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West Virginia Football Fortitude: Titanium Gut Check Part I

24 Oct 1998: A portrait of head coach Don Nehlen of the West Virginia Mountaineers as he watches the field during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Mountaineer Field in Morgan Filed, West Virginia. Miami defeated W. Virginia 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Allsport
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Tim McGheeCorrespondent IIIJune 2, 2016

For over 35 years, from Bobby Bowden to Frank Cignetti to Don Nehlen, through Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart, the West Virginia head coaches, leaders on the gridiron, have pulled off some impressive upsets.

How do they do that?

Some call it “ice water flowing through the veins.”  That’s a good one, an apt depiction of what goes on in the coach’s circulatory system as he plans the attack.

Cold blooded.

I prefer to interpret it with regard to the coach’s internal structure.

What’s that made of?  Whatever it is, his guts are strong, agile, and willing to take the leap of faith long before us regular folks can evaluate the alternatives required to win a game too, too many think he can't.

So, what’s he made of?

The engineer in me calls it titanium.

Titanium.  Lustrous, a shining beacon for his players.  Resistant to corrosion attack, like from irate fans, the media, and wealthy boosters.  But, most importantly, titanium has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal.  Strong and agile, able to move his team with speed and force.

Titanium guts.

I have chosen eight games in which West Virginia coaches have either made the gutty call or inspired Mountaineer players to do what it takes to be gutty in their own right.

Listing those eight games chronologically, in each of four parts I will describe two of them.  Part I looks back to both the 1975 Peach Bowl and coach Don Nehlen’s signature win, the 1982 opener against Oklahoma.

I hope reading these articles make you want to stand up and chant to whomever is around, “Let’s gooooo, Mountaineers!”

 

1975 Peach Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia, versus North Carolina State

Scott MacDonald, tight end; Bobby Bowden and Frank Cignetti.

Scott MacDonald traveled to West Virginia University as a 6'-6" basketball player.  He completed his hoops eligibility at the end of the 1974-1975 season.  The NCAA said he had one year remaining in a different sport.

Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti coaxed MacDonald onto the gridiron.  Scott found himself in the starting lineup midseason, but it was Cignetti who kept the tall tight end fired up while singing his praises to Bobby Bowden. 

Despite Scott's untimely fumble against Penn State, the head coach hung in there with him.  It took a while for the gamble to pay off, but it did at a most opportune time.

The Mountaineers were down 10-7 to Lou Holtz’ Wolfpack late in the fourth, looking as if they were going to drop their second Peach Bowl in four years. 

MacDonald had been doing well at tight end that day, pulling in four catches for 60 yards.  Cignetti remembered a promise he made to Scott during the Peach Bowl preparations: “You keep catching them like that and we’re going to get the ball to you.”

In the second half, the West Virginia offense sputtered like a dirty carburetor in a rusted Ford Pinto.  Cignetti found his team at midfield.  With Bowden’s blessings, he sent in call for MacDonald to run a slant.

Quarterback Dan Kendra stroked a soft liner to Scott.  The ball was tipped once, then again, then MacDonald’s strong basketball hands finally pulled it in.

I attended that game as a 19 year old college student.  Scott, not known as a speed merchant, seemingly took minutes to get to the goal line.  Most surprising is that no one caught him from behind.  It was as if time was suspended for us as Scott MacDonald warped through relativity.

Regardless, coach Bowden finally got a bowl game for the Mountaineers.

 

1982 opener versus Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma

Jeff Hostetler, quarterback, and Don Nehlen 

During the 1980 season, Joe Paterno chose Todd Blackledge to be his number one quarterback and sent Jeff Hostetler to workout with the linebackers.  Hostetler never lost sight of his goal to call the signals a major college team, so he took his skills south to West Virginia.

Don Nehlen was looking for a man to run the offense after Oliver Luck completed his storied career.  In walked Jeff, a raw-boned, strapping young man who...looked like a linebacker.

West Virginia 's opener was scheduled for Norman, Oklahoma, to take on the tough, fast Sooners.  Coach Nehlen spent almost every practice in spring and two-a-days preparing for Oklahoma, knowing that's what it would take to keep from being blown off the field.

On that early September afternoon, the turf was scorched.  So were the Sooners.  Nehlen and his assistants set up a vertical game plan that they thought would give the Mountaineers the best chance.

Taking a Sooner hit on every pass, Jeff Hostetler hung tough and took Oklahoma downtown.  Hoss was 9 for 17 for 199 yards in the first half and finished 17-37 for 321 yards and four touchdowns.

Jeff's pass yardage chart sounded like it was being read from the basement of a Catholic church:  31, 52, 48, 33, 30, 42…bingo!

So, you have a long ball game planned by a virtually unknown coach, executed by a castaway quarterback that defeated a perennial Top 10 team in their own backyard.

Only in West Virginia.

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