By Brandon Priddy
So several weeks (months) too late I finally got to "Waiting for the Fall," Mike Casazza's wonderful tome chronicling the ups and downs of WVU football - specifically those of the last few years when things went from 'continual letdown' to downright weird. Grab a hard copy of your own or download the Kindle version here: http://www.amazon.com/Waiting-Fall-Virginia-University-Football/dp/0985200901
(Side-note: I'm embarrassed it took me this long to get to a book about the Mountaineers. I'd like to say the reason is in the off-season I specifically stay away from football stuff and try to read non-sports related books and that's kinda true I guess. But really there's just one reason: The "Game of Thrones" series of books, which sucks you into a total vortex and won't let go. But it is fantastic. And insanely freaking long. Do not start this thing unless you have MONTHS to devote to it. Consider yourself warned. Back to the "Fall.")
As the Daily Mail's WVU football and basketball beat writer since 2007, there is nobody better qualified than Casazza to tell the tale of the tale of glory, tragedy, peaks, valleys and heartbreak that is Mountaineer football. Full disclosure, I'm personally a big fan of his and think he does a great job. He has good sources and is thoughtful and fair at a time when both seem to be in short supply. It was comforting to know that the trials and tribulations of my beloved Mountaineers were in capable hands.
Some buddies of mine who had already read the book complained that there were no real groundbreaking revelations and I'd have to agree. But that didn't really bug me. Mike is the WVU beat writer and is paid to keep us up to date on those revelations on a daily basis. And frankly if you're reading a book to get groundbreaking revelations on what is relatively recent history, you probably heard that annoying/mind-grating tone when you dialed up your modem to get online and read this. Books don't break news. They fill in the blanks and provide context and background, pulling disparate pieces of information together from events that happen over a period of years and paint an overall narrative.
They tell the story.
Casazza does that here, laying out the events of the last decade in excruciating detail that is both painful and wonderful, often at once. He runs through a brief history with (understandable) emphasis on the Nehlen years and races along to the Rich Rodriguez era, slowing down when we get to the mid-2000s and the re-building of WVU football from the ground up. It was great to read some of those old names and I particularly enjoyed the time he took with Rasheed Marshall, one of my all-time favorite Mountaineers. Marshall didn't do anything but make me love him more as he was beyond candid while lamenting the laissez-faire attitude that characterized his talent-rich but discipline-light teammates on the 2004 squad that fell far short of expectations. This was the type of thing that to me was the entire point of this book. Where everyone remembers the high-flying period of WVU football that began in 2005, folks often forget the preceding season of tumult that in many ways set the table for what was to come.
And what a ride it was.
From the thrilling out-of-the-blue breakout 2005 season to the traveling road show of 2006 & 2007, we got an in-depth look at what made these teams go - and more importantly, what stopped them cold. Mike takes the opportunity to reflect on the 2006 loss to South Florida and, with an air of foreboding, accents that as the moment when the world was finally given a blueprint on how to stop the unstoppable WVU ground juggernaut. He also pauses to recount the frequent flirtations of coach Rich Rodriguez with other programs. It's a full-color picture of WVU football during those amazing years, from the amazing successes to the underpinnings of impending disaster.
But it's all really prelude to 2007.
At this point I'll turn it over to Mike himself. He recently recorded a podcast with Aaron Torres where they discussed not only the book, but the upcoming 2012 WVU season: http://www.aarontorres-sports.com/articles/audio/west-virginia-beat-writer-mike-casazza-discusses-his-book-qwaiting-for-the-fallq-as-well-as-the-2012-west-virginia-mountaineers.html
(Sidebar - It's pretty free-flowing and gets a bit long, but if you're a WVU fan looking for some talk to get you in the mood for the season, I recommend it highly). Around the 32 minute mark they get to that crazy 2007 season and Mike simply recommends: "If you're at 'Books a Million' or somewhere, just pick it up and read that chapter called ‘Breaks.’"
I couldn't agree more.
Despite including the most painful of memories, it was the high point of the book for me. Gut-punch or not, it was as thrilling a season as you could imagine. I particularly loved that he took the time to audit the final two months of that season and reminded us that after the early loss to South Florida, "27 breaks needed to happen" for WVU to make the BCS title game. He then went on to chronicle all of those breaks, from Stanford's shocking upset of USC to Dennis Dixon's knee; Boston College's collapse to Arkansas' unlikely triple OT toppling of LSU. That season will always intrigue and haunt me (no joke: at least once a year I look through those last 3 weeks of polls on ESPN.com and shake my head in wonderment, always pausing to soak in that one glorious week with WVU in the top spot). It was like re-watching an old favorite movie with the inevitable gut-wrenching conclusion. You know where that ride ends every time but damn, it sure was fun to remember. Thanks, Mike, for allowing me to once again enjoy what remains my favorite college football season of all time.
And then we entered the Twilight Zone.
I won't spoil the book with a detailed blow by blow account of Mike's treatment of those strange days between December 2007 and 2011. I'll just say I thought he did a great job with the two central characters of this drama, Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart, providing as close a perspective as you could want. He's in the building when Rod hits the road and in the locker room when Stew gives that stirring Fiesta pre-game speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G_pmv6NOhw
We get an in-depth look at the night and morning when the decision was made. Hindsight provides an informative perspective (hint: it's not the simplistic "the AD got excited and maybe a little liquored up and made a knee-jerk hire" story that everyone thinks it was - it's much more interesting than that).
He is honest and at times harsh with his treatment of both, but never unnecessarily. The fact is Rodriguez skipped town in quite a hurry and Stewart did some odd, unexplainable things in his final year at the helm. But these episodes are balanced with a full-color picture of both men. Rodriguez as an exceedingly gifted motivator of the rarest kind and Stewart as the most decent of fatherly figures; precisely the man WVU needed in those weeks after Rodriguez's shocking exit (something another bright young man once said): http://blustreaks.com/2011/06/11/a-night-to-remember/
Mike is unafraid to look squarely at the things these men did that made them so reviled by so many, but more importantly he reminds us why we also loved them so much to begin with. It's a reflection on the past that many fans will appreciate.
If there was anything I would have liked to see done differently, it would simply be that things seem to run out of steam when the book hits the 2011 season. Mike makes a brilliant observation that 2011 mirrored 2007 in so many ways because of the breaks WVU needed to go their way (something I'd honestly never thought about before reading), but he doesn't take anywhere near the time to tell the story. And the record-breaking exclamation point that was the Orange Bowl is treated as a footnote, relegated to the epilogue. It would have provided some nice symmetry to talk a little more about this newest WVU "window" that seems to have opened in the same way he talked about the post-Sugar Bowl "window" that framed so much of the narrative. I suspect that, like most of us fans, the season and its ending snuck up on him out of nowhere and he simply had to pick a place to stop telling the story.
I could go on because I thoroughly enjoyed the book and re-living all those amazing years of football, but I'll stop here and just suggest you go out and get a copy for yourself. But do it now and read fast. The summer days grow shorter and football season is nearly upon us again.
I'm ready for another fall - are you?
You might know Brandon Priddy from BluStreaks.com as the Mountaineer, who became a Wildcat, who moved to Nashville, who became an architect, who became a blogger. For more from Brandon be sure to check out BluStreaks.com and don't forget to follow him on Twitter @abpriddy!