Take me Home Country Roads

Now past the halfway point of the College Football Season, the experts are projecting ahead to the 4-team College Football Playoff and who might be in and who might be out.  Like they know?    Right now the general school of thought amongst those “experts” is that of the Power-5 conferences the one that will be left out is the Big-12.

The Big-12’s two flagship universities are Oklahoma and Texas and neither one of those is making the final 4.  So, the conference’s hope to make the 4-team field comes down to just two schools, Baylor and West Virginia.

That’s right I said West Virginia and there’s not a person in this country who thought that in late-October West Virginia would be in the mix for a Big-12 title and a possible spot in the playoff.  Winning football and West Virginia have never been mutually exclusive, but having this team at this point is nothing short of a surprise.

This is the 125th season of West Virginia football.  In it’s history West Virginia has an overall record of 732-482-48, which gives the school the 14th most victories among FBS programs.  In their rich history, the school has produced NFL Hall of Famers like Sam Huff, and helped launch the Hall of Fame coaching career of Bobby Bowden who coached at the school from 1970 – 1975.  Bowden felt unappreciated at WVU and bolted for the then-struggling football program at Florida State.  That turned out to be an excellent career move.

In his place, WVU hired Frank Cignetti who lasted only five largely mediocre to poor seasons, but it’s not like his work didn’t have an impact on West Virginia or the game of college football for that matter.  Cignetti helped launch the coaching career of West Virginia native Nick Saban who was a graduate assistant on his staff.  He also recruited Darryl Talley who went on to play in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Oliver Luck who after an NFL career become a successful businessman.  Luck eventually became the Athletic Director at WVU and used his various contacts in Texas to move West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12.

On December 10, 1979, West Virginia hired Don Nehlen to replace Cignetti.  A New Year’s Day Baby, Nehlen was a former head coach at Bowling Green, but at the time of his hiring was serving as the offensive coordinator for Bo Schembechler at Michigan.  His arrival corresponded with the opening of the new Mountaineer Field, which still stands today although with a  number of upgrades.  He also introduced a new color scheme and the flying WV logo which is still used today and is recognizable to anyone.

Nehlen had only 4 losing seasons in his career at West Virginia and twice did what appeared to be unthinkable.  In 1988, West Virginia went 11-0 and played Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship.  Among the victims that season was Penn State who suffered a 51-30 beat down so severe at Mountaineer Field that Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno stormed off the field in a huff before the game was even over.  Nehlen followed up that unbeaten season with another one in 1993 when WVU again went 11-0 beating Number 4 Miami with a 4th quarter comeback at Mountaineer Field, and Number 11 Boston College in the final minutes on Thanksgiving Weekend.

The ’93 season is memorable for a number of reasons.  First, Nehlen could never really settle on a quarterback.  He insisted on playing both Notre Dame transfer Jake Kelchner and Darren Studstill.  That generally doesn’t work, but in this case it did until the 1993 season ended in a thud in the Sugar Bowl when SEC Champion Florida dump trucked WVU 41-7 in a game where Florida’s Monte Grow hit Studstill so hard it turned his helmet sideways.  Secondly, Nehlen authored an epic meltdown after his team’s win at Boston College to finish 11-0.  As it turned out Florida State was selected to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the National Championship.  That year, Notre Dame had beaten Florida State, and Boston College had beaten Notre Dame, and then West Virginia beat Boston College.  Politicking to get his team in the Orange Bowl Nehlen argued that his team was deserving of the spot in the National Title game because they had beat the team that beat the team that beat the team.

I will freely admit to liking coach Nehlen a great deal.  He was a lot different in casual situations in the off-season than during the season.  During the season he could get a little defensive during his press conferences and weekly radio show, and would say some bizarre things.  Everyone knows that as a state, West Virginia doesn’t turn out many Division I college football prospects so Nehlen made his success by mining Ohio, Pennsylvania and in particular, Florida.  When he was asked about not recruiting in-state players on his weekly radio show, he told the caller that when you fly over Ohio you see a lot of houses and those houses have football players.  When you fly over West Virginia you see trees and you know that is in those trees?  Birds.  He also had a striking resemblance to the Jerry Vandike character Luther Van Dam from the Television Series “Coach”, and after a tough loss would almost always come to the post-game press conference with his hair sticking up in a million directions.

As a general rule WVU has the allegiance of an entire state, notwithstanding the radical Marshall contingent who are still chasing the dream, despite having never beaten WVU in 12 tries.  On football Saturdays the 66,000 seat Mountaineer Field trails only Charleston as the largest city in the State.  Mountaineer fans are passionate if not a little different sometimes.  A night game can be a wild scene as the fans will have had all day to get good and liquored up.  Such was the case in 1996 when WVU met Miami in a top 10 game in Morgantown.  WVU had a 7-3 lead late into the 4th quarter until Miami blocked a punt and ran it into the end zone for the final 10-7 margin.  The stadium went from raucous to dead silent in seconds.  And, although I’ve had other friends not believe me when I mention this, it is true that on a game day in Morgantown at least one couch is going to get burnt.  Morgantown officials have tried for years to stop it, to no avail.  Nehlen was also known for being the subject matter of a joke in West Virginia.  His team lost 8 straight bowl games prompting the locals to quip that the similarities between the West Virginia Mountaineers and marijuana is that they both get smoked in bowls.

When Nehlen finally decided to ride off into retirement after the 2000 season, the school turned to one of its own to replace him in hiring then-Clemson offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez.  Rodriguez was a character.  I first ran into him in 1990 when he was coaching then-NAIA school Glenville State in a West Virginia Conference game at Concord in Athens, West Virginia.  His team got its butt kicked that day and Rodriguez spent more time on the field than his players bitching at the WVIAC officials, who in all candor were always below average.

Two years later, when they returned to Concord, I wandered with my camera over to the Glenville State sideline to get a shot of Rodriguez to use in the highlights.  At one point he was standing right next to me and after an official threw another yellow flag, looked at me and said “Can you f-ing believe this?  Are those flags just falling out of their pockets?”

Despite his Wildman reputation, Rodriguez can be credited with changing offensive football.  At Glenville State he invented the zone-read offense quite by mistake.  His team was largely a spread offense passing team and on one play his quarterback Jed Drenning – now the sideline reporter on the Mountaineer Sports Network – tucked the ball and ran when has supposed to throw and scored a touchdown.  When he came back to the sideline Rodriguez asked Drenning what happened.  Drenning said it was a busted play and the zone read was born.  Rodriguez fined tuned the offense at Glenville State because he said no one came to the games so no one would boo him if it didn’t work.  It worked and he took Glenville State to the NAIA National Title game before joining Tommy Bowden at Tulane as his offensive coordinator.

Rodriguez had a rough start and a rough finish to his WVU career.  His first team went 3-8 and looked like a bunch of Don Nehlen recruits running a misfit offense for their skill set. But over the next few years, he won 95 games and lost 33, won 6 Big East Titles and won three BCS games including the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 2007 when the entire state needed a lift.  That day several coal miners were killed in a disaster in North Central West Virginia.  That night Rodriguez and WVU pounded SEC East Champion Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl which that year was essentially a Georgia home game having been moved from Hurricane damaged New Orleans to the Georgia Dome.

During the 2007 season, he had WVU on the cusp of a spot in the BCS National Championship game.  At one point that season WVU was number one in the coaches’ poll and needed just a win over Pitt to play for the National Title.  Rodriguez and his team bombed losing 13-9, and just a few days later in what I’m sure he would admit to being an emotional decision made the ill-fated jump to coach at Michigan.

When Rodriguez bolted town, WVU fans cursed his name, and the school turned to another native son Bill Stewart to be the interim coach for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.  The Mountaineers knocked the Sooners silly earning Stewart the full-time job the next day.  His tenure though was marked by some questionable decision making and a lot of good down home statements that frankly wore thin over time.  No one really cares that you proposed to your wife under the goal post at Magnolia High School or once stole turnips from your neighbors garden, if you look like you are confused on the sidelines half the time.  When the A.D. who hired Stewart retired and Luck took over, his days were numbered.

That brings us to 2011 when Luck hired current head coach Dana Holgorsen to be the offensive coordinator for 2011 and to take over as head coach in 2012.  These things never work and frankly Luck bungled it by not simply firing Stewart and replacing him rather than trying to ease him out the door.  This one blew up when reports surfaced that Stewart had asked for assistance from various newspaper reporters to dig up dirt on Holgorsen, forcing Stewart to resign.  Less than a year later, he died from a sudden heart attack while playing golf.  Many believe he died from a broken heart.

Of all the coaches who have to come before him at WVU, Holgorsen has been given the toughest job.  He had to take a team with Big East talent and play in the Big 12 while trying to recruit players that could compete in the Big-12.  The closest Big 12 school is Iowa State nearly 1,000 miles to the West.  The Big 12’s recruiting base is Texas and WVU has found it difficult to make in-roads there.  Entering this season his job was generally considered to be on the line.  After opening with a 10-3 record in 2011 (in the Big East) that included a  seal clubbing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Holgorsen’s WVU teams have gone 7-6, 4-8, 7-6 and 8-5.  It was believed that WVU Athletic Director Shane Lyons (who had no part in hiring Holgorsen) was ready to cut him loose last year but decided against it at the last minute due to a large contract buy-out.  Now with the team off to a 5-0 start and climbing in the polls, Lyons may well be in a position where he has to either give Holgorsen an extension or watch him leave for a better job.  He can also still fire him if this season goes south.  Consider that in 2012 WVU started 5-0 and then lost 5 of their last 6, and in 2014 started 6-2 and then lost 4 of their last 5.

This week will tell us a lot about the future of WVU football.   If this team is truly different it will show up tomorrow afternoon against TCU.  The last two times the Horned Frogs came to Morgantown they won both games by a combined total of just 2 points. TCU’s players are mostly from Texas and if you want players from Texas to come to your schoolr rather than stay at home, it helps to beat them.

If West Virginia loses its first game of the year another tail-spin is possible with Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor left to play.  Holgorsen has never been rumored to be in the mix for better jobs, but with what appears to be very little support from those above him at the school, it’s not inconceivable for him to take a victory lap with this team and then hit the Country Road leaving West Virginia in a familiar position, starting over again.

The tough thing about this weekend’s games is that two of the best are in the same time slot – 3:30 p.m.  The aforementioned WVU-TCU game and Alabama hosting Texas A&M in the unbeaten battle for tops in the SEC West.  Texas A&M is good, but having watched Alabama in person last week at Tennessee, there are really good.  Alabama has won 19 straight games and frankly shows no signs of slowing down, but consider that in the past 4 seasons, Alabama has lost just 2 SEC home games, the first was to Texas A&M in 2012.

The FCS Game of the Week takes us to Brookings, South Dakota for the battle for the top spot in the Missouri Valley Conference between the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State and the Penguins of Youngstown State.  These two are the only unbeaten teams in the MVC.  Youngstown is ranked 12th and South Dakota State is 7th.  This match-up comes on South Dakota State’s Homecoming which is officially known as “Hobo Day”.  This is the 103rd Hobo Day game which began on November 2, 1912.  The tradition has it that the students dress up as Hobos and Bums for the Homecoming Parade.  The Parade culminates with the “Grand Pooba” riding in the parade in the historic Bummobile, which is a 1912 Ford Model T.   The tradition was born in 1912 when male students grew beards for a month and the female students dressed up as Indian Maidens and walked down to the train station to welcome the visiting football team.  It’s known as the biggest one-day even in the Dakotas and has been held every year except for once in World War I and once in World War II.

Division II takes us to Brookville, New York where the 7-0 Pioneers of LIU-Post hosts American International in a Northeast-10 Conference Game.  LIU-Post was formerly known as C.W. Post.  The school was initially named after cereal inventor Charles William Post who sold the school the property that the campus sits on.  The Pioneers are ranked 14th in Division II.  Among American International’s alums is former U-Conn basketball coach Jim Calhoun.

Division III takes us to Belton, Texas smack dab in the middle of Austin and Waco where the 3rd ranked Crusaders of Mary Hardin-Baylor host the 11th ranked Cowboys of Hardin-Simmons.  Mary Hardin-Baylor is 6-0 and the lowest scoring game for the Crusaders all year is 56 points.  Since going 4-6 in 1999, Mary Hardin-Baylor has gone 180-25 with 13 conference titles, and appearances in the Division III playoffs every year since 2002.  They made one Stagg Bowl appearance in Salem in 2004, but haven’t been able to get back  They have, however, owned this match-up.  Hardin-Simmons hasn’t beaten Mary Hardin-Baylor since 2001.

And finally, for the NAIA game of the week we go to Columbia, Kentucky where the 6th ranked and undefeated Blue Raiders of Lindsey-Wilson host the undefeated and 3rd ranked Reinhardt Eagles.  Lindsey Wilson revived football after 75 years in 2010 and at 8-0 are off to their best start in program history.  They are also coming off back-to-back playoff appearances in 2014 and 2015.

Have a great weekend…


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