The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

January 8, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: West Virginia breeds blue- collar coaches

MORGANTOWN — Why?

That sounds like such a simple question, but it is not, not when you are using it to try to understand why the state of West Virginia has been able to produce so many successful coaches over the years, first in football but also in basketball.

The question comes up every year about this time when a native of West Virginia wins the BCS championship, the latest being Clarksburg’s Jimbo Fisher, who celebrated his first at Auburn’s expense in one of the greatest championship games ever played in any sport.

Added to the three in four years that were won at Alabama by Nick Saban, and you have West Virginians taking home the crystal in four of the past five years.

And they were hardly the first titles brought home by West Virginians.

Lou Holtz won one with his 1988 Notre Dame team and Ben Schwartzwalder won one at Syracuse in 1959, but it was Fielding Yost who laid the groundwork.

If you are a football afficionado, you know of Fielding Yost, even if he was born 143 years ago in Fairview. He made Fisher and Saban look like beginners, winning six national championships around the turn of the 20th century at Michigan, along with 10 Big Ten championships.

Yost’s teams were so good that from 1901 to 1905 they went 55-1-1, outscoring their opponents 2821 to 42. His Michigan team of 1901 outscored its opponents 550-0 and won the first Rose Bowl game over Stanford.

How inventive a coach was he?

He invented Dick Butkus … and Ray Nitschke … and Sam Huff … and Ray Lewis.

That’s right. Fielding Yost invented the position of linebacker.

Add to this the likes of Rich Rodriguez, Tommy and Terry Bowden, Bill Stewart, Cam Henderson and Doc Holliday, and you understand the influence West Virginia has had on football coaching.

But the question remains: Why?

The obvious answer is that it offered a path out from life in the coal mines, and there can be no doubt that played a role in it, but it is safe to say that football, more than the coaching of football, served as the escape vehicle.

It was a game not unlike the life their fathers had accepted.

Hard? Yes. Physical? Yes. Dirty? You bet.

But it was out in the sunshine and the open air. True, they played football in the cold and the snow and the rain and the mud, but after you went down into the mine with your father one time, playing a game or practicing on a muddy field was an like a day at the beach.

No, it wasn’t escaping the mines that drove these men to football, but it was the life of a miner or of someone who grew up in this state which bears the culture of the mining community that translated so well into a football coach.

You talk to any of them and they will tell the influence their father had on them, the stories almost universally the same of him coming home covered in coal dust at night, tired and hungry but ready and willing to play with their child.

The family was a team, with all the discipline a football team demands being demanded by both the father and mother.

To coach football successfully, you need to be a bit tougher than your toughest player, willing to work harder than your most dedicated player, able to always see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It isn’t life and death, no, but almost no day goes by when something doesn’t implode upon you and you have to get up, dust yourself off and move forward.

Strategy isn’t what makes a winning coach. In truth, the geniuses are probably found in the assistants, especially the coordinators, but how many of them have all the other qualities that you must have to become a coach who can rise to the top of the profession.

The lifestyle that comes from West Virginia, the feeling of always being the underdog so you have to work harder, have to dig deeper is what separates you from the others.

There is, of course, another why that grows out of all this, and that is why West Virginia University isn’t being coached by a West Virginian, even though it just went through a stretch of 12 seasons with Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart that may not have brought a national championship but that brought nothing but respect to the program, the school and the state.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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