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West Virginia Football: Introducing the Mountaineers to the Big 12


West Virginia is packing its bags and moving from the Big East to the Big 12. The Mountaineers will fit in well in their new conference, especially with a high-powered offense led by quarterback Geno Smith.

Not familiar with West Virginia? Here's an introduction on the Mountaineers from a West Virginia point of view:

Consider this a primer on West Virginia athletics for Big 12 fans. A Mountain State 101, if you will. A “Mountaineers for Dummies” guide.

It should prove helpful — because WVU and its fans are different breeds.

Perhaps we should stop right there. If you ever feel inclined to call residents here in-breds or hillbillies, or crack jokes about teeth, outhouses or the state flower being a satellite dish, here’s some advice: Save it. Those here will yawn. We’ve heard it all. The jokes are as old as our hills. “Deliverance” was filmed in Georgia; we have wireless, dental plans and, yes, indoor plumbing.

Just don’t misunderstand. West Virginia isn’t North Carolina. It isn’t Ohio. It is different. Coal is king, yet WVU athletics are the passion, the maypole for the small state’s residents. When times are rough, residents rally around their Mountaineers. And times are plenty rough economically.

You might ask about reports of fans allowing their exuberance to get out of hand. You might ask if those reports are true. The answer: damn straight. There indeed have been couches burned in celebration. A team bus or two might have been shaken. And, yes, Bobby Bowden was hung in effigy and chased out as coach, pushed to Florida State. (How did that work out?)

Yet here’s the catch: Bowden still returns regularly. He loves the place. See, West Virginia is a place where people say hello on the street. Residents are known for their friendliness and hard work — as well as their sports passion.

One can trace much of that back to a man named Jack Fleming. He was the “Voice of the Mountaineers,” but a man you might remember as the radio voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Still doesn’t ring a bell? This will: He made the call on the “Immaculate Reception.”

Fleming lived in Pittsburgh but made the hour trek each Saturday to call WVU games. He hated rival Pitt and allowed that to seep into his broadcasts. He hooked listeners with his passion and loyalty to the Mountaineers. On game day, Fleming’s voice echoed throughout the hills. One could walk the neighborhood and not miss a play. Every house was tuned in.

Yet there was something missing: success. In the late 1950s, WVU experienced tremendous hoops success via a skinny native kid named Jerry West. You might’ve heard of him. Dallied around with the NBA and Lakers. Did some modeling, I believe, to become the NBA’s logo.

However, after West became a real-life “Beverly Hillbilly,” Mountaineer fortunes steadily dropped. There was a serious lull. Even Bowden couldn’t pump life into the football program.

And then something happened. Former governor and current state senator Jay Rockefeller (yes, of those Rockefellers) helped WVU build a new stadium. John Denver was flown in to christen it by singing “Country Roads.” (If you live here, by the way, you hear that song as much as the national anthem.)

Also, a Bo Schembechler assistant named Don Nehlen was hired to take over the football program. And WVU sports haven’t been the same since.

At first, there was slow improvement. A team that went 2–9 in 1978 moved to 6–6 in Nehlen’s first season in 1980. The next season, the Mountaineers went 9–3 and defeated Florida, 26–6, in the Peach Bowl. It caught the attention of all WVU fans.

But the real birth of Mountaineer sports in the modern era took place smack in the middle of Big 12 country. In Norman, Okla., to be specific. While WVU was impressive in defeating Florida, the Gators weren’t of the Urban Meyer ilk. The Oklahoma Sooners were.

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Set up as an opening day patsy in 1982 for OU coach Barry Switzer and new recruit Marcus Dupree, Nehlen and quarterback Jeff Hostetler stunned all with a 41–27 victory.

For the most part, the good times have rolled ever since. There were down years, but things started to crackle. A dazzling quarterback named Major Harris hit Morgantown and turned the place upside down, leading WVU to its first unbeaten, untied record and a 1988 national championship appearance in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. (WVU lost after Harris was injured early in the game.)

When Nehlen’s magic began to disappear, Rich Rodriguez returned to his home state and picked up the wand. Like Nehlen, he found a dazzling quarterback in Pat White. RichRod unearthed a keeper in tailback Steve Slaton. At the end of the 2005 season, WVU stunned  heavily favored Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. All of a sudden, West Virginia was the darling of a downtrodden Big East. The Mountaineers defeated Georgia Tech the next year in the Gator Bowl.

Then came the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows for WVU football. In 2007, the Mountaineers were on track for another national championship appearance. All they had to do was defeat a sub-par Pittsburgh team at home in the regular-season finale to secure a BCS title game berth.

But on a dark night in Morgantown, the Panthers stunned WVU, 13–9. It crushed the team. It crushed the fans. It is still regarded as one of the biggest chokes, if not the biggest, in college football history. It was a body blow that sent the program to the canvas. Rodriguez announced shortly afterward that he was leaving for Michigan.

A folksy assistant, however, took over in the aftermath. Bill Stewart became a home-state hero by leading the beleaguered team to a 48–28 win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Stewart was given the head coaching job. He led the team to three 9–4 records. And was summarily fired. It wasn’t enough. Stewart’s down-home act, which lifted the program in the Rodriguez aftermath, got stale.

Now, all is different. Oliver Luck, a slick businessman, ex-WVU quarterback and father of wunderkind Andrew Luck, is the athletic director. He hired the new breed of coach, Dana Holgorsen, who installed his “Air Raid” offense.

And the new breed is mixing well with WVU’s different breed of fans. When the Mountaineers scored 70 points on Clemson in last season’s Orange Bowl, Holgorsen became one of The Men.

He is not, however, The Man. There is another: basketball coach Bob Huggins.

While many nationally see Huggins as a grump, West Virginians love the guy. After John Beilein lifted WVU, much like Rodriguez, and then left for Michigan, much like Rodriguez, Huggins saved the day by leaving Kansas State to return to his alma mater.

While Beilein took the Mountaineers to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, Huggins took them to the Final Four. Today, WVU’s athletic fortunes are as healthy as ever.

How do WVU fans feel about leaving the Big East for the Big 12? Well, thrilled in football and skeptical in basketball.

There is also an unfamiliar feel. Those here haven’t followed Baylor football or Iowa State basketball. It’s, well, weird. No Backyard Brawl? No visits from Syracuse?

But West Virginians will follow their Mountaineers with fervor. That’s a promise. They’ll turn their attention west instead of north and south.

And, yes, if need be, re-position those satellite dishes.

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