By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was 31 years ago today that West Virginians awoke to learn they had rejoined the ranks of college football’s power teams when they went to their door to get their morning newspaper.
The day before, while the rest of the world celebrated New Year’s Eve, the WVU Mountaineers and their faithful were celebrating longer and harder on Atlanta’s Peach Street, for they had not waited a year, but half a decade to regain respectability.
While a bowl game today, like this year’s BCS trip to the Orange Bowl, has become a yearly right with an expanded schedule and coaches like Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart and now Dana Holgorsen, it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, when Bobby Bowden left for Florida State after compiling a 9-3 record in 1975 and the team was turned over to assistant Frank Cignetti, who faced a far more important battle for his life during his tenure, WVU went into a downward spiral.
The best record they could compile was 6-6 in 1980 under new coach Nehlen during that time, and there was this gaping void in the football lives of WVU fans.
Then came the most important game in WVU history — probably, even, including the Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma in 2006 — the 1981 Peach Bowl.
The Nehlen era was just finishing its second season and the Mountaineers had turned a 6-6 record from his first year into a 7-3 record in the second year and the Peach Bowl invite that went with it. It was sort of like being asked over for dinner only to find out you were the main course.
The opponent was a young, up-and-coming Florida team coached by Charlie Pell, a team with speed and size and everything to gain out of a victory to propel themselves into the national picture the following season.
The betting line showed the Gators as 17.5-point favorites.
If West Virginia could win this, it would be the Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl IV, Pitt beating WVU in 1997.
Impossible, a pipe dream.
One betting service named “Score” named an annual “Lock of the Year” and had gone eight straight years without coming close to losing.
It picked Florida with much fanfare.
The only people who didn’t believe Florida could win that game wore gold and blue.
“Nobody gave us a chance but us,” linebacker Dennis Fowlkes recalled about five years ago in an interview with Mountaineer historian John Antonik. “We just knew deep down inside we had them. When we went into our game plan ... every meeting we were just confident that if we do this and if we do this then things will come out right for us.”
Ah, the game plan.
You don’t become a Hall of Fame coach the way Nehlen did without being able to concoct a game plan that works.
Here’s how Nehlen recalls it.
“We decided, hey, since we have no chance why not just script it and stay on it,” Nehlen said. “If we come up third down and this and it’s a long bomb, do it. Well, we came up and it was third down and 6 inches and the script said quarterback draw. I remember saying to Gary Tranquill, ‘If we run it they’ll think we’re crazy.’ We ran it and it gained about 14 yards.”
Now you know about Nehlen and draws, the plays you always booed on third and long but the plays that worked just enough to make them the right call.
The quarterback was not Major Harris and it was not Pat White, men whose legs were as important to them as their arms.
The quarterback was one Oliver Luck, now athletic director of the Mountaineers but then a pro-style, throw first quarterback whose rushing prowess left more than a little something to be desired.
As a senior he had carried the ball 40 times and gained 46 net yards. His long run was 14 yards ... those 14 yards that were key in the Peach Bowl.
“We went into the game very relaxed — almost loosy goosy if you will,” added Luck. “Florida is a very recognized program in the SEC. It was the lock of the year that the Gators were going to clobber the Mountaineers, so we felt like we had nothing to lose.”
The reason they were in that situation was that they had blown the previous game to Syracuse, being outscored 20-6 in the second half to lose 27-24 despite 360 passing yards.
“We kind of collapsed in the second half of the Syracuse game, partly because of a couple of bad decisions I made,” Luck said. “But I think that was good for us going into the Peach Bowl because we lost that game and realized that while we were good, we were by no means dominant and we had to play every snap well in order to win. That gave us the extra bite we needed going into the Peach Bowl.”
It was exactly the right attitude against a team that went in feeling it was invincible, a team that surely would crack if kicked in the face, and WVU would kick Florida in the face.
The day was made for an upset. There was a rainstorm of biblical proportions.
“They wouldn’t even let us warm up because it’s raining so hard,” said Nehlen. “Then all of the sudden it quit raining. It was not windy. It turned out to be a super day for us to play football.”
Talk about omens. The Mountaineers got a muddy field that it would like and a beautiful day.
It was what Darryl Talley, the linebacker out of East Cleveland, Ohio, ordered.
“Football is made to be played outside in the weather and in the elements where you can throw mud in the guy’s face and if he’s on the ground too long you can push his face in it,” he said.
This year that attitude carried Talley into the College Football Hall of Fame to join his coach, that coming far too longer than it should have. The attitude also allowed him to become a longtime All-Pro playing in all the worst weather in Buffalo.
The difference in this game — and new WVU coach Dana Holgorsen ought to heed this — was that Florida was the new-style SEC type team of the era while West Virginia had the old-fashioned, “beat you down” Midwestern football attitude that went from George Halas to Woody Hayes to Bo Schembechler to Nehlen.
Nehlen didn’t measure. He measured heart.
“The thing that set them apart is we’ve had a lot of teams that were physically tough but this team wasn’t deep enough not to lay it on the line every single Saturday, yet they put it on the line for us every Saturday,” Nehlen said.
“A lot of them played through bumps and bruises because we didn’t have three or four linebackers; we had two linebackers. We didn’t have four or five tackles; we had two tackles. The Florida offensive line was much bigger and much more powerful than our defensive line and yet we just ate them alive.
“It was the same offensively: They had the No. 1 sack guy in the country and he never touched Oliver Luck. I would say that was as tough a bunch of guys that I ever had.”
This was one of those games where coaching made a huge difference, especially on defense.
“At that time we were playing with a true strong safety and we’d take (backup strong safety) Donnie Stemple either to the formation and into (QB Wayne) Peace’s face or we would line him up away from the formation and chase him from behind,” said Nehlen. “The amazing thing was that they were not prepared to handle that.”
The truth was, Florida was ill-prepared to handle anything WVU threw at them that day in a 26-6 victory.
West Virginia gained 196 yards on the ground. Florida, under heavy pressure from the pass rush, finished with minus-30 rushing yards.
That is minus-30 yards.
WVU gained three times as many yards as the vaunted Florida offense and completely embarrassed Pell and his team, so much so that Pell ordered the film to be burned.
“The next spring, the Florida coach, Charlie Pell, made a ceremony out at mid-field of burning the game film,” our own Mickey Furfari, who covered the game, once remembered. “He ordered the SID to take that game out of the media guide.”
And so it was that in 1981, Oliver Luck played a huge role in jumpstarting the West Virginia program, just as he is doing now in his role as athletic director, hiring a coach who took the team to the Orange Bowl in his first season.
Nehlen had to come from further down, but got to a national championship game in eight years.
Perhaps history could repeat itself.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.