I have looked forward to the West Virginia University football season with varying degrees of anticipation all my adult life, dating back to when I was a student at WVU in the mid 1970s. The level of interest was typically a nexus of my love of college football, the level of expectations for the team, and the schedule of opponents.
Conference realignment has changed a key part of that equation for me, and I expect for a large swath of Mountaineer Nation.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the teams of the Big 12 Conference, or at least what is soon be left of it. I have a new-found antipathy toward Texas and Oklahoma for obvious reasons. As for the remaining league teams, well, they’re just fine.
And that’s the problem.
I actually root for Kansas State and Texas Tech when they are playing non-conference opponents. The folks at Oklahoma State couldn’t have been nicer when I visited there for a game. The annual game between WVU and Baylor is interesting, but not one that raises the blood pressure.
Which brings me to the 2021 season and the upcoming games at Maryland this Saturday and against Virginia Tech in Morgantown September 18th. Now those are rivalry games. They are games with history and tradition.
You know what I remember about West Virginia’s win over Oklahoma in 1982? When head coach Don Nehlen got off the bus at the Puskar Center where he was greeted by a cheering throng of Mountaineer fans, he shouted above the din, “Maryland is the key game! Maryland!”
One of the Mountaineers biggest wins in school history was just hours old and the head coach had Maryland on the brain.
The next week West Virginia topped Maryland 19-18. The Terrapins two-point conversion attempt failed when Boomer Esiason, under pressure from Darryl Talley, threw incomplete.
That is how rivalry games are supposed to end. Those are the moments that, over time, create the essence of a rivalry. For fans, wins over rivals are expected and celebrated, but it is the losing that is intolerable. Mountaineer fans bear a jagged emotional scar from the 13-9 loss to Pitt in 2007.
As Vin Scully said, “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.”
College football is not like the pros, although it is becoming more of a business every year. ESPN wants attractions and eyeballs, but not every game of importance involves Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Oklahoma.
Traditional rivalries are deeply meaningful to the fans. Games like Wisconsin-Minnesota, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Cal-Stanford, Washington-Washington State, Lehigh-Lafayette, Harvard-Yale will not draw the audience of any Alabama game on a Saturday night, but those games are integral to the fans, students and alumni of the individual schools.
And that is what West Virginia University has lost.
WVU and Pitt do have a four-game series starting next season, but what happens after that? It is still incomprehensible that the Backyard Brawl is not played every year without fail.
(“Beat the hell out of Pitt!”)
The very base that Mountaineer football fandom was built on has been unceremoniously razed by the college football powers-that-be whose sights are set only on TV ratings, the playoffs and the bottom line.
But enough grousing about things we cannot control. The game with the Maryland Terrapins is looming.
…and, man, have I missed them.