Where Football is a Religion

The natural inclination for a lead-in to this week’s College Football picks is to give my opinion on who might be the new Virginia Tech Football Coach.  There are enough people doing that and I have no real insight into the situation to begin win.  Just suffice to say that I will be shocked if it is not former West Virginia and current Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez.  He fits the profile geographically, as he’s a native of Grant Town, WV and he’s young – he’s 52 and that’s young to me since I’m just a couple of years behind him – and he is known for finding gems hidden in the weeds on the recruiting trail and he did it in a not so easy place (West Virginia) to recruit to.  No one wanted either Steve Slaton or Avon Coeburn.  Rodriguez took them and made them stars.  Imagine what he can do in a state that actually has prospects.  His only downside is that he has a bit of wandering eye.  West Virginia – his alma mater – should have been his dream job and he should have been willing to cruise to the finish line coaching there.  But, one glance at a hot girl like Michigan and he was gone.  Let LSU, Florida State or Alabama open in a couple of years and he’ll ditch Blacksburg in a hurry.  That’s all I’m going to say about it until a new coach is in place, but if it is Rodriguez it adds a layer of intrigue to next September’s “Battle in Bristol” where he could be facing his former assistant in Tennessee’s Butch Jones.

Instead I’m going down a level to the high schools.  Yes, I am a football junkie, but my first and forever football love is always going to be High School Football.  Until ESPN started bastardizing it with recruiting rankings, the annual maddening January “hat dance” and televising Friday night games against “Top 25” Schools, it was the purest form of football.  It’s importance to the communities in which it is played cannot be understated. In many towns it’s where you prove your manhood and in some communities the entire town attends the games even though some in the crowd have no natural connection to the players on the field.  Two such communities are Salem, Virginia and Pulaski County, Virginia.  Tonight, those two schools – both 9-0 – meet in Salem.  Both are headed to Virginia’s Group 4A playoffs next week, but it’s been a while since they met in a game where so much was at stake.  Tonight’s meeting is the 43rd meeting since Salem High School opened its doors in 1977.   Salem won that first meeting in 1977.  In 1979, a West Virginia native named Joel Hicks arrived in Pulaski County and the tide turned.  From 1978 to 1985 Pulaski County won 8 in a row (7 of those coached by Hicks).  Hicks – from Richwood, West Virginia – was the offensive coordinator for head coach Frank Cignetti at WVU in the late 70s.  In 1979, he made a recruiting trip to Pulaski County and never left taking over as the Cougars head coach and ascending the program to one of the best in the Commonwealth.

In 1983, another West Virginian named Willis White took over the floundering program at Salem High School leaving nearby Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke.  I can tell you growing up in Roanoke, Salem football was a complete joke.  They played their games in old Salem Municipal Field (which was the home of the Class A minor league baseball team the Salem Pirates), and most of the field was a dirt baseball infield .  There was little community pride in football and frankly at times it looked like Salem fielded a football team just because they had to.  That was out of the ordinary for the town.  Old Andrew Lewis High School – out of which Salem High School was partly born – was a powerhouse in the 1960s under head coach Eddie Joyce.  The Wolverines won state titles in 1962 and 1964. They lost in the championship game in 1966, and lost a game even non-sports fans will be familiar with.  In 1971, Andrew Lewis lost in the State Title game to T.C. Williams High School at Roanoke’s Victory Stadium.  That T.C. Williams team was documented in the movie “Remember the Titans” staring Denzel Washington.

When Willis White arrived the rivalry was “on.”  Salem built a multi million dollar stadium in 1985 which houses the NCAA Division III National Championship and the Group 1A and 2A State High School Championship games.  Pride took hold in the town from the Sandlots to the High School and a Super Power was born or re-born. Since 1996, Salem is the owner of 6 State Championships, Countless Regional and District Championship, although under Virginia’s current playoff format, the Regional and District Championships have gone the way of the dinosaur.

The rivalry really began to take shape in 1986 when my old employer WDBJ did it’s Friday Football Extra show live from Pulaski County for the Salem-Pulaski County game.  Remember, this is a local station in the nation’s 69th market (at the time) that took its show on the road long before ESPN ever had the idea to do so with College Gameday.  Salem won that night 14-13, but as memorable as the game was, what was more historical was Joel Hicks appearing live on the show just about an hour after the game, and criticizing the officiating.  It was good television, but not so good for Coach Hicks who was fined by the Virginia High School League.  He eventually learned to laugh about it, but for the next several years (minus two seasons in 1988 and 1989 when Salem dropped to Double A) the two schools annually went at it in one of the year’s biggest games.  Hicks retired after the 2002 season with 210 wins at Pulaski County and 300 overall to go with a Group AAA; Division 6 state championship (Va’s highest classification) in 1992.  White did the same at the end of 2003 with 4 Group AA; Division 4 State Championships. Hicks finished 15 – 8 vs. Salem, while White finished 8 – 10 vs. Pulaski County, all against Hicks.

Entering tonight’s game, Salem leads the overall series 23 – 19.  They’ve met six times in the post-season as well with Salem leading there 4-2.  In recent years, the battle has been dominated by Salem, winning 14 of the last 17 games, but for those of us who grew up watching these two annually fight it out in one of the Commonwealth’s best rivalries, it’s nice to see them both unbeaten and putting this game right back where it belongs.

Okay onto the College game.  Could you get a better weekend of match-ups.  The headliner is no doubt the prime time game between LSU and Alabama.  This has annually made it’s way into the CBS Prime Time game this weekend in November and this year is no different.  I’ve heard nothing but bitching this week about Alabama being ranked in the top 4 of the College Football Playoff rankings.  Who the hell cares?  It’s meaningless, but to say they aren’t one of the country’s best is likewise short sited.  LSU has Leonard Fornette who is the most dominating College Running back since Herschel Walker.  Alabama’s Defensive front will all play in the NFL.  I’ll take Bama especially at home.  Then there’s Clemson against Florida State.  Clemson is #1 in the CFP Rankings.  Florida State cannot afford to lose another game in the ACC.  The winner of this one essentially punches its ticket for the ACC Title game in Charlotte.  Until someone shows me otherwise, Florida State just knows how to win games like this and I like them to do it again.  Then there’s a big Big 12 game between TCU and Oklahoma State.  Oklahoma State is also undefeated, but I don’t think much of that.  I like the Horned Frogs to stay on track for what could be a classic last weekend in November meeting with Baylor. While Clemson and FSU grab the headlines in the ACC, there’s another interesting game in the ACC’s Coastal Division as North Carolina hosts Duke.  The winner of this one essentially locks up the other spot in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.  I cannot say enough good things about Duke and coach Cutcliffe.  They were “jobbed” out of one last week by officiating incompetence, but there appears to be something special about this North Carolina team.  It’s amazing what a little defense to go with your offense will do, so I’ll take the Tarheels at home.

Other games this week,   Temple bounces back over SMU, Rice over UTEP, BYU over San Jose State, Illinois over Purdue, Western Kentucky over Florida Atlantic, West Virginia to beat Texas Tech at home.  At least, they’d better or they may be calling for Rich Rodriguez to come home.  As for Georgia and Kentucky, I like Georgia.  What I don’t like is Georgia alum and NFL Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton running his mouth about Georgia’s coaching staff.  Hey Fran, SHUT UP. You’re old and wouldn’t even get invited to an NFL training camp if you played in the modern day so get this through your head: No one gives a damn about your opinion.  Florida clinches the SEC East with a win over Vanderbilt, Florida International over Charlotte, U-Mass over Akron, Northwestern to beat Penn State.  You know in these articles I read about hot coaching prospects, no one ever mentions Pat Fitzgerald.  Hello Athletic Directors, he’s young and are you seeing what he’s doing at Northwestern?  They line up and compete with anyone at a school where academics is always going to trump athletics.  Tulsa keeps Central Florida winless, Notre Dame over Pittsburgh, Louisville over Syracuse (put Syracuse Coach Scott Shaffer on the list of soon to be unemployed), I like Boston College to beat N.C. State, Stanford over Colorado and tell me that Stanford doesn’t look a lot like Ohio State from last year just lurking and playing it’s best football.  La-Lafayette over Ga. State, Miami of Ohio over Eastern Michigan, South Alabama over Idaho, Houston over Cincinnati, Michigan over Rutgers, Air Force over Army, Utah State to beat New Mexico, Wisconsin over Maryland, La. Tech over the Mean Green of North Texas, Marshall over Middle Tennessee State, Ole Miss over Arkansas, Washington State over Arizona State, Texas State over New Mexico State, Tennessee big over South Carolina, UCLA big over Oregon State, UNLV over Hawaii, Oklahoma over Iowa State, Memphis over Navy (that’s another interesting game), UT-San Antonio over Old Dominion, Nebraska over Michigan State, East Carolina over South Florida, Utah to beat Washington, Texas A&M over Auburn, Texas over Kansas, Ohio State over Minnesota, but the Gophers are pesky, USC over Arizona, and California over Oregon.

Our FCS Game of the Week takes us to Charleston, South Carolina for the 71st “Military Classic of the South” between Virginia Military and The Citadel as the Keydets and Bulldogs play for the Silver Shako Trophy.  The Citadel is nationally ranked this week for the first time since 2012 at 6-2.  VMI is once again struggling at 2-7.  The Citadel leads the overall series 38-30-2 and last lost to VMI in 2002. I’ve been to both of these campuses and if you ever get a chance, do it.  Particularly interesting is to catch the Citadel dress parade which happens every few afternoons during the school term and features the entire corp of cadets.  Believe it or not, this game once appeared on National Television on TBS.  Why?  Well, because TBS founder Ted Turner had a son who attended one of the schools.

Our Division II game of the Week takes us to the Capital City of West Virginia where the University of Charleston Golden Eagles host the Battlers of Alderson-Broaddus University.  The University of Charleston was formerly known as Morris Harvey College and is a private institution located on McCorkle Avenue in Downtown Charleston, WV.  The school shuttered its football program in 1956 and revived it in 2003 and play their home games at the newly renamed University of Charleston Stadium (formerly Laidley Field) right in downtown Charleston.  Charleston is making a run for the playoffs having won seven in a row. Their lone loss was to Nationally Ranked Shepherd College.  The school features several famous alums including former Senator Robert C. Byrd (and about every other building in WV is named for him), Jim Harrick who coached UCLA to an NCAA Basketball Championship in 1995 and the current Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.

For Division III, we go to the Capital City of Alabama for the second biggest game in the State this weekend as Huntingdon College hosts Maryville College in Montgomery Alabama in what amounts to the championship game for the USA South Conference.  Huntingdon is 7-1 and 5-0 in the Conference.  Maryville is likewise 7-1, but 4-1 in the conference after losing a conference game to North Carolina Wesleyan.  Huntingdon has only had football since 2003, made the playoffs in 2009 and joined the USA South in 2013.  Maryville has one playoff appearance in its history in 2013.  Both of these schools are ranked in the top 10 of the South Region Division III rankings this week: Maryville at #10 and Huntingdon at #8.  As Division III takes 32 teams for the playoffs and 8 in each region, the winner of this game likely gets in and the loser is out.

Hope everyone has a nice weekend.  Enjoy the games because as the calendar has turned to November, the College Football regular season has just 4 more weeks after this one.

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