If you, like me, are a West Virginia football and men’s basketball fan, then nothing gets your blood boiling more than when the national media doesn’t give our teams or individual players deserved recognition. As fans witnessed ad nauseam this past year, WVU already has to fight the rest of the Big 12, as well as its high-profile non-conference opponents, for fair calls on the field and on the court. That disrespect only compounds when the Mountaineers are either staring up at teams that they are better than in the polls, or deserving players aren’t being talked about as being some of the conference or nation’s best.
For example, a certain NFL Draft “expert” had the audacity to write how Will Grier was being considered either as a day three 2019 NFL Draft pick or an undrafted free agent. This guy actually gets PAID to write stuff like this.
The disrespect or indifference that is shown to the Mountaineers is sometimes because of the wrong impression or perception people have of the state and its people. We’re not all a bunch of hillbillies who couldn’t spell cat if you spotted us the C and the A. We’re not disconnected from the rest of the world. Mountaineer fans’ loyalty goes unquestioned through the good times and the bad. We’re passionate, unlike that team up north with all the empty yellow seats at Heinz Field each Saturday. It also doesn’t matter where you go in this world — you will find a Flying WV logo somewhere, and when you do, you’ll feel like you’re at home. West Virginia, the Mountaineers and Country Roads are all a part of the fabric of who we are. As the late Anthony Bourdain said once, West Virginia is a special place in the world, and he had been everywhere.
Unfortunately, it’s the former five-star guys with television and radio platforms that love to act as if West Virginia doesn’t belong. On a national level that’s more visible than ever, those slights can unfairly sway public perception.
Am I still bitter about Stedman Bailey not winning the 2012 Biletnikoff Award? Oh yeah. Or how about IN THE VERY SAME YEAR when Kevin Jones didn’t win the Big East Player of the Year? Still heated. Plus, I know how infuriating it can be listening to the most biased of talking heads on television tout how good (insert blue blood here) is. You know who they are.
Here’s what I’ll say: embrace the disrespect. Wear it as a badge of honor. That chip on the shoulder of every athlete who dons the Old Gold and Blue is a secret weapon. It’s Excalibur. It’s The One Ring. It’s Michael’s Secret Stuff.
You see, since the dawn of this century, West Virginia hasn’t performed well as a favorite. Yet, the Mountaineers have thrived and achieved some of their highest accolades in program history as underdogs.
The year 2005 was really the genesis. That spring, John Beilein’s 1-3-1 defense and high volume three-point shooting offense allowed the Mountaineers to take the nation by storm. “You just got Pittsnogled” became a rallying cry as Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey and the gang took down a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team that was a two-seed in the NCAA tournament. The seventh-seeded Mountaineers advanced to the Elite Eight, coming just a few shots of the Final Four.
In the fall, after replacing Rasheed Marshall and having no real expectations for the season, West Virginia would go on to start one of the best players in school history at quarterback. With the help of a future record-setting running back, the two freshmen would carry the team to an 11-1 record and upset the mighty Georgia Bulldogs in their own backyard in the Sugar Bowl. Nobody outside of West Virginia thought that a ragtag, young, inexperienced team from the Big East could knock off a powerhouse SEC team, but it did.
Unfortunately, in 2006, with the nation waiting to see who would be Pittsnogled again, the men’s basketball team was ousted in the first round of the Big East Tournament. After beating two mid majors in the NCAA Tournament, WVU lost to Texas on a last-second three-pointer. Oh what could’ve been, had Frank Young blocked that shot.
On the gridiron, with Pat White and Steve Slaton headlining a nationally ranked squad, the Mountaineers lost a high-profile game to Louisville. They were also upset at home by unranked South Florida while they were the seventh-ranked team in the country. Beating Calvin Johnson in the Gator Bowl was a nice touch, but still, 2006 could’ve been so much more.
Enter five-star freshman Noel Devine, alongside White and Slaton, now juniors. The 2007 football team was expected to win the Big East, but Mountaineer killers Matt Grothe and Ben Moffitt had other plans in Tampa in a nationally-ranked Friday night game. USF beat the Mountaineers and later jumped to No. 2 in the nation. The cards fell in West Virginia’s favor, as USF faded and other top-five teams around the country fell like flies, setting up the Big East champion Mountaineers in a winner-take-all finale in the 100th edition of Backyard Brawl. We’ll never speak of that Dec. 1 night, but there’s still not a doubt in my mind that West Virginia was 28.5 points better than that 3-8 Pitt team and could’ve won, had the team come in with an underdog mentality.
The media gave West Virginia less of a chance in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma than they did in 2005, largely because head coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan. Without a national title to play for, the Mountaineers could have just packed it in and called it a year, but thanks to sensational plays by White, Devine, the runaway beer truck Owen Schmitt, Tito Gonzales and a swarming Mountaineer defense, the Old Gold and Blue upset future Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford and Oklahoma, 48-28, for then-interim coach Bill Stewart.
Fast forward to 2010 and the men’s basketball team was facing a giant in a Kentucky team that had five future NBA players in the starting lineup, including DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall. Once again, the Mountaineers were expected to get crushed, but thanks in large part to Kentucky shooting 4-of-32 from three, West Virginia stunned the Wildcats to advance to their first Final Four since Jerry West donned the Old Gold and Blue.
January 4, 2012 was a date football fans will remember for the rest of their lives. Against a Clemson team loaded with the likes of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Andre Ellington, Dwayne Allen and more, West Virginia absolutely waxed the Tigers 70-33, as the nation watched the Tigers submit to Tavon Austin’s greatness. Like the ‘06 Sugar Bowl and ‘08 Fiesta Bowl, the 2012 Orange Bowl once again proved that WVU should never be counted out as an underdog.
Life in the Big 12 Conference over these past six seasons has been transitional, but this theme has continued. Even though there have been fewer instances in which WVU has been an outright favorite or massive underdog, there have certainly been cases when the Old Gold and Blue haven’t capitalized when they finally faced pressure.
2012: Massive expectations were set early, after WVU started the year undefeated with Heisman candidate Geno Smith and Austin and Bailey out wide, only to watch them go up in smoke against Texas Tech on the road.
2014: ESPN’s College Gameday came to Morgantown to highlight a ranked match between TCU and WVU. Fans clamored for more respect, only to be muzzled by a last-second, game-winning field goal.
2016: With a Big 12 title still up for grabs, WVU played host to a Thanksgiving weekend battle against a trash-talking Oklahoma team with the worst defense the Sooners fielded in a decade, only to blunder the game away thanks to fumbles and missed tackles.
2015-16: Do I really need to bring up Thomas Walkup and Stephen F. Austin?
2017-18: While this past season was a feel-good year because Jevon Carter cemented his legacy as one of the best to ever play for WVU, it has to be noted that the Mountaineers became nationally known as a team that struggled to close games. They did so in frustrating fashion against Kansas (twice), Kentucky, TCU and Oklahoma State. They lost for the third-consecutive year in the Big 12 Tournament Championship Game.
WVU gave Villanova its best game of the NCAA Tournament, proving it was one of the best eight teams in the country, but after beating two mid majors (see what I did there, Marshall?) in the early rounds, was that Sweet 16 appearance as impressive as, say, Florida State, who knocked off a one-seed? I’ll never forget what Carter and Daxter Miles did for the program, but after this season has been all said and done, there wasn’t really a lot to show for it from a team perspective.
Ultimately, I’m saying this: enjoy it when the media recognizes the Mountaineers, but don’t get too caught up in the coverage. Let’s hope the players themselves don’t get too caught up into it. When that urge to throw a chair comes over you after the pollsters rank some undeserving team over West Virginia, or Will Grier or David Sills are not picked over some undeserving player on an All-American list, take a chill pill.
Both the football team and the men’s basketball team will have huge expectations this year — perhaps the highest they’ve had since joining the Big 12. If recent history has proved anything, it would be better for the team’s sake if we, the fans, continued to play the disrespect card. Bang that underdog drum, and continue to love and support our beloved Mountaineers.