On the opposite wall? Well, Kansas fans seemed to enjoy (read: vehemently disagree with) the Mountaineers' bold claim. There are plenty of meeting rooms, a gorgeous weight room with wall-size glass windows that face a large river and light forest area. There are also player lounges filled with leather furniture and very, very large television screens.
My favorite and most functional part of the facility? There are overhead video decks in both the women's and men's practice decks that log live video. Don't like what you just saw in practice? Pull the team over to the courtside touchscreen and go over what just happened two minutes ago. Very, very cool. I obviously don't know as much about the nuts and bolts of Big 12 hoops programs, but the 'Eers would have to be in the minority with that little nugget of technology. The gym is open to players 24/7, a much needed move from the nearby Coliseum, which had to be shared between the men, women, university P.E. classes and various university events like concerts. That scheduling nightmare is over, and players have a real home now.
Like I said: Enjoyed my visit. Enjoyed the people. Enjoyed seeing the football team. It's going to be a fun fall, and WVU should be a great fit for the Big 12.
A couple spare notes via Twitter from my tour that didn't make it into the notes:
The Big East Room in WVU's hall of history (it's getting a new name in a few months).
The equipment managers aren't waiting for July 1 to get a taste of the Big 12 in the equipment room, though.
A total overview of Morgantown from the president's mansion. Not your average Big 12 landscape.
See you all again soon.