By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It starts in a frenzy, fans milling around the grounds all day, ribs and burgers sizzling over the white-hot coals, cold beer washing down the very taste of life itself. The kids romp through the parking lots while the grownups act like kids themselves.
Before the sun begins to set, the West Virginia University football team arrives by bus from Lakeview Resort and proceeds to walk through a gauntlet of screaming, crazy fans on what is rapidly growing from a curiosity known as the “Manwalk” into a tradition.
The gates open not much later, and they begin to wander in from the parking lot parties, business executives and students alike, all of whom had to scramble for tickets for this LSU Saturday, as many as 7,000 of the WVU students being denied what really should be their right, entrance to the stadium.
They begin to chant and then to roar and the LSU Tigers take the field they boo loudly and hail epithets down upon the visitors from Cajun country.
Then, when their very own West Virginian who won “America’s Got Talent,” Landau Murphy, sings the national anthem, it all kicks into high gear.
And what is all this, you ask?
It is what commonly is known as the home-field advantage, something that often is debated but never debunked.
Studies have been done to prove that such a thing exists and the figures say it does — probably not as strongly as you may think — but there is a home-field advantage in every sport.
Go online and you will find this:
“Stats geeks in other sports aren’t as obsessive as (Major League Baseball)’s, but what research there is suggests Home Field Advantage is common all over. Perusing a comprehensive recent study (‘Long-term trends in home advantage in professional team sports in North America and England (1876-2003),’ Pollard and Pollard, 2005), I note as follows: (a) since 1900, notwithstanding some year-to-year swings, MLB home-field winning percentages have been remarkably stable at about .540; (b) the NFL HFA fluctuates a lot, no doubt because fewer games means more statistical noise, but home-field wins are usually in the 55 to 60 percent range; (c) NHL home-ice wins have declined from 60 percent in the ’70s to a pretty steady 55 percent since the mid-90s; (d) NBA home-court wins dropped from 65 percent in the mid-80s to 60 percent in recent years, still the highest of the U.S. sports studied; and (e) HFA shows up in UK sports too.”
It is no different at Milan Puskar Stadium. Since 2000, WVU has won 58 and lost 16 games at home for a .784 winning percentage while on the road (not counting bowl games) the Mountaineers are 34-23, .596.
And against ranked teams they are .500 at home and just .286 on the road.
Home-field advantage, therefore, cannot be denied. But why does it exist?
Don Nehlen spent a lifetime trying to figure that out, first as head coach at Bowling Green, then as a Hall of Fame coach of the Mountaineers for 20 years.
“The biggest thing is you don’t have to travel and break your routine,” Nehlen offered. “For road games, guys have to get on a bus, go to wherever they fly out of, get on a bus when they get to game site, get into a hotel they’re not used to, go find meeting rooms. Everything changes on the road compared to your normal routine.”
And coaches just hate breaking routine.
But it is more than just breaking routine. It is the atmosphere that is created within the stadium that creates energy and lifts attitudes so that the home team has a winning mind-set from the moment it takes the field.
This, however, is not a cure-all.
“If you are playing a team that doesn’t play in a big venue very often — like a Marshall — that’s probably a home-field advantage. But an LSU? Our 65,000 fans screaming at them is not going to bother them,” Nehlen said.
New coach Dana Holgorsen understands that this Saturday night game should be electric.
“As the first night game, everyone is fired up about it,” Holgorsen said. “I’ve been in a lot of night games that have been sold out with 60,000 to 110,000 people in there. The only thing we can worry about is making our place a good atmosphere.
“Everyone should show up, be loud and enjoy it. It needs to be a constant, too.”
He figures this is more to lift his Mountaineers than to deflate LSU.
“Their place is filled for every game. Regardless of who they play, that’s the way it is. That’s what we’re striving for here. It’s not a one-time or one-game thing. The mark of a good program and competitive program is filling the stadium every time you line up. It needs to happen all the time.”
LSU’s players are braced for what awaits them.
“I’ve been looking forward to this because I’ve been told Morgantown is a wonderful place to play,” coach Les Miles said. “Their game-day experience is a lot like an SEC game. They have a crowd that is into their team and makes a lot of noise. Our guys enjoy that type of environment. They tell me that College Gameday will be there and it is also another primetime nationally televised game. Our guys love that. It speaks to us in an environment like that. It is another challenge.
“The good news is that we’ve been on the road and understand it. We’re getting to a point where our road character is established, as is our personality.”
The WVU players certainly love it when it does happen.
“Night game, Morgantown gets electric at night. I expect the fans will come out and go crazy. We feed off that,” quarterback Geno Smith said.
So, is there a big home-field advantage at Milan Puskar Stadium?
The numbers say yes.
In 2007, Pitt said no.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.