West Virginia's athletic department trending in the right direction

There is reason for optimism amongst Mountaineer Nation.

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With the landscape of college sports in flux, it can be easy to feel like your favorite program is in a potentially rocky spot headed into the future.

With conference realignment wreaking havoc amidst fierce negotiations regarding the future of the College Football Playoff and lawsuits such as the one brought by West Virginia's own RaeQuan Battle challenging traditional NCAA rules and regulations, it's hard to tell just what Division 1 sports will look like 10-20 years down the line.

But luckily for West Virginia fans, much of the news coming out of Morgantown lately is indicative of the athletic department at WVU trending in the right direction.

The architect for much of this positive growth for the Mountaineers seems to be current Athletic Director Wren Baker. Ever since Baker was hired in late 2022, he's put forth both a plan for building the athletic department up and a warm public persona that comes off as ingratiating towards potential staff members and donors.

One big move that has already paid dividends is the hiring of women's basketball first-year coach Mark Kellogg. Coming from a wealth of mid-major success, Kellogg has led the team to a 23-6 overall record in his first go-round at the helm, which is the winningest record for a first-year coach in program history. He also seems likely to have the Mountaineers make at least an appearance in the NCAA Tournament this season.

With the stars like Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes becoming household names and attendance steadily rising for the sport, women's basketball could be on the move up in terms of sports generating revenue and brand recognition for athletic departments, and it's hard to argue that the WVU program could be in much better hands.

Baker has also been supportive of the efforts of the Country Roads Trust, an Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) focused collective which serves as a vessel to raise money and distribute it via NIL deals to WVU athletes. Founded in 2022, the trust claims to have facilitated NIL opportunities for over 300 WVU student-athletes.

The collective recently managed to reach 1,500 total members actively pledging money -- the goal triggered an anonymous $500,000 donation to the organization. That money likely went a long way in making sure that many names with national buzz in their respective sports stay in Morgantown -- particularly many from last season's 9-4 football squad that signed deals with the Country Roads Trust in the early offseason. Baker himself even played a public role in garnering some of those donations, as he agreed to partake in a mayonnaise bath sponsored by Duke's Mayo if the Trust reached their goal.

As college sports, particularly the revenue-driving sports such as football and men's basketball, continues to evolve into a model where athletes earn significant money for their on-field abilities, it's important that WVU stays as competitive as possible with larger blue blood programs and programs with deep pockets and resources. That type of fundraising by a dedicated collective helps make such aspirations attainable.

And just this week, more exciting news has been making the rounds in Morgantown. On Thursday, Country Roads Trust co-founder and owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball (MLB) Ken Kendrick gifted the WVU athletic department the funds to construct an 8,200 square-foot indoor batting and pitching facility outfitted with state-of-the-art Trackman technology. The stadium will be renamed the Kendrick Family Ballpark.

"My family and I are longtime supporters of WVU baseball and are very honored to have our names associated with the home ballpark of the Mountaineers," Kendrick told wvusports.com in a statement.

"We hope our gift of the state of the art hitting and pitching laboratories will enhance the development of both current and future WVU players."

Kendrick is a WVU alumnus and native son of West Virginia, and is committed to building the school's athletic department up into a fierce competitor. And the importance of having an active MLB owner with a net worth of $1.1 billion as a prominent donor can not be understated. That is the type of money that can reshape an athletic department. The fact that he is not only involved with the Country Roads Trust but actively donating his own funds to WVU projects bodes well for the future of Mountaineer sports.

Then, on Friday, WVU football alumnus Pat McAfee, who has 2.49 million YouTube subscribers to "The Pat McAfee Show" and has spent time as an on-screen persona with both ESPN's College Gameday and WWE, announced that he and Kirk Herbstreit will be coming to Morgantown for a special broadcast of McAfee's show. McAfee promised half of the proceeds from the event will go to support the Country Roads Trust, with the other portion benefitting the WVU Children’s Hospital.

With McAfee becoming a household name in recent years amongst the sports world, and his ability to bring one of the biggest college football media members along with him, high highly-rated show should bring all sorts of eyes to Morgantown on a national level, where he will, as always, be a top-notch brand ambassador for the university and it's athletic teams.

While a poor performance on the court during men's basketball season and lingering questions about the football team's rough performances in years leading up to the 2023 season have left a poor taste in some fan's mouths, it is clear that WVU athletics is ramping up in an attempt to embrace it's strong winning history and position itself as a top brand in the new world of college athletics. And that is something that should excite the WVU fanbase.