As Mountains Crumble
By Jordan Martin
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
West Virginia's recent struggles have raised significant questions for even the most die-hard of Mountaineer fans.
As a sports journalist, I have to cast aside my prejudices and preferences for the sake of objective integrity. All the while, I privately allow my loyalty and allegiance to remain. I was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, and though I’ve moved around in my life, this is where my heart has always resided. Like many people who take pride in where they come from, I established part of my identity through the team in the city I was born. The West Virginia Mountaineers have always and will always be the team I live and die by, and they will always be the team whose colors I proudly wear.
That’s not to say I am beyond reality or the ability to eschew bias for truth and evidence, as well as my own conceptions. There was a time I was very much devout and emotionally encumbered by the team and its performance…that was until December 1, 2007.
It was the 100th Backyard Brawl. It was in Morgantown. More importantly, it was one game away from a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. This team had flirted with it the two seasons prior, and even that season, the deck had to be shuffled several times for this one loss team from what was considered the weakest conference in the BCS fold to have that opportunity.
It was the first time I avoided trash talking. It was the first time I avoided completely overlooking a game for the promise of the next. It was the first time I avoided reading or watching any coverage leading up to the game. Sports fans are a superstitious bunch and I was no different, being an athlete at one point in my life as well. We need something to comfort us, something to empower us. We can’t directly affect the outcome of the game, and if you’re watching the television vicariously, you can’t even indirectly affect the game by being present in the stadium and participating in the moment. All I could do was watch for four quarters in silent vigil.
No matter how bad it looked, I always thought we’d pull it out at the end. I waited…and waited…and waited…
Even into the final seconds, I felt like some miracle would occur. This was OUR season. There’s no way we could lose at home, to our most hated rival on the 100th Anniversary to a team that was 4-7 with a shot at immortality in the balance. 13-9. I will take it to my grave.
It was like the poem “Casey at the Bat.” In a way, the outcome was poetic in itself. There was nothing but silence and disbelief. In that moment and in the days to come, I reinvented my perception of the game of football. I wasn’t jaded or bitter. I wasn’t enraged or destructive. I actually developed clarity through this game. It drove my passion to an academic level. I wanted to understand the nature of the game of football more than I ever had. It wasn’t just my way of making peace with the loss; it was my way of making sense of the fervor and fanaticism that comes with the sport.
Here I am years later, and I’ve become somewhat of a consultant and minor authority to the game. Somewhere beyond my calculations and black-and-white, between-the-lines reporting, I remain a fan at my core.
Recently, I’ve become conflicted with the very things that led me to where I am now. The enigmatic saga that has become West Virginia University football is more polarizing and emotionally evocating than it has ever been. Why? Well, the last decade has proven to be as polarizing as the emotions to which it appeals.
They have been 10 years sordid. They have been 10 years proud. This has been the most successful run in West Virginia football history. Given what has transpired off the field, it has been nothing short of miraculous.
Don Nehlen is a hall-of-fame head coach. His long tenure was marked by bringing West Virginia to prominence - twice on the threshold of a national championship -and being very competitive and successful for many years. His successor also happened to be a former player of his.
Rich Rodriguez was somewhat of an unknown commodity coming into Morgantown. Though he had developed a reputation as an offensive guru in smaller pockets, he’d never been a head coach at the FBS level. Through his first season in 2001, things didn’t look good. Finishing with a 3-8 record and taking a strong departure from the tradition and style of a tenured coach like Don Nehlen left much to be desired and little hope. From 2002 onward, West Virginia has not had a losing season.
Rodriguez brought the team to national respectability and marketability the likes of which had never been seen in the state. This also happened to come at a time when college football as a whole was becoming more profitable and marketable than it had ever been, with televised exposure that had been previousy been an untapped resource.
As mentioned earlier, Rodriguez brought the team to the brink of a national title before the one-game collapse. Broken hearts don’t mend easily and bleeding ones are even more vulnerable.
Rodriguez’ sudden and controversial divorce from Morgantown made him public enemy #1. Not only did we lose our shot at grasping national pride for a state that is more often the butt of a joke than the anchor of national accomplishment, we lost the coach that got us to that point. It was like surviving a plane crash in open water only to drown moments later.
No one knew what else we’d lose, and the team we were scheduled to face in the Fiesta Bowl was arguably the most complete team in any of the BCS games. The man representing us was a little known assistant, a West Virginia native and loyal denizen of the university, Bill Stewart.
No one outside of West Virginia believed we could beat Oklahoma given what happened.
The events of the game are the kind of stuff they make Hollywood movies about. It was a harrowing tale of redemption, of pride, of love. This team played with an entire state on its back and it was without a doubt the proudest moment I’ve ever had as a sports fan. I’ll never forget Owen Schmitt’s teary post-game comments or hearing “Country Roads” being sung through the stadium as if we were all suddenly reborn.
Stewart was subsequently named head coach following the victory. The legacy of Mountaineer football under Bill Stewart is a curious one. At the time, everyone wanted a father figure more than a coach and it didn’t take long to figure out that despite Stewart’s best intentions and despite all of his effort, he had lofty, unfair expectations placed upon him due to the success of his predecessor. Stewart never had a losing season, but he never achieved the one thing every Mountaineer fan clamored for: a national title game appearance.
Over time, everyone grew impatient…we were spoiled. We wanted offensive excitement, national attention and another shot to hang our flags above the rest.
Eventually, Oliver Luck was hired as Athletic Director and he quickly made power moves. Dana Holgorsen was an offensive mastermind at Oklahoma State and the gaudy numbers he was responsible for likened him to the success Rodriguez brought; though no one would admit that publicly, nor say his name. The thought process was simple: This is a new game. Points = wins, and wins = money. Conservative, methodical football certainly works at more talent laden schools, but West Virginia needed a gimmick.
Holgorsen was named the new offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting. Stewart felt jilted. Soon after Spring practice began in the 2011 season, news surfaced that Stewart was trying to dig up dirt on Holgorsen through media outlets. He was relieved of his duties shortly after and Holgorsen’s tenure began a year ahead of schedule.
In his first season, Holgorsen inherited a very talented quarterback in Geno Smith and talented skills players like Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to jumpstart his offense. Jeff Casteel and the entire defensive staff remained, which helped greatly with consistency.
The Mountaineers lost to LSU, who would remain the number one team until their loss to Alabama at year’s end, but it was the losses to conference opponents Syracuse and Louisville that were most disconcerting. Syracuse simply stymied and embarrassed WVU. That would be Syracuse’s lone conference victory. WVU also lost to a young, inexperienced Louisville team at home. After that, West Virginia won their last three regular season games by margins of 3, 1 and 7, and managed to score more than 28 points only one time in this stretch.
West Virginia became Big East Champions and went on represent the conference in the Orange Bowl with much uncertainty.
Everyone knows what happened next. It was an offensive explosion of untold proportions; 70 points to the Mountaineers’ credit. THIS was the potential of Holgorsen’s offense. It was cause for optimism, and why not? West Virginia was returning the majority of its offensive starters, including its star quarterback.
Hype can be a very dangerous concept.
West Virginia was scheduled to enter the Big 12 for the 2012 season. It was a conference that had come under fire with the recent losses of Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri, but it was still one to be respected with the likes of Oklahoma and Texas, the resurgence of Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State and the addition of TCU. It meant profit, it meant greater exposure and it meant excitement. For me, it was different.
It meant a vast leap in competition. It meant grinding out games with top 25 and top 10 caliber opponents every week. It meant unprecedented travel logging for a football team isolated from the rest of its competition by hundreds of miles. Optimism took a backseat to realism. I predicted an 8-4 season, much to the chagrin and heckling of friends and fellow fans.
After a 5-0 start and a 2-0 start to Big 12 play, given the way they demonstrated such determination in those victories, I felt rather sheepish. The game against Texas Tech changed all of that.
There was no fight, no pop in that game. We were outclassed in every way and never had a shot of winning that game. “It’s only one game,” I thought. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, college football is a temperamental game and the slightest disturbance in its fluid nature can cause tidal waves. Kansas State came at home. There was little to no response from the game before. A bye week would fix those problems, right? TCU came at home, and a win was squandered in a double-overtime game. The most recent loss to Oklahoma State was an utter embarrassment in every way, in every facet of the game. This team not only looks unprepared, they look completely lost and uninspired.
Now, I’m beginning to wonder if I was even being optimistic at the beginning of the year, despite my caution.
I made this statement recently in light of the team’s current skid with a game against Oklahoma ahead: "I can't remember WVU ever losing five games in a row in my lifetime."
It's true. I wouldn't remember because it's only happened once and I wasn't even one-year old then. Here are some facts regarding Mountaineers football:
- Last time WVU had a losing record: 2001 (Also the last time WVU lost four games in a row).
- Last time WVU lost five games in a row: 1986 (They lost SIX in a row) (I was born in December of '85).
- Since 1966, WVU has only lost five or more consecutive games in a season twice (1978 and 1986).
- Since 1966, WVU has only had 11 losing seasons in a 46-season stretch. (1966, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1986, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2001).
When you begin digging for clues after the fact, it becomes less about statistics and borders on superstition.
The measure of WVU's transition is all a matter of hindsight with comparison to the league they jettisoned. During a greater portion of this time in the 80s and 90s, WVU had some of their most successful years playing the likes of Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Penn State and Syracuse, all at their apex. The Mountaineers’ record against these teams during this time was not favorable.
Prior to their most recent run, WVU has NEVER gone a period of 11 consecutive seasons without a losing record. One could say its recent string of success is by and large due to being in a depleted conference. (WVU never had a losing conference record after BC, VT and Miami left the Big East.)
With the game against Oklahoma still pending, given the very promising 5-0 start to the season and the manner in which WVU won their first two Big 12 games, this is one of the most monumental collapses I've witnessed since I first began watching football as a young boy. I've been fortunate enough to watch this team grow from mediocrity to becoming a true contender capable of beating any team on any given night. After not only losing four games, but losing three of the four in appalling fashion with little to no fight, it’s time to consider the impact of the radical changes made to the team’s situation and complexion, and how far we may regress because of it.
The defense is certainly the most glaring and atrocious aspect, but what of the offense? In four losses, they haven’t performed as advertised. What of the special teams? This team is broken, and now men that made radical decisions to put them in this position will be unwilling to make radical decisions to reverse these misfortunes. What can you do? You can’t go groveling back to the Big East with your tail between your legs. You can’t fire an entire staff and a head coach that just signed a six-year, big money contract in August. There are no waivers to reach out to or players to buy. What happens if you stay the course? You don’t just recruit and develop players like Geno Smith in every recruiting class, and when you’re not even the best recruiting team in the Big East or even in the top two, how do you think that translates to the Big 12?
I’m no Chicken Little. These are real issues that face this team, and these are real questions that need to be addressed. It’s one thing to drop a few close games. It’s one thing to have a team mired with maladies. It’s one thing to have inexperience in unfamiliar territory as an explanation for shortcomings. It’s quite another to appear unprepared and lackadaisical. Few, if any adjustments have been made and certainly none that were attempted have taken root.
A win over Oklahoma will stop the bleeding, but it won’t mend the wound. A loss to Oklahoma may signal a change in fan devotion, recruitment and media and booster investment interest. It’s more than just losing games, it’s about losing money. No loyal West Virginia fan will truly turn their back on the team, but they’ll stop giving money to the people responsible for its failing. No one wants to be embarrassed, no one wants to lose and no one wants to pay for the dubious privilege of either.