By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University is in the midst of a push to sell season football tickets, which is not quite a simple task coming off the 7-6 season it authored and in a season after it lost its most exciting players.
Because of that, we thought we might offer them a suggestion that they catch up with Pete Kaites of Clarksburg, a man who may just be their biggest fan.
Three days a week they can find him playing golf at the Pete Dye course in Bridgeport, where he’s out there working on his game, which isn’t bad. Most of the time he’s coming in at 89 or 90, although about a week ago he carded an 84.
Not sure, but I believe that is considered under par for someone who is 90 years old.
“I do play from the front tees,” he said, almost apologetically, as if an apology were necessary.
Pete Kaites has seen it all. It goes back to his freshman year at WVU, which was 1940.
It was 1942, though, when being a West Virginia fan really exploded. First, Bill Kerns coached the Mountaineers to a 24-0 victory over Penn State in football, their first win over the Nitanny Lions in 11 years and one of just nine out of 59 meetings in the rivalry.
That same year Dyke Raese’s WVU basketball team won the NIT at Madison Square Garden. At the time it was the NIT and not the NCAA Tournament that was considered the true national championship.
“We really celebrated that night,” Kaites recalled. “We listened to the game on the radio and when it ended there was a place called Jamestown Tavern. It started out as a gasoline station but it ended up being a beer joint. Within one hour after the game was over — you couldn’t sell beer after 12 o’clock — he had sold about 10 cases of beer.”
It is difficult to imagine alcohol sales in Morgantown stopping at midnight. That would cause a riot itself today.
And there was a riot that night.
“Everyone was celebrating on the street. There were some bonfires and they turned over some cars,” Kaites recalled.
Kaites was back in Morgantown in time to see Fred Schaus, who was brought to school by Scotty Hamilton, who had played on Raese’s national championship team, to WVU, where he would go on to become an All-American player in 1949 before becoming an NBA player.
Schaus, of course, returned to coach at WVU, bringing them to the brink of another national title with Jerry West, before moving on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and West.
And Kaites was around for all of it, attending games and seeing West and Hot Rod Hundley and Rod Thorn play.
Football was his thing, though, and he was in for season tickets while he ran his men’s clothing store, Kaites Ltd., in Clarksburg, as Art “Pappy” Lewis brought WVU to prominence.
“The Art Lewis years I don’t think I missed a home game,” he said. “I didn’t see much during the (Gene) Corum years. I didn’t see the game with Navy when Roger Staubach was quarterback. He ran all over us. It was awful.”
Corum coached from 1960 to 1965 and was an unspectacular 29-30-1, but the Navy game was the low point. Staubach was on the way to winning the Heisman Trophy as a junior and led the Midshipmen to a 51-6 victory.
But when Corum left, Jim Carlen came on.
“Art Lewis was a great coach and had some great teams with Sam Huff and Joe Marconi, but big-time football came when Jim Carlen coached in the 1960s,” Kaites noted. “I had to laugh — when Carlen came to West Virginia he couldn’t understand why everyone dressed up for football games. The women would never go to the game unless they had a date. They wore a corsage and got dressed up, and the men got dressed up in sweaters or jackets.”
That, of course, did nothing to hurt his clothing business.
Carlen’s stay was not a long one, but he was replaced by a Hall of Fame coach in Bobby Bowden, who suffered through one really rough year in which he was hung in effigy.
“Bobby Bowden came in. I really liked him, but they gave him a tough time,” Kaites said.
Frank Cignetti, another Hall of Fame coach, replaced him, but was fighting cancer and caught up at a time when both Pitt and Penn State were at their best.
“I kind of lost interest a little bit during the Cignetti time. He was a great guy and he recruited a lot of great players, Oliver Luck being one of them. At a basketball game I sat with Cignetti once and we had a nice conversation. I complimented him for bringing all those nice players for Don Nehlen,” Kaites recalled.
Nehlen, yet another Hall of Fame coach, was next and put WVU in the national picture.
“Our first big game before they won the Oklahoma game was the Peach Bowl when they beat Florida and Charlie Pell burned the game film after it,” Kaites said with a laugh. “We were there. We thought it would be nice and warm, but it was cold as hell. And we thought it would be in a bowl but it was that baseball stadium there and all the spectators were in the end zone. I think Coca-Cola bought up all the sideline seats and no one showed up.”
If that was a highlight, the lowlight of the Nehlen era for Kaites was the 1994 Sugar Bowl into which WVU went unbeaten but was romped by Florida, 41-6.
“That was the first time I left a game before the fourth quarter. We were so disgusted. We fumbled the second-half kickoff in the end zone and I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’” Kaites recalled.
Kaites’ two greatest moments were watching Major Harris make “The Run” against Penn State when he went the wrong way on an option play and zig-zagged through the entire Nitanny Lion defense without any blocking, and Bill Stewart’s Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma following the devastating upset by Pitt that sent Rich Rodriguez running off to Michigan.
Now, Pete Kaites is 90 and Dana Holgorsen is WVU football coach.
“I celebrated my 89th birthday up at The Wonder Bar Steak House and Dana Holgorsen and I had our picture taken together,” Kaites said.
If Pete Kaites can’t sell you on WVU season tickets, bet you walk away with a new Brooks Brothers suit anyway.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.