By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
He was just where we expected him to be, finishing up a day’s work at the Boston Beanery on Patteson Drive in Morgantown, just like most days. They call him Matt G. there, differentiating from another Matt pushing beans in the local hangout, but his real last name is Gardner.
The mission on this day was to do a little research before casting a ballot in the MTV promotion called “America’s Top College Sports Town: The Final Four,” an online voting contest to name America’s best college sports town.
With more than 30,000 votes cast in the preliminary, Morgantown had joined Knoxville, Tenn.; Madison, Wis.; and Eugene, Ore., in the Final Four, and that put it right up Matt G.’s alley, for before moving to Morgantown he had grown up in Knoxville and gone to Tennessee.
By now I had decided that it would come down to Morgantown and Knoxville, and if anyone knew the plusses and the minuses, if anyone could compare the two cities and the two fan bases, it was Matt G., and so it was that the conversation began, wandering through streets of both towns and the minds of the people who believe those towns are the meccas of college sports.
In many ways, perhaps best exemplified by the songs “Country Roads” at WVU and “Rocky Top” at UT or by each having been designated as America’s Top Party School by no less an expert than Playboy Magazine, only to have a crackdown on behavior after it, the schools are similar.
Their locations and mindsets, however, Matt G. would reveal, are quite different, in part because of strong differences in the history of the conferences in which they play. WVU, of course, being in the Big East, an upstart conference, especially in football, and the Southeastern Conference, whose roots go back almost to the Civil War itself.
“I believe Morgantown is one of the last true, blue college towns remaining as far as the economy is based around the university,” Matt G. began.
Morgantown, MTV says, has 30,333 while the school enrollment is listed as 29,306. It is almost a city within a university, while Knoxville is quite the opposite. That is a city, not a town, with a population of 183,546, while the school enrollment is listed at 27,107.
The economy in Morgantown is based on the university, Knoxville’s more on business and private development.
“In Knoxville there is no stone left unturned. There’s planted flowers everywhere. There’s not a building with a crack in it. There’s not a pothole. Morgantown can have a knocked-over street sign. You can have a group of houses that have not been kept well for years because of college students. Knoxville is constantly updated, constantly on the edge of what’s new and what’s next,” Matt G. said.
This was not criticism. It was observation, for each city is what it is.
“Morgantown is just now developing. For example, there’s the bridge that goes across at the Mountainlair that went in the
last couple of years. Tennessee has its own bridge that goes across what they call the strip. That bridge has been there 100 years, forever,” he said.
Morgantown differs, Matt G. would note, as much culturally as physically from Knoxville.
“The one difference is WVU is known as a place where you can make a name for yourself. Morgantown is diverse. You can come to Morgantown from Asia, from Europe and make a name for yourself. You can start a life and build a career here,” he said.
“Not that you can’t do that in Knoxville, but it’s more ‘I’m from Tennessee; I was born here; I was raised here.’ It’s the same groups of people. Ethnically it’s not as diverse. For example, my high school football coach lived 20 minutes away, kicked field goals for UT, pitched for UT. His father and mother went to UT; all his brothers and sisters went to UT. I grew up with his kids. His kids went to UT. I know for a fact his kids’ kids are going to go to UT. It’s what you do.
“People like me who get out are rare. Once you’re there, you’re there for life.”
The party reputation that both schools earned was well founded, WVU just recently opting to clean up its image. While MTV talks about couch burnings, they have all but been cut out, and a strong effort made to clean up the party-school image.
The same thing happened at Tennessee a little more than a decade ago when the partying got out of hand when Phil Fulmer’s Vols beat Florida for the national football championship.
“That was the turning point,” Matt G. said. “Part of my tuition when I went there as a freshman in 2005 was still paying CBS for its cameras in 1998. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in destruction. The rules changed after that.”
According to Matt G., there is the same fervor between fans of both schools when it comes to rooting.
There are those who argued that because in West Virginia there really isn’t anything beyond WVU athletics to root for (we know about Marshall, yes), that is stronger than in Tennessee which has professional football and basketball, but Matt G. says that’s just not the case.
“It’s the same there because those things don’t matter in Tennessee, not just in Knoxville but all across the state. Oh, you go to Nashville and there’s lots of Titan fans because there’s an NFL team there, but Titan fans wearing Vols hats. They’re not Vanderbilt fans; they’re not Memphis State fans … that’s a small, concentrated group. There are UT fans all over the world.”
There may be more Tennessee fans, the state being much bigger, but the feeling remains the same and might even be stronger when it comes to singing the state anthems.
First, here’s the way Matt G. describes the singing of “Rocky Top.”
“You go to a game and there’s 110,000 singing that song, not just once at the end of the game, but 40 times throughout the game until everyone’s sick of it.”
And “Country Roads”?
“In Morgantown I feel like it’s used as a symbol of community. Everybody goes shoulder to shoulder and you’re swaying back and forth,” he said. “Tennessee does it because they have done it for so long. West Virginia does it because they’ve done it for a long time but more because it shows, ‘Hey, we’re West Virginia. This is what sets us apart from everybody else. This is what we’ll always be and we’ll never apologize for it.’”
Morgantown, Knoxville, Madison or Eugene? After two on-court failures in the Final Four during its history, maybe you can help bring on some Mountaineer Magic this time around.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.