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Monday, January 02, 2006

West Virginia's burning football passion

West Virginia's burning football passion

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/31/05

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — The sometimes-fiery passion that envelops West Virginia University football has a playful side, too. It might not swell civic pride when a few Mountaineers fans take to the streets after a watershed victory and set fire to their old couches (because they burn so much brighter than settees, don't you know). Still, that has tickled the marketplace.

At the Mountaineer Corner store near the WVU campus, they can barely keep in stock the scented couch-shaped candles — cinnamon, vanilla, lilac — produced by a local wick-worker. Same with the T-shirt bearing the slogan: "Morgantown — Where Greatness is Learned and Couches Are Burned."


The standing as college football's leading fire-starter is well earned — according to a report in the Morgantown Dominion Post, the city counted 1,129 intentional street fires between 1997 and 2003.

The flame that actually sustains Mountaineers football burns much steadier than that.

West Virginia's love of this team, which meets Georgia in Monday night's Nokia Sugar Bowl, is rooted in the hollows of a hundred little, no-stoplight towns that make up the spine of the state. It is the product of a place where football was the light at the end of the mineshaft, and still is a hard game played for the pride of a hard-working fan base. And it is sustained as a defiant answer to all the jokes and all the insecurities that tend to land on hill folk.

"The Mountaineers is where this state can see the West Virginia brand name," said George Shehl, the football team's holder from Clarksburg, W.Va. "When you're a player, you don't feel it as much. But if you can step back and look at us winning, being in the national spotlight, being in the Sugar Bowl, it's big for the whole state. It's their NFL team. It's as big as it gets in this state."

"When I was coaching," former Mountaineers coach Don Nehlen said, "the coal miners would say, 'Coach, when you win, it's a good day in the mines.' "

Football got big in West Virginia just like it did in the South, as the focal point of a populace in need of a little good chest-thumping. Yes, the Georgia fan will make the short drive to the Georgia Dome for Monday night's Sugar Bowl and join a howling pack. But the caravans have made the 10-hour drive south, too. These people came 40,000 strong to the Continental Tire Bowl in 2002, so don't you know they'd gobble up their Sugar Bowl allotment of 15,000 tickets and come speculate for more?

"It's definitely the heartbeat of the state," said All-Big East tackle Garin Justice, a Gilbert, W.Va., lad.

Why, to this day, Pro Football Hall of Famer Sam Huff testifies that he felt he let an entire state down the day his 1954 Mountaineers lost the Sugar Bowl in the first of their two previous trips.

True to their school

The population of West Virginia (1.8 million) is less than half that of metropolitan Atlanta (4.48 million), only strengthening the sense of community around the Mountaineers. Nehlen, who reinvigorated West Virginia football in his 21 seasons there before retiring in 2000, felt it from the beginning.

"The thing that impressed me the most when I talked to people, they didn't say West Virginia University. They just said The University. It's absolutely amazing, their loyalty to this program. We could play Sisters of the Poor and get 50,000 people in here," he said.

He also felt the responsibility to try to buff the state's image whenever possible: "West Virginia has always been seen as a bunch of hillbillies who didn't wear shoes, all that B.S. There's a few stigmas on West Virginia that I'm not real sure should be there."

The story of West Virginia football begins in Grant Town, a half-hour south of Morgantown, a former coal camp where 700 or so souls hung on even after the mine closed. It's a place where cellphone service is spotty and where signs proclaiming it as the home of West Virginia University Head Coach Rich Rodriguez are posted at both ends of town. Grant Town is so small, they could have saved some money and put the greeting on both sides of the same sign.

On 60 acres just outside of town, Rich's parents, Vince and Arlene Rodriguez, maintain the family's home. They still work their huge garden and feed on the deer that wander down from the wooded hills — Vince shot and dressed three of them this season.

You'll know the place by the old barn out front and the West Virginia University banner flying from the front eave. And if you ask real nice, Arlene will even dress up her hyperactive Boston Bull Terrier, Minnibelle, in a little WVU cheerleader outfit. (Honestly, Uga has nothing to fear.)

Retired now, Vince, like his father, worked around the coal mines, mostly as a welder. The parents vowed that none of their three sons would continue the tradition. "It's dirty, dangerous, nasty," Arlene said. "I didn't want to throw them parties after they graduated high school. Graduate from college, then we'll have a party."

One became a lawyer in Morgantown.

Another, the principal at the nearby middle school.

A third got into coaching.

"I think [Rich] is a little more known than I am," laughed Steve Rodriguez, the principal. "But around school, I'm known a little more."

"[Rich] is bigger than the governor," Vince joked.

'They're passionate'

When Rich Rodriguez was hired to replace Nehlen and return to his alma mater — where he was a walk-on defensive back made good — they threw a little party for him at Grant Town Community Center. He truly was home again, laughing and joking with friends. He even could stand up there and do a little West Virginia schtick: "Everybody thinks I met my wife Rita [from Jane Lew, W.Va.] at the family reunion."

"Very rarely do you get to come back and coach at your alma mater, let alone where you grew up," Rich Rodriguez said. "The benefit of it, I think I knew the lay of the land. The disadvantages are you feel like you let more people down if you don't have success; there's a little more distraction."

Given the demands of the job, he only makes it back home maybe once a year. In the meantime, a taste of home comes with the promise of an angioplasty; friend and former high school position coach Joe Weir will make the occasional run bringing fresh supplies of pepperoni rolls from Colasessano's or hot dogs from Yann's in nearby Fairmont.

It is weighty job being caretaker of a state jewel. Just as it's tough being a friend or relation to the head coach when things get sideways — Rodriguez was 3-8 his first season and has lost all three of his bowl games by a combined score of 119-47.

"He was so competitive. I used to bring a blanket that he could put over his head when we lost in Pop Warner. I don't get to do that now; I wish I could," Arlene said.

At least, coming into the Sugar Bowl with one loss, a Big East championship and a No. 11 ranking, Rodriguez has had little need to cover up this season.

So long as they burn couches, not coaches, everything is cool. (Well, Mountaineers fans did hang sainted Bobby Bowden in effigy in the midst of a 4-7 season at West Virginia back in 1974.)

By reputation, West Virginia fans are a little rough around the edges. It is a short trip from affection to infection, especially for those who fuel up pregame.

"They're passionate. I think there's a few that let the buildup to the game, the tailgating, get the best of them," the coach said. "They are very passionate about it; that's a good thing. Sometimes I have to educate our fans [that] we aren't a professional group. Remind them our players are still young, they're going to make mistakes.

"I think some of that [the rowdy rep] was overblown. A little bit of harmless fun is OK, but when you destroy somebody else's property or put somebody else in danger, you gotta stop. It was starting to get to the point where other people were put in danger. That's where you've got to draw a line."

"A large percentage of [the couch-burners] are out-of-towners," said Mike Ochsendorf, a WVU grad and general manager of Kegglers, a sports bar near the campus. "A sizable percentage of the student body is from the Northeast, and some of them don't really respect West Virginia."

Suspecting this might turn into a season worthy of at least ottoman sacrifice, Morgantown fire officials ordered the removal of all upholstered furniture and other flammable objects from the porches of homes in student neighborhoods.

But some traditions are hard to kill by simple decree. "I think there might be a few couches burned if they beat Georgia," smiled Mountaineer Corner owner Fred Fiorini.

West Virginia: Where men are men, and the furniture is nervous.

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