A Perspective on West Virginia University Football

James SchrumpfContributor IDecember 4, 2008

I wasn't always a football fan.

In my family, football was NFL games watched on Thanksgiving afternoon following the big family meal. No one cared who won or lost; it was just part of the tradition of the day.

I knew Dallas and Detroit had football teams before I knew Pittsburgh had one, and my hometown of McMechen, WV was only a little more than an hour's drive away. One of my female cousins was a big Bart Starr fan, and for some reason Notre Dame football was always mentioned, even though we were Methodist.

My introduction to football really came about when my best friend in high school came up to me all excited one Monday in December, 1972, and told my how the Steelers had beat Oakland in "the playoffs."

My reaction was "The Pittsburgh who? Pittsburgh has an NFL team?" Being the good kind of best friend, he didn't waste much time berating me for my ignorance, but caught me up on what was happening. From then on, I was a Steeler fan.

I still wasn't up to speed as a college football fan, but that came quickly enough. A few days later, WVU played in the Peach Bowl against North Carolina State, where they were summarily pummelled, 49-13—but it was my second awakening: West Virginia had a college football team that was bigtime enough to make bowl games that were actually on TV!

After that I paid a bit more attention to WVU football, though I still wasn't even aware that I could actually listen to the games on radio. I blame the fact that my Dad had briefly attended Marshall University, which would be like an Auburn fan encouraging his son to listen to Alabama games.

Still, the next season I managed to hear that Danny Buggs had returned a punt against Maryland for a last-second win to start off the 1973 season. No bowl game that year, so my interest in WVU went dormant again for a while.

Things changed in 1974: I graduated, a lot of my friends—and, most importantly, my girlfriend—went down to Morgantown, and as we were all band geeks, they all joined the WVU marching band.

I ended up at a small college in Wheeling, where I also joined the marching band—but my heart was always in Morgantown, and I was waiting to hear about my scholarship for next semester so that I could join them. For the first time, I attended an actual WVU game, at Old Mountaineer Field. I can't remember who the opponent was—it might have been the Penn State game, which WVU only lost by a 21-12 score that year.

Whatever game it was, it totally sold me on West Virginia University Mountaineer football—the atmosphere, the big-college feel (only 1,200 at my small campus), and, of course, the marching band—and after that I followed WVU football with a passion.

My first season was great: 1975, Bobby Bowden's best year, an 8-3 season with a big win over Tony Dorsett-led Pitt and a Peach Bowl win over Lou Holtz's North Carolina State team to "avenge" that 1972 loss. After that season, however, it did not go so well.

My last years in school were the Frank Cignetti years. Coach Cignetti was an earnest, good man who was beloved by the team—much like coach Bill Stewart today—but who could not get more than three wins a season out of his guys. So the 1976-1979 seasons were something that WVU fans survived, not enjoyed. When coach Don Nehlen came along—and the new stadium was built—we all hoped that better times were on the way.

And they were. I won't rehash the Nehlen years, but there were more ups than downs, and he put the Mountaineers on the college football map with wins over Florida, Oklahoma, Penn State, and a national championship matchup against Notre Dame (that darn Lou Holtz again!) in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl. WVU lost that one, but getting there at all gave all us WVU fans a sense that anything was possible.

Which brings us to this year. Actually last year, as that was WVU's moment to seize the national crown. That they did not seize the moment was a crushing blow to many—but this is where the "perspective" thing comes in.

Many fans were too caught up in the disappointment of the night—especially coming at the hands of archnemesis Pitt—but to those who had watched WVU progress from the days of close games against Richmond and William & Mary, it was a balm to consider that as bad as the loss was, we were still headed to a BCS bowl on New Year's Day.  The third New Year's Day bowl in a row, in fact.

On any given Saturday, one can gain perspective by watching other teams lose to their archrivals and drop critical games to 28-point underdogs. The list of potential catastrophes goes on and on, and only the ability to take a deep breath and remember when archrivals beat you routinely and games were never critical allows you to keep your head up and wait for next week—or next year.