By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is a football Saturday in the fall, the air crisp, the tree colors at the height of their beauty.
The air is filled with the excitement of a West Virginia University football game and a whole lot more.
The smell of hot dogs on the grill, the sound of burgers sizzling, of beer can tops popping, of laughter, radios with fans listening in to the pre-game show.
Old friends talk about the old days while, at the same time, making new friends from across the state, the nation and, yes, from even opposing schools.
Tailgating at West Virginia isn’t a recreation.
It’s an art, so much so that earlier this year “Tailgater Monthly,” yes there is even a magazine dedicated to tailgating, ranked WVU No. 11 in the nation for its tailgating atmosphere.
The online September issue said that West Virginia fans are serious about their tailgating, and they hadn’t even met Esmond E. Harper Jr. (everyone calls him Ed) and his gang of Mountaineer fans who may have the longest running tailgate at Mountaineer Field.
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In reality, Harper’s tailgate predates the opening of “new” Mountaineer Field in 1980, predates John Denver and Don Nehlen.
Harper, a one-time Marine flyer from Huntington who is an account manager for Wells Fargo Advisors in Morgantown, first became a season ticket holder in 1976 when the team was at old Mountaineer Field on the downtown campus and the tailgate was held in his driveway.
While the team had a rough time under Frank Cignetti during the late 1970s, the memories were so great built from the tailgate and the seat Harper held on the 35-yard line, so much so that for his birthday one year a friend who worked for the university in facilities and maintenance presented him with the actual seat he sat in at old Mountaineer Field.
“That seat is from 1924,” Harper said. “They never replaced those bleachers. He put a bronze tag on it: ‘Mountaineer Field – 1924-1979.’”
When the current Mountaineer Field opened, the tailgate was moved, and it was one of the first – if not the first – tailgate to go up at Mountaineer Field.
It is located in the Silver Lot, to your left as you drive in, set up on a grassy area just across from the Milan Puskar Facilities Building, which houses the Mountaineer football program. There’s a tent and as many as 100 people coming through each day, talking with – but mostly listening to — Harper, along with the other remaining original members of the tailgate.
They are Dr. Andy Brooks, a dentist from St. Albans; Joe Moser, who owns Ashbrooke Liquor in Morgantown; Joe Subrick, an entrepreneur from New Cumberland; Jeff Davis, a businessman from Wheeling who owns a hospital supply company; Steve Lewis of McCombas, Miss., who runs Croft Manufacturing, which makes windows; Terry Radnozi, news director of a local TV station in Bristol, Va.; and Greg Stamm of St. Albans, retired from the West Virginia State Agriculture Department.
They have lived through all the stories Harper has about this tailgate, wonderful stories of why tailgating at WVU is what it is.
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“People ask me what’s the best visiting team you ever saw,” Harper begins. “I say there’s no question, the ’86 Miami Hurricanes – Vinny Testaverde, Alonzo Highsmith, Jerome Brown … they had three first-round draft choices.”
He remembers they came into Mountaineer Field and beat WVU, 58-14, “and it could have been a lot worse,” he adds.
But it was afterward that Harper remembers best. In those days the visiting teams busses would line up right there and the players would come out, hang around until time to load up, maybe talk with their families.by the tailgate.
“Jerome Brown came out. He had all these gold necklaces on, an All-America middle guard who would become All-Pro with the Eagles,” Harper recalled.
Harper’s friend saw him and called out “Hey, J. Brown, J. Brown, come on over and get something to eat.”
So here comes Jerome Brown.
“We had sandwiches and family-style buckets of KFC chicken sitting there. We had the liquor in the back. We offered him some pop, but he said, ‘No, no, that’s not tailgating.’”
He stood and talked for a while before it became time to head on the bus.
“He says ‘Thank you, man,’ walks over and grabs a bottle of Jack Daniels and a family style bucket of KFC and gets on the bus. That was Miami-style football.”
Harper is starting to roll now, and the Syracuse series comes to mind, especially a game played on Oct. 17, 1992, a legendary game that WVU lost when the Orange quarterback, Marvin Graves, started a fight on the sideline that got some key WVU players ejected but not Graves.
“The WVU fans were really upset, and so was Don Nehlen. It was the only time I remember Don Nehlen saying ‘We got screwed,’” Harper said.
The officials in those days parked their cars in the back of the Silver lot, which meant they had to walk right past the Harper tailgate to get there.
“Gloria Cunningham was still around then. She still had to be in her 70s. I think she’s in her 90s now. So here comes one of the officials and they pointed him out. He had this old Mercedes … she ran up and stood in front of his car and started pounding on the hood.
“He had to stop. You don’t want to run over a 70-year-old lady. Well, maybe he should have run her over because next thing you know there’s 20 or 30 WVU fans surrounding his car and they are pounding on it.”
Usually the relationships they built were more cordial. They made fast friends with the parents of Scott Geisleman, Doug Flutie’s All-American tight end, and the late ESPN pioneering broadcaster Tom Meese, who would stop by for a beer and something to eat.
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Perhaps the most amusing story involves one of the tailgaters who is best left unnamed, considering there is a bit of activity involved in this that goes against the criminal code of the state.
The tailgate was in need of a new tent, and this regular had begun betting on the games and was doing pretty well when the Mountaineers faced Virginia Tech.
“It was Rich Rod’s third year. ... He was 14-16 and if he’d lost that game he was about to be run out of town,” Harper recalled. “WVU was a 13-point favorite and this guy took the Hokies.”
That was what he had done almost every week, betting against West Virginia and doubling up, so if he won this bet there would be enough money for a tent and to upgrade the facilities.
“Our tent was getting raggedy. It was like 10 years old. We were getting a new one along with new tables, everything,” Harper said.
Well you know what happened. WVU won straight up, 28-7.
“Fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine West Virginia fans went home happy that day,” Harper said.
The other one, who had just lost that bet, just went home.
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Harper recalled a 2002 game against Tennessee-Chattanooga, a Division I-AA school that was just coming to town to take a beating and get a check. WVU obliged, winning, 56-7, so after the game the players were mulling around by the busses and began talking with the members of the tailgate.
“They told us it was the first charter plane most of the players had ever been on,” Harper said. “They didn’t have the budget to spend the night in a hotel, so they flew in the day of the game and then flew out.
“One of the assistant coaches came over and we were talking and he was saying how excited they were to be here and to have played, but I see the players are coming out and going in the buses with just a little ol’ box lunch.”
That raised Harper’s curiosity.
“I said ‘What’s that?’ He said that’s their dinner going back to Tennessee. He said that was it for them; they didn’t even have a pre-game meal,” Harper said.
Harper turned and looked and there was a lot of food left over at the tailgate, Chattanooga not exactly having been a big draw. I told him to bring the players and get some food.
“Next thing I know five or six of the guys are coming over. The coaches got some red plastic cups and had some beer, the players had soft drinks. They took all the food we had left and took it onto that bus,” Harper said, having done his good deed for the day.
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In the early days, the tailgate involved people from a lot of different cities coming together, Harper being the local guy housing the tent and the tables and the little TV they used to have that they tried to get a network game on while tailgating.
When they moved from the Harper driveway to the Silver lot, it wasn’t paved.
“The Silver Lot was all gravel and there were no passes to get in. It was first come, first serve,” Harper said. “We didn’t officially tailgate at first. It evolved. Someone started bringing their car in with stuff in it. Then when they paved that lot, tailgating became big.
“We started bringing in grills and coolers. At some point in the late ’80s, we bought a 20-by-10 tent. You couldn’t put that on the paved lot, so we moved to just to the side in the little grass area, and we’re still there today,” Harper said.
The tailgate grew to 30 or so regulars, with 100 or more people always dropping in.
“As the football program grew, the tailgating become more of an event, just as it did throughout the entire stadium area,” Harper said. “You could see the evolution going from little card tables to grills and big barbeque pits, the big coolers, and then the big RVs started really coming in.”
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So did the work grow. and after 30 or so years Harper was ready to give the tailgate up.
“At that point there were a number of young kids who had been brought in by the parents when they were young. It became apparent to me that although we, the older generation, think we’re the most loyal fans … the younger generation in their late 20s are more rabid than we ever were,” Harper said.
So, four or five years ago he decided to turn it over to a group of the younger fans, headed by Logan Wheatcraft.
“I gave them everything, the grills, the tables, the coolers, the tent and my Silver parking lot pass. I still pay for it every year, but I give it to them,” Harper said.
Now they come early, as early as the lot opens to set up as they must have their spot on the grass because the tent can’t be used on the pavement. They charge three prices to cover the costs – a price for beer only, food only or food and beer for the season, and they put together a menu with a theme that matches the opponent.
Wheatcraft is 26, a former member of the executive board of the Mountaineer Maniacs, a member of the drum line while in college.
In other words, he’s a fan. And one with a sense of humor.
“I took it over because I’m the only person left in Morgantown who has a garage,” he said.
He plans the menu, cooks all the food.
“For K-State they did a barbeque theme. We did a Thanksgiving theme dinner for Pitt last year. The Maryland game was crab cake sandwiches. Oklahoma was all beef,” Wheatcraft said.
They even have their own website: www.wvutailgate.com
And they have something else … Harper’s seat from old Mountaineer Field.
“It’s a loan to the kids who run the tailgate, and it goes to my daughter when I die,” Harper explained. “It is going to stay in the Harper family and not going out.”
And there is a tradition connected with the seat.
“If we get a new member of the tailgate, a female, has to sit in the seat to bring us luck,” Harper said.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.