West Virginia’s Big 12 break at the root of a ‘bitterly tense relationship’ in the U.S. Senate

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In the long term, it may not even make the footnotes in the marathon game of musical chairs that has consumed the major conferences over the last two years, but the tense, 72-hour tug-of-war between Louisville and West Virginia for the final invitation to the Big 12 last October has left one enduring legacy: A pair of sitting U.S. senators at each other's throats.

Not that Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin don't have enough to bicker over from opposite sides of the partisan ice wall currently dividing Capitol Hill. According to the website Politico, though, things got truly nasty when McConnell — a Louisville alum and regular at home football games — attempted to lobby on his alma mater's behalf for the coveted Big 12 bid, prompting Manchin — a former West Virginia quarterback turned governor and well-known meddler in Mountaineer football — to call for an ethics investigation over the Minority Leader's role in having WVU's invitation blocked. That question was settled quickly enough in West Virginia's favor. But the chill between the senators has only gotten frostier:

McConnell now has a bitterly tense relationship with the freshman, fallout from a lobbying battle over the senators' two alma maters — the University of Louisville and West Virginia University — and the final open spot in the prestigious Big 12 Conference.

In a private confrontation on the Senate floor late last year, things got heated quickly, according to people familiar with the episode.

McConnell read aloud to Manchin a quote from a university official who said "no improper political influence" had been exerted as each senator was lobbying to get his team the plush conference spot. And McConnell demanded a public apology from Manchin for suggesting that the GOP leader may have acted in an "inappropriate or unethical" manner that could warrant a Senate investigation into his Louisville lobbying efforts.

Manchin refused to back down and said he would always stand up for West Virginia's rights — not to mention the Mountaineer' football team. The two senators have barely spoken since.

Now, Manchin reports of maintaining a much "colder" relationship with McConnell, and some GOP senators said they've heard McConnell privately criticizing Manchin over his conduct.

Of course you know, a public charge by a freshman senator against a sitting Minority Leader's ethics means war. Since losing the showdown over the Big 12 bid, McConnell has aggressively supported Manchin's 2010 opponent, West Virginia businessman John Raese, in his latest campaign for Manchin's seat in 2012, for reasons Manchin suspects are strictly personal. (For the record, Raese is 0-for-3 in senate races, losing in 1984 and 2007 prior to his most recent loss, and also fell short in a 1988 bid for governor. Not surprisingly, he was not the Republicans' first choice.) "I think they took it more personally than it should have been taken," Manchin told Politico. "This is a bad place to have a personal vendetta, I can tell you that."

Oh, we believe you, senator: Your long, hands-on experience with personal vendettas speaks for itself.

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Hat tip: Deadspin.
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.