What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been: WVU Football Before 1980

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What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been: WVU Football Before 1980
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

West Virginia football has a storied past.  Trouble is, few folks outside Almost Heaven know the story.

Well, I’m here to tell you about the years before 1980 in an abbreviated fashion.  Those years are the old Mountaineer Field years, with the 35,000 seats and The Bowl and the Frisbee Dog.

To those fans of the Mountaineers out there, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m doing this from memory.

My first recollection of West Virginia football was the 70 I scribbled on the side of my red football helmet in honor of Sam Huff and his NFL jersey. 

I’ll only be 53 years of age Tuesday, so I don’t remember Mr. Huff’s WVU number.  Thinking it was 75, I’ll tell you after the Liberty game.  His number has been retired and is painted on a wall near the south end zone. 

Mr. Huff was Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert before there were a Butkus and a Lambert.  He is mostly known for establishing the standard for middle linebacker play in professional football.  Heady stuff, as in Sam’s head in your sternum.

By the way: That's Sam Huff looking this way in the photo.  He's attending a recent Congressional hearing on NFL retirement benefits.

From there, I kept up with the 1969 10-1 team, with Bob Gresham and the late Jim Braxton in the backfield and Jim Carlen coaching on the sidelines. 

In that season, the Mountaineers lost only to Penn State (which was as certain as St. Patrick’s Day), but won the second annual Peach Bowl over South Carolina 14-3. 

Mr. Braxton was an All American tight end who later became the blocking back for OJ Simpson.  Juice yards: 2,003 in 1973.  Too bad Mr. Braxton wasn’t around to keep OJ from self-destructing in 1994.

West Virginia in the early 1970s had its answer to the swashbuckling Joe Namath.  Quarterback Bernie Galiffa was a gunslinger who never met a pass he didn’t like.  Mr. Galiffa was a handsome, colorful character, always keeping the Mountaineers in the game at any time in any situation from any position on the field.

Three gamebreakers wore the navy and old gold in the early to mid 70's.  Kerry Marberry was a supercharged running back who scored 18 touchdowns one season for coach Bobby Bowden.  In 1972, the star became almost legendary when, playing at Mountaineer Field teeming with overcapacity, he returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Penn State.  The entire state saw it as the game was being telecast nationally by ABC back when WVU on national television was enormous. 

Two others, Danny Buggs and Marshall Mills, were tall (okay, taller than normal) wideouts who electrified the crowds at Mountaineer Field.  Mr. Mills provided a brand of excitement rarely seen on the Mounties’ side of the ball.  And, Mr. Buggs also wowed the crowd. 

Against Indiana and head coach Lee Corso in 1973, Mr. Buggs scored a touchdown each on a reverse, a pass reception, and a punt return.  I’ve heard Mr. Corso refer to that traumatic Saturday afternoon on ESPN’s College Gameday.  He just can’t get over it.

The team that was my favorite before 1980 is the 1975 collection of stars. 

Shake-and-bake running back Arthur Owens, power runner Ron Lee, 6-7 receiver Scott McDonald, and three bell-ringers, linebackers Ray Marshall and Jack Eastwood and safety Tom Pridemore, joined coach Bobby Bowden and big-league quarterback Dan Kendra. 

That ’75 team went 8-3, losing to Tulane, Penn State in the Mountaineers’ annual futility festival, and Syracuse, the final game after receiving a bid to play in the Peach Bowl.

The Syracuse loss on the road might have stemmed from the previous week's game, a huge emotional victory over hated rival Pittsburgh in that year’s edition of the Backyard Brawl. 

Mr. Kendra threw a last-second pass to Randy Swinson to set up the walk-off field goal nailed by straight-on kicker Bill McKenzie.  Fans stormed the turf and Morgantown was completely out of beer by midnight.

Bobby Bowden led West Virginia as he paid Lou Holtz back for the 1972 Peach Bowl pounding by 49, it doesn’t matter what our score was.  Mr. Kendra threw a baby post to Scott McDonald late in the fourth.  The former hoops star juggled it in for a 50-yard touchdown to go ahead for good at 13-10.

The remainder of the decade saw no significant action, if you were a Mountaineer. 

However, WVU’s opponents shined.  Pittsburgh won the national championship in 1976, the year Tony Dorsett took home the Heisman. 

Penn State played for the national title in 1978, only to lose to Alabama when speed conquered brawn. 

Curt Warner from the state’s tiny Pineville High School shunned WVU in 1979 in favor of Penn State.  Oklahoma played the rude host to the Mounties as they rocked West Virginia 52 to whatever in 1979. 

Since my grandmother always said that bad things come in threes, 1979 was the year the final game was played at old Mountaineer Field.  Appropriately, that game was the Backyard Brawl. 

Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino seemingly—no, scratch seemingly—Dan Marino had hours of pocket time to frustrate coach Frank Cignetti, one of the finest men ever, but…

Finally, from the Fans-Get-In-The-Way department, coach Bobby Bowden took heed of the “Bobby Must Go!” banners and the "For Sale" signs planted in his front yard. 

He’s been the coach at Florida State for 35 years, has won two national championships, and the rest is…more abbreviated history.

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