Ending a contest that set off subtle lobbying and internal Senate sniping, West Virginia University beat out the University of Louisville for a spot in the Big 12 college athletic conference.
On Friday, the Big 12 asked West Virginia to fill what is expected to be the 10th position in the conference, two days after it seemed to back away from the invitation in the wake of lobbying by Louisville backers.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has close ties to Louisville, and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., reportedly called their former Democratic colleague, University of Oklahoma President David Boren, to position their schools for the spot.
McConnell also reportedly called former Rep. Kent Hance, D-Texas, who is now the chancellor of Texas Tech University. Both Oklahoma and Texas Tech are already in the Big 12 and have a say in who else is admitted.
School officials believe that admittance to the Big 12 will translate into millions of dollars in increased ticket and TV contract revenue. Louisville is home to the McConnell Center, a government-focused institution for which the senator has raised funds. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and McConnell have a joint appearance scheduled there on Monday.
Boren and Senate aides described McConnell’s and Rockefeller’s calls as supportive statements, not aggressive lobbying.
But McConnell’s role, which a New York Times report described as part of a push that nearly swung the invitation to Louisville, drew repeated attacks from freshman Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
“If a United States senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made, then I believe that there should be an investigation in the U.S. Senate, and I will fight to get the truth,” Manchin stated on Wednesday.
On Friday, Manchin called the Big 12’s decision “a great day for West Virginia."
“I’m so happy that the Big 12 made its final decision on the merits: the strength of WVU’s athletics, our academics, and our spirit,” Manchin said, adding thanks to Rockefeller and the rest of their state’s delegation.
McConnell’s office declined to comment, although GOP sources said that Manchin’s remarks irked him.
Although McConnell’s involvement caught some by surprise, it was relatively minor compared to recent incidents of senior senators using their positions to influence sports-related matters.
In 2009, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called a hearing to condemn college football’s Bowl Championship Series, which he has criticized for years for what he calls its bias against schools, such as the University of Utah, that play in minor conferences.
In 2008, former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, then a Republican, repeatedly called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate “Spygate,” which involved the New England Patriots secretly videotaping opposing teams. Specter wanted an investigation of the 2005 Super Bowl and the 2004 AFC championship in which the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively.