MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For perhaps the first time in his West Virginia coaching tenure, Neal Brown is a bit perplexed by something.
Based on his first few months in Morgantown, he’s picked up on the fact Mountaineer fans have a strong distaste for Texas.
It’s hard to escape the signs.
Last basketball season, enterprising fans figured out a way to turn a foam-finger giveaway into a mass “Horns Down” demonstration. All over town there are anti-Texas symbols, including an upside-down Longhorn flag that has been hanging from a downtown apartment balcony all football season.
It’s Texas Week in Morgantown. pic.twitter.com/kIRkAOt4Wp
— Alex Hickey (@bigahickey) September 30, 2019
The fervor is obvious. It’s the why that escapes Brown.
“I do get the feeling on [this game mattering more to fans]. I’m not sure why,” Brown said. “I just haven’t played Texas here. I feel this is one that our fans are excited about, and it’s one they talked about in the offseason as well.”
For reasons of geography and history, it’s impossible to call the game a rivalry. Until 2012, WVU and Texas orbited in different solar systems. They still infrequently cross paths on the recruiting trail, which is where many rivalries heat up.
Yet West Virginia players see their fans turning it into one. They’re just not quite all the way there yet themselves.
“I think after the past few years, I see it becoming more of a well-known game for our fanbase,” said kicker Evan Staley. “It’s the same game for the players, though. Not necessarily a rivalry. I could see it forming one. It’s definitely a big game every year that we look forward to playing.”
Linebacker Shea Campbell grew up in Morgantown, so he understands that West Virginia’s true rival is Pitt. It takes a special kind of hatred to twist Neil Diamond lyrics into a profane singalong.
But just as Texas hasn’t played true rival Texas A&M as a result of conference realignment, the Mountaineers and Panthers haven’t locked horns since 2011. Someone was needed to fill that venomous void, and Texas has gradually grown into fitting the bill.
“I think that we just have a really passionate fanbase and they really don’t like other teams,” Campbell said. “I think they’ve taken a tendency to really not liking Texas. And that’s completely understandable. A lot of people have opinions about Texas and a lot of them are negative, so it makes sense to me.”
Campbell thinks there is an element of David vs. Goliath in the fans choosing Texas as opposed to any other Big 12 program. With 1.8 million residents, West Virginia is the smallest state with a Power Five football program. The majority of that population is working class. Texas has the second-largest population in the country and more than a few of those 29 million residents are known for flashing ostentatious displays of wealth.
“It might be an underdog type of deal,” Campbell said. “I feel that adds a little background to it.”
It helps that the series has been competitive. The Mountaineers have a 4-3 lead since joining the Big 12, and only two of the games were decided by more than two touchdowns.
“Really I think it’s because of the games that have been played. Every single one has been close,” said senior left tackle Colton McKivitz. “It’s physical, it’s good football. I think that’s the reason why there is such a thing towards a rivalry.”
Last year’s game in Austin was the closest of all. West Virginia escaped with a dramatic 42-41 win on a last-minute touchdown and two-point conversion.
But more of the fuel seems based on the fact West Virginia was twice flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for flashing the “Horns Down” gesture. The game seemed to mark the first time Big 12 officials truly put their feet down about penalizing the gesture after years of inconsistency. Already saddled with a sense of being the Big 12’s outsiders, WVU fans took umbrage and have since embraced Horns Down with an Oklahoma or Texas A&M level of glee.
Their new coach is trying to pour water over that fire.
When asked about Horns Down in his Tuesday press conference, Brown responded, “Are we still talking about that?”
Brown said he’d prefer fans to focus on the Mountaineers rather than their opponents.
“I’d rather build up West Virginia than tear anybody else down,” he said.
McKivitz doesn’t expect any teammates to flash the Horns Down without repercussions.
“At this point, I think it’s pretty well known that it’s not going to be done by any of our guys,” McKivitz said. “With all the talk going on, I think we should avoid it. They’re going to call it, obviously. There’s no real reason to hurt the team.”
McKivitz also couldn’t help but grin when thinking about the 60,000 fans who are unlikely to hold themselves to his standard.
“I’m sure there will be enough people doing it on Saturday that we shouldn’t have to worry about doing it,” he said.