Published September 20, 2011 - 7:19am
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The Mountaineers of West Virginia have a proud football tradition — even though it’s not exactly an SEC-rich football tradition. With the potential collapse of the Big East and West Virginia’s pursuit of becoming the SEC’s 14th member, SEC fans are wondering if West Virginia is a good fit for the proud football conference. Does Morgantown belong in the same category as Tuscaloosa, Athens and Gainesville?
West Virginia University was founded in 1867 as a federal land-grant college. Today WVU has just over 29,000 students, which is on par with most SEC schools. The school boasts what is now the newest stadium in the SEC, Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, built in 1980 and named for a pharmaceutical executive who donated $20 million. With a capacity of 60,000, Puskar Stadium is the third-smallest SEC facility after Vanderbilt Stadium and Mississippi State’s Davis-Wade Stadium.
Given the lack of professional sports in West Virginia, the Mountaineers football and basketball programs have a passionate student following that has generated a certain degree of infamy. In 2005, GQ Magazine named West Virginia fans among the “ten most obnoxious college sports fans” in the country, comparing the Mountaineers faithful to “soccer hooligans” and citing an impressive record of 1,129 intentional street fires lit over a seven-year period. (Vanderbilt was the only SEC school to make the GQ list that year, but in the Commodores’ case, it was for their “apathy.”)
Mountaineers football dates back to November 1891 when West Virginia’s first team was demolished 72-0 in Morgantown by Washington & Jefferson (now a Division III school). West Virginia posted its first winning campaign in 1895, posting a 5-1 record. In 1922 the Mountaineers had its first undefeated team, their 10-0-1 record blemished only by a 12-12 tie with Washington & Lee.
That 1922 team didn’t give up a single point in its final six regular season games. It also proved to be the start of a mini-Golden Era for West Virginia. From 1922 thru 1925, the Mountaineers went 35-3-2, with two of those three losses coming against traditional rival Pittsburgh.
West Virginia spent most of its first football century as an independent. In 1950, the Mountaineers joined the Southern Conference — the same conference that the SEC’s founding members had left in 1936 — and enjoyed a brief period of dominance, winning 30 consecutive conference games from 1952–1958 and claiming five conference titles. West Virginia withdrew from the Southern Conference in 1968 and remained an independent for the next two decades.
In 1988, West Virginia posted its first undefeated, untied regular season, going 11-0 before losing to an undefeated Notre Dame in a Fiesta Bowl that served as a de facto national championship game.
In 1991, the centennial year of West Virginia football, the Mountaineers joined the Big East Conference as a charter football member. West Virginia has won or shared in six Big East titles. The 2005 team notably went 11-1, culminating in a 38-35 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. Overall, West Virginia averaged 10 wins a year from 2005–2010 and is one of only four schools to win at least nine games in each of the past six seasons.
West Virginia has also had an unusual degree of coaching turmoil during this period as well. In 2007 and coming off a 10-2 regular season, Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan just four months after signing a new contract. The departure was acrimonious and led to the university suing Rodriguez for breach of contract, which eventually led to the coach and Michigan paying a financial settlement.
Rodriguez was succeeded by one of his assistants, Bill Stewart, who was initially named interim coach for the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. After leading West Virginia to a 48-28 upset over then-No. 3 Oklahoma, West Virginia officials immediately named Stewart the permanent coach and gave him a five-year contract, a move that was heavily criticized by some Mountaineers boosters.
Although Stewart produced a 28-12 record over three full seasons as head coach, his tenure ended abruptly this past June. Previously the university announced the hiring of Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen as “head coach-in-waiting.” Originally Holgorsen planned to serve as Stewart’s offensive coordinator in 2011 before taking over as head coach in 2012. The plan quickly fell apart. When media reports emerged about Stewart allegedly trying to “dig up dirt” on Holgorsen to discredit him with the press, West Virginia forced Stewart to resign and accept a buyout.
Holgorsen and his offensive prowess — he produced top-five offenses at three different schools over the past five years — will soon be tested against the SEC, which is unfamiliar territory for the Mountaineers. West Virginia has a sparse record of competition against its new conference brethren. Indeed, the Mountaineers have never played Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas or fellow SEC rookie Texas A&M. The only SEC schools West Virginia has played more than twice are South Carolina (12 games, the last in 1994) and Kentucky (20 games, the last in 1983).
West Virginia’s current staff does have one notable SEC alum, running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who played at Florida for four years under Steve Spurrier and served as a captain of the 2001 Gators. Not surprisingly for a Spurrier disciple, Gillespie finished his college career ranking second all-time at Florida for receptions and receiving yards by a back. Spurrier later signed Gillespie as a rookie with the Washington Redskins and gave him his first coaching job as an assistant at South Carolina.