It’s been a week since the College Football Season came to an end, and I’ve been meaning to put a bow on the season before moving into basketball, but some other things have been in the way.
Alabama won it’s 16th National title last Monday night. It was coach Nick Saban’s 5th championship, four at Alabama, 1 at LSU. If you know anything about me, then you know what a special affinity I have for the State of West Virginia. My parents were born there, a large portion of my immediate family lived there and continues to live there and I was lucky (and I do mean lucky) to work in the State for 7 years. Alabama coach Nick Saban is a native of West Virginia having been born in Fairmont and that got me to thinking about the large number of major players on the National, Regional and even local sports scene that owe their roots to the place known affectionately as “Almost Heaven.”
Saban’s Championship means that two of the last three titles have been won by teams coached by West Virginia natives. Saban’s championship this year, and two years ago Florida State coached by Clarksburg, WV Native James “Jimbo” Fisher. The coaches with ties to West Virginia don’t stop there. Of course, there is Don Nehlen who frankly took West Virginia to a major player in College Football and did it by going 11-0 twice in his tenure. It’s hard enough to win 9 or 10 games a year, but he won 11 twice. Out of his coaching tree grew current Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez, who had West Virginia within an eyelash of playing for a National Championship before loading up for an ill-fated tenure at Michigan. Among the highlights of Rodriguez’s tenure at WVU was a complete humiliation of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Looking back, it’s not hard to peg that game as the beginning of the end for Georgia’s Mark Richt. Two of Rodriguez’s former assistants at West Virginia are now in charge of “Power 5” programs, Todd Graham at Arizona State and Butch Jones at Tennessee. Then there is the Bowden connection. Of course, Bobby Bowden coached at West Virginia and his two sons, Terry and Tommy played at WVU before embarking on their own coaching careers. Terry – now coaching at Akron – once went 11-0 at Auburn and played for the SEC title in 1997 before being beaten by a guy whose turned out to be a pretty fair quarterback from Tennessee named Peyton Manning. Tommy led Tulane to an 11-0 season. That’s 11-0 at freaking Tulane. He did it with Rodriguez coordinating his offense after Rich Rod left the head coaching job at Glenville State. Speaking of that, all of this zone read offense that is played at all levels of football can be traced right back to Glenville, West Virginia. Rodriguez and his then quarterback Jen Drenning drew up the zone read plays in the dirt after Drenning pulled the ball on a running play and just took off for a touchdown. That one play frankly changed the way football is played today.
Perhaps no place has turned out as much coaching talent than little ole McDowell County, West Virginia. That area turned out legendary Big Creek and Bluefield High School coach Merrill Gainer. The field at Roanoke’s Patrick Henry High School his named in his honor. One of his ex-assistants and McDowell County Native Willis White not only followed Gainer at Patrick Henry, but took over a raunchy program at Salem High School in the early 80s. Two decades later he retired with 4 State Championships. One of his contemporaries in the McDowell County coalfields was Glynn Carlock. Carlock – another Virginia High School League Hall of Famer like White – turned a sleepy little football program at Graham High School in Bluefield, Virginia into a State powerhouse winning state titles in 1989 and 1995. Carlock died several years ago from an awful brain disease and the football program at the school hasn’t been the same since and may never be. McDowell County turned out one of this countries’ top authors in Coalwood’s Homer Hickam. All his brother Jim did was become a football coach after his playing career at Virginia Tech and win over 200 games at Roanoke’s Northside High School. War, West Virginia is home to Chris Jones who made high school football history in Virginia. In 2001 he coached little Bath County High School to a Division 1 championship and the very next year coached Lynchburg’s Heritage High School to a Division 4 championship thus becoming the first coach in Virginia history to win state titles in back to back years at two different schools. And while, Richwood’s Joel Hicks didn’t grow up in the coalfields, his first coaching job was at Big Creek High School before moving on and eventually landing at Virginia’s Pulaski County High School. Hicks retired about a decade ago with a 1992 AAA Division 6 State Title and 300 wins.
We’ve haven’t even talked about the players that the state has turned out, Randy Moss among others. While not a native of West Virginia, the Mountain state can lay claim to Jeff Hostetler who played for Nehlen at West Virginia and I guess liked him so much he married his daughter. Hostetler was the winning quarterback in Super Bowl 25 with the New York Giants.
And we really haven’t talked about a sport they love in West Virginia, basketball. Oh, how West Virginia has made it’s impact on that sport as well. Jerry West won an NBA title as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers, and then won 7 as a General Manager. In college he helped WVU to the 1959 NCAA Title game where they lost to California. West’s legend lives on. It’s well known that his image is the one on the official “NBA” logo. Princeton’s Rod Thorn also played at WVU and was the second pick in the 1963 NBA Draft to the Baltimore Bullets, but Thorn had a hand in 6 NBA Titles for the Chicago Bulls. As the Bulls General Manager in 1984, he drafted a guy named Michael Jordan as the third overall pick after the Portland Trailblazers selected Kentucky’s Sam Bowie with pick number two. Jordan became the game’s best player. Bowie’s career was derailed by bad knees. Then there’s the national record set by Northfork High School in McDowell County, West Virginia. The school won a national record 8 straight “AA” championships in the late 70s and early 80s.
There have been West Virginia Natives making impacts in things other than playing and coaching like Nobel Prize winning economist John Nash from Bluefield who had a greater impact on those struggling with mental illness by revealing his own battles. Then there’s Ken Kendrick from Princeton, West Virginia whose the managing General Partner of baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s apparent that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you go and all of these people have turned what they learned growing up in West Virginia into success.
The fact that West Virginia has such an impact nationally on all facets of life is not surprising. The state is full of pride and it’s most important resource has always been its people and their tough, hard working spirit and can-do attitude. You can hear all the jokes about West Virginia and perhaps some of it is deserved with its high taxes and lack of infrastructure in a lot of places, but the fact is that West Virginia has turned out a Mountain of Winners.