(Note: as with the previous West Virginia football history piece, this article is written from memory. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)
Soon after Pittsburgh’s QB Dan Marino sliced and diced West Virginia, the school named Don Nehlen as head football coach. Coach Nehlen came from Bo Schembechler’s staff. Rumor has it that the new Mountaineer leader was waiting in the wings at Ann Arbor for better facilities in Morgantown. That’s irrelevant.
True or false, he got them: a) a new stadium, b) new uniforms, complete with Michigan colors (close enough), and c) the “Flying WV”, which the coach helped to develop. How about that. A top notch coach and an artist and designer in one contract.
Plans for the stadium included 60,000 seats, but the immediate issue was getting it ready for the 1980 home opener. Current United States senator Jay Rockefeller, then Governor, pulled together twelve wealthy men and women from the state to drop a half million in the kitty. He matched them as promised through his personal Standard Oil fortune. A bond issue was floated, work that summer spanned 24/7, and the University of Cincinnati showed up for the season opener.
Upon initial inspection, new Mountaineer Field could be described as sterile, compared to the charm of the old field. There was no tunnel for the band to run out of, it wasn’t in the middle of campus, and the pitch of the rows was shallow compared to the old stadium, where you were on top of the turf.
However, the bathrooms worked, you could find the concessions, and it had the big-time college football feel. Most everyone there on that sunny, hot late summer day couldn’t help but have the feeling that good things were about to happen.
Not right away, though. The late John Denver swooped in on a helicopter to sing “Country Roads.” He purportedly wished he had never written and recorded that song, so he was in and out of there before the Mountaineers hit the field.
The first play didn’t provide any indications, either. I remember this, but if I’m wrong, tell me in a comment. The first play was a screen pass from junior quarterback Oliver Luck to senior tailback Robert Alexander. Mr. Alexander dropped it.
West Virginia finished the 1980 campaign at 6-6, beating Cincinnati, but losing to Top 10 Pittsburgh and annual conqueror Penn State in a Morgantown autumn monsoon, between which was scheduled a losing trip to Hawaii. It’s as American as burgers on the grill to have a working vacation but you gotta produce.
Throughout Mountaineer football, we celebrated the wins burning a few sofas. Following the losses was the battle cry, “The game was much closer than the score.” Losing had become acceptable, especially to Pitt and Penn State. Something told us that was going to change.