The Mountaineers are back
By Gregg Shapiro
SouthernPigskin.com web designer
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Snubbed by the ACC, WVU got the last laugh in humiliating Clemson in the Orange Bowl and now looks forward to 2012.
Last year about this same time in Morgantown, West Virginia, the natives were restless.
WVU was coming off of a bowl loss, the NCAA was coming with violations regarding too many graduate assistants on the field among other minor issues, a new athletic director was settling in and coach Bill Stewart was winning, but not with the swag and flare that get Mountaineer fans excited. Over the following months the West Virginia University football program would go on to have more drama than anything you could find on daytime television.
Luck, a former all-time great Mountaineer player, began to make swift changes in the athletic department at WVU.
Gone were long-time assistants and athletic department employees and gone was one of their own home grown personalities, Stewart. Luck didn’t take long to dismantle what the Mountaineer Nation calls WVU’s "Good Ole Boy Network". He was fast, swift and made huge changes all over the place and turned heads as he excuted the change. He got college football's attention when he hired one of the hottest offensive coaches in the country, Dana Holgorsen.
Both as it was happening and in the aftermath, we saw good old fashion he-said/he-said. We all witnessed dirty laundry in regards to Stewart aired nationally and we read about Holgorsen and his love of all things late night. Bottom line, the mountains were shaking. There was a mess, an ugly mess, as transition was taking place.
WVU is a proud program and West Virginia is a proud state. The fans wear that pride on their sleeve. In West Virginia, like their politics, the people don’t have a side. They have an opinion and that opinion doesn't vary depending on what they are talking about and who they are talking about. And when it came to WVU football, Stewart, Luck, Holgorsen and even Rich Rodriguez, everyone had and still has an opinion. And they have no problem sharing it.
The West Virginia Metro News offers WVU fans a wonderful opportunity to talk Mountaineers six nights a week on state-wide radio. Hosted by long time Mountaineer play-by-play guy Tony Caridi and WVU Blue & Gold News publisher Greg Hunter, the Metro News Statewide Sportsline talks WVU sports every night but Saturday. And in the hour long program, WVU fans were quick to call and voice their concern and positions on WVU. Needless to say, opinions were voiced. Some fans were upset over the Stewart firing, some were happy with the new hire. Some were questioning Luck for all the change so fast. The bottom line was the WVU program that made a splash winning BCS games under Rodriguez and Stewart was in turmoil.
It's hard to believe all that happened within the last year after watching WVU totally smash Clemson in the mouth, beating the Tigers 70-33 in the Orange Bowl.
Sure there are rumors flying around the WVU program concerning defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and whether or not Luck will give him a big raise. And also a little note in Casteel’s contract is that if Holgorsen jumps ship, Casteel gets first right of refusal on the job. Also there is a little chatter about where the Mountaineers will play next season. But generally right now in the mountains, those beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, the Mountaineer Nation is at peace.
As I was watching the Orange Bowl, it felt like Groundhog Day. It was only a few years ago on a Saturday afternoon in Morgantown, two exciting but young players named White and Slaton came from behind and out of nowhere to beat Louisville in several overtimes. Those performances by Pat White and Steve Slaton brought them and WVU to the forefront of the college football landscape. The Mountaineers were good, very good and had a couple of exciting players who had fans talking and, more importantly, the talking heads at ESPN taking notice. Fast, electric and unassuming, both White and Slaton followed Rodriguez to relevancy alongside many traditional powers. WVU beat Louisville and fed off that come-from-behind win to the Big East Championship and a Sugar Bowl win over SEC power Georgia.
Over the next few years after the Sugar Bowl win, WVU again took Oklahoma, the Big 12 champ, to the woodshed in the Fiesta Bowl under Stewart.
Out of the lowly Big East Conference sat West Virginia. A team with national appeal and a rabid fan base. A program that took on the SEC and Big 12 and beat their champion. The Fiesta Bowl win was big. Rich Rod had jumped ship, leaving his office to help clean up a bunch of shreaded paperwork and his team to play in the Fiesta Bowl led by a long time assistant. It was a huge win for the program and most specifically Stewart who replaced Rodriguez with the win.
Beating Oklahoma was a great win for WVU. But, not nearly as impressionable as beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Nobody had a clue WVU could play with the Bulldogs, let alone beat them. Nobody but WVU, their fans and players.
After watching WVU beat Clemson, behind two sensational young up-and-coming superstars in Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, I was left with that same feeling I had after seeing the highlights a few years ago of White and Slaton against Louisville.
Like…where in the hell did these guys come from?
In the first half against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, White and Slaton looked like they were shot out of a cannon. Georgia didn’t know what hit them. Fast and explosive, WVU jumped out to a huge lead and held on to win. Against Clemson, poor souls, it was not a half of a Mountaineer explosion, it was a whole game. Literally, with 49 points at the half, Smith, Austin and WVU could have scored 90 if they didn’t let up.
The Orange Bowl win is great for the WVU program. No doubt about it. It was equally great for the Big East even though WVU is headed out. For Big East fan anytime you beat the ACC, it’s a big win. But a BCS game? The suits in the Big East league office, for a second anyway, surely loved them some Mountaineers.
In the big picture of college football and the landscape that follows it, those West Virginia Mountaineers are back. Back in play to win and win big led by, again, two sensational players who came out of nowhere to drop the jaw of the nation which was tuned in primetime.
College football programs move in and out of transition. Very few get to the top and stay. WVU was close to the top, close to being the king, before they lost to Pitt. Prior to that, in 1988 they played Notre Dame behind Major Harris and lost in the Fiesta Bowl. Although the Mountaineers don’t have a title, they’ve been close including beating the SEC, Big 12 and ACC in recent BCS bowls. With a bright young coach, one who cameras aren’t scared of, and two exceptional playmakers...one has to wonder.
Could 2012 be their time? You know, that time? Title time.
Time will tell, but the transition is over in Morgantown. The pieces are in place, the fans are happy, recruiting is going well and the athletic director in charge is a national power player in college football.
The blue and gold table is set. The question is can WVU handle the expectations and take that next step?