By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It started within a few minutes of the announcement that West Virginia University and Virginia Tech were going to renew their hard-fought rivalry, and it mattered not that it was going to take eight years before they could find a way to work a two-game, home-and-home series into their schedules.
An item appeared on Twitter, an item from a Jennie James, whose Twitter account features a picture of Mountaineer Field when then fans striped it in Gold and Blue with the simple notation: “Lovin’ Life”
“What happens when you drive slowly through Blacksburg? You get a degree! Looking forward to WVU and VT in 2021!”
And so it begins, the fun that is college football that has been missing in this town since Virginia Tech jumped to the ACC and since the rivalry with Pitt ended with WVU heading to the Big 12 and Pitt to the ACC.
If you can’t make fun of a Hokie or run through the streets of Morgantown at 2 a.m. shouting “Eat Spit, Pitt,” or something along that line, you might as well go to Yale for a higher education.
But now, one of those games that makes college football what it is has returned and, for all the manure that has been tossed athletic director Oliver Luck’s way during these days of transition, for this he deserves a “well done.”
Of course, he knows something about this rivalry. In fact, as a West Virginia quarterback he etched his name into the history of it in 1979 as a sophomore.
“As I look back at my era, playing for Frank (Cignetti) and Don (Nehlen), the Maryland game was always a harbinger of what was going to come, whether we were any good or not,” Luck said. “Pitt and Penn State were both ahead of us in terms of their talent level. You look at the number of guys drafted by the NFL then and compare to what we had drafted. I was the only guy drafted my senior year. I think Penn State had 12 guys drafted.
“But Tech was in that same category. Going to Blacksburg I always thought was a good game for us. They were always pretty good games, two evenly matched teams. … Tech hadn’t taken on then what they would become (which was a national power). They were like us, trying to grow.”
WVU was not very good Luck’s sophomore season. He had missed the game his freshman year with a broken collarbone and for a while was wishing he would miss that game as a sophomore, WVU having given Tech 21 points within a span of 51 seconds to fall behind 23-6 at halftime.
Luck claims he doesn’t recall many of the details of what went on, but suffice it to say that following that game he said:
“We looked like a bunch of eighth-graders out there.”
So it was that he took matters into his own hands, threw four TDs and led the Mountaineers back to a 34-23 win.
In truth, that was pretty much how the whole rivalry was played, filled not so much with the hatred of the Pitt series but with every bit as much enthusiasm.
“As someone who grew up in Cleveland and came down here, I didn’t know anything about West Virginia-Virginia Tech, but I’d meet guys from Webster County, Peterstown and they told me how important this Virginia Tech game was,” Luck recalled.
“I remember talking to guys like Steve Newberry, Garnett Edwards, who was from Welch down in McDowell County. All those southern West Virginia guys would make it clear to anyone from northern West Virginia, the Pennsylvania guys and the Ohio guys, ‘This means a lot to us, men. This is our Pitt game,’ and I thought it was pretty cool.”
Or pretty hot.
Jeff Starkey, another Mountaineer fan who lived in Morgantown before moving to Colorado, says his favorite memory came in 2002 when the Mountaineers pulled off a 21-18 victory in Rich Rodriguez’s second season, shredding Tech’s fifth-ranking rush defense for 263 yards – 125 of them by Quincy Wilson.
WVU won the game with a goal line stand, Brian King intercepting a Tech pass from the 1 in the end zone with 12 seconds remaining, setting off a riotous night in Morgantown, which would not be too surprising except for the fact that the game was played in Blacksburg.
This was how The Associated Press story described it:
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia students set fires on campus and hundreds tore down the goal posts at Mountaineer Field after the football team’s road upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech on Wednesday night.
Emergency dispatchers reported that at one point there were fires burning throughout the city. Flames from one reached about 10-feet high as fans threw couches, mattresses, doors, clothes, carpets, firecrackers and anything else they could find into the blaze.
Perhaps the game that summed up the intensity in the series came in 1999, a down year for the Mountaineers while Virginia Tech was in the hunt for the national title. With Mountaineer Field going wild, WVU led into the final seconds when a freshman quarterback named Michael Vick made a miraculous run down the sidelines — “He broke Barrett Green’s ankle with one move,” Nehlen would say — to set up a game-winning, 44-yard field by Shayne Graham.
Had WVU’s quarterback, Marc Bulger, not missed most of the second half with a thumb injury, the game might have ranked among the great upsets in school history.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.