Encyclopedia: West Virginia

Updated: December 26, 2005, 2:24 PM ET
ESPN College Football Encyclopedia

The following is reprinted from ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game , edited by Michael MacCambridge

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Long before major harris and Sam Huff, long before Don Nehlen and Bobby Bowden, West Virginia's football ties were rooted in a simple, humble history, not unlike West Virginia itself. In 1891, a band of West Virginia students became intrigued at the stories they'd heard of "foot-ball," the relatively new sport gaining popularity at universities all across the country. Quickly, they gathered equipment and uniforms (expensive, even by those primitive standards) and found an opponent, Washington & Jefferson College of nearby Washington, Pa., which was in its second year fielding a football team.

Robert Bivens, who had played at Princeton for a time before transferring to WVU, was named field captain. Frederick Emory, a professor who'd played at Yale, one of the original football superpowers, was appointed team adviser. Preparation was sketchy; the team practiced for two weeks on a cow pasture known as baseball grounds, and the results were predictably disastrous, a 72-0 loss in cold, blustery conditions on Thanksgiving Day on a level field in south Morgantown. But from that indignity has grown a program that has filled the small college town with life and energy almost every year since.

From its first postseason appearance in the 1922 East-West Bowl -- when crowds gathered in Morgantown to receive telegraph reports about the game against Gonzaga, which was being played in San Diego -- to the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, when West Virginia played Notre Dame in a winner-take-all showdown for the national title, Mountaineers football has seized the state, and Mountaineer Field has become one of the great game-day sites in all of college football.

Tradition
Game days in West Virginia have always been loud, colorful events, often highlighted by the regular reports of the mascot's musket. In the 1940s and 1950s, the most popular chant was "West By God Virginia!" Now, the team runs through a man-made tunnel of band members before games, a carryover from the original Mountaineer Field. The school's Mountaineer Marching Band is one of the nation's best, a 350-piece group whose nickname is the Pride of West Virginia, and whose signature formation is an outline of the state's boundaries that provides a rousing finale to the "Hail West Virginia" song at every home game.

Best Player
Although West Virginia has produced a wealth of well-known players through the years, from Sam Huff to Jeff Hostetler, Darryl Talley to Major Harris, there is only one name that still conjures magic, more than 80 years after he played his last down, nearly 40 years after drawing his last breath. Ira Errett "Rat" Rodgers is the preeminent athlete in West Virginia history, a fullback from 1915 to 1919 who was called "the finest all-around football player in the land" by columnist Grantland Rice. Rodgers came to national prominence after West Virginia's 25-0 victory over Princeton in 1919, passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns. During that season, he accounted for 147 points, still a school single-season record.

Best Coach
While Bobby Bowden coached the team for six years before heading off into legend at Florida State -- he went 42-26 with two Peach Bowl appearances at WVU -- it is Don Nehlen who is the undisputed king of Mountaineer coaches.

In 1980, Nehlen inherited a team that had suffered through four straight losing seasons; his second year as coach was the first of three straight 9-3 seasons. By far, the highlight of Nehlen's tenure -- and West Virginia's football history -- was the 1988 team that won its first 11 games and faced Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship. In 1993, he guided the Mountaineers to a second 110 start before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Nehlen was 149-93-4 in 21 seasons in Morgantown, and guided the Mountaineers to 13 bowls. "Don Nehlen is considered to be the E.F. Hutton of college coaching, because when he speaks, out of respect for his wisdom and experience, we all listen," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said the week Nehlen retired. "College football certainly will miss one of the icons of our profession."

Best Team
It wasn't just that the Mountaineers were winning; it was how much they were winning by. As the early weeks of the 1988 season progressed, that was the striking thing. They beat Bowling Green 62-14. Cal State Fullerton was crushed 45-10. Maryland was obliterated 55-24. Pitt was squashed in the Backyard Brawl, 31-10. On and on it went. Led by sophomore quarterback Major Harris, West Virginia's offense seemed unstoppable. Harris grew up in Pittsburgh and became one of that city's great high school athletes in the mid-1980s; still, most recruiters saw him as a defensive back. Don Nehlen saw something else when he spotted Harris at one of his high school camps. "We had probably 40 quarterbacks in camp," Nehlen said. "We'd teach them in the morning and afternoon, then at night they'd split up into six-man teams for touch games. So I watched Major one night, playing touch, and he was running all over the place. I said to myself, 'Man, if they can't touch him, they've got to have a tough time tackling him.'"

Harris' powers were never more in evidence than during a three-week stretch when Boston College, Penn State and Cincinnati fell under the Mountaineers steamroller by scores of 59-19, 51-30 and 51-13. Despite the traditional cries levied against East Coast schools, there was little doubt who Notre Dame's opponent in the Fiesta Bowl would be. But it was at Tempe, Ariz., where the magic finally ran out for West Virginia. Harris was limited to 166 passing yards and one touchdown, Notre Dame dashed out to a 16-0 lead and the Fighting Irish wrapped up the 17th national title in school history, 34-21.

Biggest Game
Miami was 120 in its short history in the Big East; the Hurricanes had not lost a game of any kind in November in nine years, since a fellow named Flutie plunged a knife in their hearts. West Virginia had a better record (9-0 to 8-1) than the fourth-ranked Canes entering the game on Nov. 20, 1993. But it was still a defining moment in Mountaineers football. And when the 17-14 victory was complete, in front of 70,222 fans at Mountaineer Field, it not only proved the arrival of West Virginia as a national championship player, but also announced the Big East as more than Miami and a batch of patsies. There were five lead changes in the game; the winning touchdown turned out to be a 19-yard run by Robert Walker with 6:08 left in the fourth quarter. Then Miami's withering threats were turned back by a stubborn Mountaineers defense. "We needed the elements to all come together to win this game," West Virginia coach Don Nehlen said when it was over. "And that's exactly what happened."

Biggest Upset
Nobody knew what to expect from Jeff Hostetler when the Hollsopple, Pa., native transferred to Morgantown from Penn State. Hostetler had lost out to Todd Blackledge for the starting quarterback's job in State College, and arrived at West Virginia completely unproven. He wasted little time changing that -- in his first game, Sept. 11, 1982, he threw for 321 yards and four touchdowns as the Mountaineers rocked ninth-ranked Oklahoma 41-27 in Norman. Hostetler completed 17 of 37 passes, and his last scoring toss, to Wayne Brown midway through the fourth quarter, snapped a 27-27 tie. Despite a 9-3 record and Peach Bowl victory the previous year, this game truly signaled the arrival of something new in West Virginia's football history, and not only because it handed Barry Switzer his first opening-day loss in 10 years as Sooners coach. Hostetler described his afternoon thusly: "I just threw 'em up and the good Lord collected 'em." Nehlen was a bit more effusive: "For a guy who had never taken a snap for West Virginia University, and then to come out and do what he did today, well, I just don't have the right words to describe it. Jeff just has to go down in history."

Heartbreaker
On Oct. 26, 1996, West Virginia was 7-0 and grinding toward an eighth straight victory when it led Miami 7-3 late in a hard-fought game in Morgantown. But when Brian West tried to punt the ball from deep in West Virginia territory, Miami safety Tremain Mack zoomed in around the left side and smothered the ball just as it left West's foot. Jack Hallmon recovered the ball and handed it off to fellow defensive back Nate Brooks to complete a staggering 20-yard touchdown play with 21 seconds left. Nehlen would describe this as "the toughest loss I've ever been associated with," and a stunned West, in the locker room afterward, called it "a nightmare. I've never seen anything like it before."

Controversy
It was a galling way for the game to end and, in retrospect, a disheartening way for a season to turn. Marvin Graves' 17-yard touchdown pass to Chris Gedney in the game's final minute allowed Syracuse to beat the Mountaineers 20-17 on Oct. 17, 1992. But it's how the score came to pass that hurt. Earlier in the drive, Graves had been pushed hard out-of-bounds after picking up a first down. He then lost his temper and fired the ball at the tackler, WVU's Tommy Orr. That touched off an ugly bench-clearing brawl that ultimately resulted in three Mountaineers defensive regulars -- Mike Collins, Tom Briggs and Leroy Axem -- getting ejected. Only Ken Warren, an obscure sub lineman, was thrown out for Syracuse; inexplicably, Graves, who started the melee, was allowed to stay in. As a result, he not only threw the winning score, he did so at the expense of backup safety John Harper -- in the game only because Collins was in the locker room. "I don't think I've ever had one taken from me like that," Nehlen said afterward. "It's a crime." Whatever it was called, it threw a wrench into West Virginia's season. The Mountaineers were 302 entering the game, but the loss to Syracuse started a three-game losing streak that ultimately kept WVU out of the bowl picture.

Nickname
The Mountaineer, in addition to being emblematic of West Virginia's proud history as a haven for outdoorsmen, became the school nickname after the state motto was coined: "Mountaineers are always free." Prior to 1905, West Virginia football players were referred to as the Snakes.

Mascot
The Mountaineer is a member of the student body chosen for outstanding enthusiasm, character, community service and academics. Candidates write essays describing why they want to be the mascot, and finalists are then chosen following a "cheer-off" at the next-to-last home basketball game each season. The costume is tailored to fit each year's winner, and male Mountaineers customarily grow beards during their tenure. The mascot's rifle is a genuine flintlock that requires the user to know the amount of gunpowder needed to fire off the traditional charge.

Uniforms
West Virginia's official school colors of old gold and blue were adopted by the school's upperclassmen in 1890. The football uniform has been virtually unchanged since Nehlen became the coach in 1980, with the helmet featuring a blue background and the "Flying WV" logo in old gold. The Mountaineers traditionally wear gold pants and blue jerseys at home, with gold pants and white jerseys on the road. They will wear blue pants on occasion at home and on the road.

Stadium
Opened in 1980, Mountaineer Field has been twice expanded, from the original 50,000 seats to 63,500, all of them unobstructed. The seats are arrayed in an acoustically friendly bowl shape that holds noise very well. The new Mountaineer Field replaced a smaller one that opened in 1924 and grew along with the program until it could grow no longer.

In 2004, WVU added 18 stadium suites and club seating in the north end zone to the renamed Milan Puskar Stadium. Milan "Mike" Puskar is a local businessman who donated $20 million to the school in 2003.

Rival
West Virginia and Pittsburgh have staged the Backyard Brawl since 1895, though Pitt's attention during much of that time was divided between the Mountaineers and Penn State. Once that longtime rivalry was discontinued by Penn State's entry into the Big Ten in 1993, the Brawl became the unquestioned grudge match for both teams. Although West Virginia won the first three games in the series, two of them via shutout, Pitt holds a decisive advantage, helped by a stretch from 1924 to 1951 when it won 23 of 25 meetings. Perhaps the most thrilling game in the series came in 1997, when Pitt won 41-38 in triple overtime.

Lore
Art "Pappy" Lewis was the man who put West Virginia football on the map. Though the Mountaineers had already appeared in and won three bowl games (1922 East-West against Gonzaga, 1938 Sun against Texas Tech, 1949 Sun against Texas-El Paso), it was Lewis who engineered the program's first true golden age. From 1952 through 1957, the school went 44131, won 30 consecutive games in the Southern Conference and made its first major bowl appearance in the 1954 Sugar Bowl (a 42-19 loss to Georgia Tech).

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