Back to the Future
By Brandon Priddy - TheSignalCaller.com
It was September 6, 1980 and a new era was dawning in Morgantown, West Virginia. John Denver had just belted out a live rendition of “Country Roads” following Governor Jay Rockefeller’s opening remarks. The football sat perched upon the tee as Cincinnati Bearcat kicker Rich Karlis held his hand high in the air. In mere moments, the whistle would blow, and – as fans watched from strange bleachers - that hand would drop and a group of young men wearing unfamiliar blue and gold uniforms would turn and run down an alien turf.
They would sprint into the future of Mountaineer football.
That day found WVU in the midst of as dramatic a set of changes as it had seen in its previous 89 years on the gridiron, all aimed at increasing the profile and prestige of the football program (and by extension the university and the state). A new coach, a new look and a new stadium would debut with that 1980 season. Millions of dollars, thousands of hours and more blood, sweat and tears than could be counted had been poured into this blue and gold moonshot. But as Karlis dropped his arm and the dream gave way to reality, not a single soul knew if any of it would actually work.
With the benefit of hindsight’s perfect vision, this exercise in ambition seems preordained for success, but at the time no such assurance existed. It’s an important perspective to remember as WVU currently finds itself ensconced in the most dramatic era of transition since that quantum leap over a generation ago. The new conference affiliation is the most radical change, but additionally we’ve seen a coaching shift, new uniform colors and combinations and an athletic department much more progressive in its thinking. Ten years ago the idea of beer sales would have been laughed down Don Nehlen Drive. This year it made half a million dollars in profit.
Then as now, change began at the top when Michigan Wolverines assistant Don Nehlen was brought in to replace Frank Cignetti as head coach. With a tone that rings familiar three decades later, Deputy Director of Athletics Mike Parsons, the sports information director at the time, described the move thusly: “while fans held Cignetti in great respect we were not winning, so a change was not a surprise.”
With the new coach came a new look. As he watched tape of his new team, Nehlen found it difficult to tell which was his and decided to have the uniforms revamped. He wanted a clear, cohesive look that would instantly tell people who they were watching when they flipped on the TV. Then as now, the change in branding was intended to craft the program’s image and maintain relevance. But Parsons, who had a “small role” in the redesign, points to a distinct difference between then and now. “Back then, the uniforms were not on the fan’s radar like today.”
Now the goal seems almost the opposite. “Consistency” has evolved into “boredom” and the same look every week is seen as passé. With Oregon leading the way, a variety of uniform combinations is no longer the exception, but the rule. It’s worth noting that last season the Mountaineers used 11 different uniform/helmet combinations for 13 games, and only once went with the classic blue shirts on gold pants combo that Nehlen pioneered.
As it was with the new look unveiled at this season’s Gold-Blue spring game, the attitude towards the change in 1980 was overwhelmingly positive. Current WVU Director of Athletics Oliver Luck was also the starting quarterback for that 1980 opener and remembered that “we really enjoyed the new look. The timing was excellent – new stadium, new coach, new look. It all translated into a new outlook.”
Then as now, there was one program-shifting change that was the centerpiece of it all. In 2011, it was the move to the Big 12. In 1980, it was the New Mountaineer Field.
Over 30 years later the unmitigated success of this massive project seems an inevitability, but at the time no such certainty existed. “My recollection is that there was substantial opposition to the plan to build the new stadium,” says Luck. “Many folks thought that it was not a good use of public money. The sentiment of those folks was ‘we can’t even fill up the old stadium so how can we expect people to fill 50,000 seats at the new building.’”
Parsons remembers issues as well. “Much of the opposition was about the location.”
One can imagine that skepticism only grew as the new stadium failed to sell out for the remainder of the 1980 season after the opener and the Mountaineers followed a hot start by dropping 5 of their last 7 to finish a mediocre 6-6. The wager on WVU football had been to go all-in on the future – so where was the immediate payout?
What critics of the stadium then and the conference shift now fail to realize is that, while both moves were ambitious in the short term, they were in many ways the only options for a program that aspires to greatness.
Luck lays out things perfectly: “If an observer would go back to the mid 1970s one would see a program at a crossroads. One option was to update the Old Mountaineer Field and continue to play a number of our old colleagues in the Southern Conference (Richmond, Furman, VMI, etc.). Looking back, one could say that a likely path for Mountaineer Football could have been a mid-major in football playing in a stadium built by horse and buggy. Basically, we could have become like a Richmond, Appalachian State or Villanova.”
There was of course another, more ambitious alternative.
“The other option was to build a state of the art stadium and coaches offices/weight room complex and raise the level of recruiting and coaching so that we could compete with the likes of Penn State and Pitt on an annual basis.”
It was a crossroads that should sound familiar to fans today. With the college football landscape shifting beneath them and the ensuing chasm seeming to swallow their home conference, the WVU leadership faced another formative decision in 2011. One option was to remain in a splintered and vastly weakened Big East with the remnant likes of Louisville, Cincinnati and Connecticut; middling football programs that have enjoyed periods of success but will never be taken for top-tier powers. The strategy would have been to preserve regional rivals like Pitt or Syracuse where possible and hope for an invitation from the ACC that most agreed was never coming. To stay would have taken the fate of the WVU football program away from WVU and laid it into the hands of others.
The more aggressive option was to jump into the deep end of the Big 12 pool and be tested annually by the likes of Texas and Oklahoma. To do so would represent a significant step up in competition while creating myriad travel and scheduling challenges, but would also stake a claim in a conference that had secured its long-term future through the inking of a lucrative television deal. WVU would retain its position among the nation’s elite football programs. The new rivals would be unfamiliar and far away and the arrangement would push the program to its limits, but it was a step forward.
As they were 30 years ago, the critics remain vocal and numerous. They point to travel challenges and short term budget shortfalls brought about by the Big East buyout as proof that the move was a mistake. They talk of a midseason five game swoon as evidence that the jump was a bridge too far.
They don’t remember their history.
After that initial year of mixed reviews in 1980, the massive investment was validated in short order. The Mountaineers surged to 9-3 records in each of the next 3 seasons, including a combined 16-2 mark at home. By 1984 they had ended 4 consecutive seasons as a ranked team and in 1988 they played for the program’s first ever national title.
The new coach and his new uniforms had taken their new stadium and sent the program soaring to heights unseen, at a time when the exposure and popularity of college athletics had established the football program as the “front door” for many universities and sometimes even entire states. Ask people across America what they think of when they hear “West Virginia” and there’s a good chance they mention football. That all started in 1980.
Once again WVU finds itself in a formative time for the sport in which the football program enjoys a role as a major revenue generator while the future of everything from “full price of attendance” and scholarships to the way media is consumed is in flux. Even the way champions are determined is changing. It’s more important now than ever for programs to secure their future with conference and multimedia partners who can help navigate these uncertain waters. The Mountaineers did that with their move to the Big 12, and seeing the fruits of that investment will only be a matter of time.
The only constant is change, and WVU is once again in the midst of it. As far as the results of those changes? Maybe ask our kids.
For more from Brandon Priddy, be sure to follow him on Twitter @abpriddy.