The Times West Virginian

October 29, 2012

WVU vs. TCU draws comparisons to 1984 contest

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — There was nothing classic about Kevin White, the quarterback who was on the field for West Virginia University the only other time it faced a team from Texas Christian University, this Saturday’s 3 p.m. opponent in Milan Puskar Stadium.

That, of course, was in the Orwellian season of 1984, and the two teams had qualified for the Bluebonnet Bowl to play in what once was called “The Eighth Wonder of the World” but by this time was a rat-infested antique whose time had come and gone with no one noticing.

TCU was the school that had given the world Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien, two of the greatest quarterbacks of the 1930s and, for that matter, all time, Baugh becoming a legend as a QB, punter and defender in the National Football League and O’Brien, a Heisman Trophy winner, being still remembered today for the Davey O’Brien Trophy that goes to the game’s top quarterback.

Both were real classic quarterbacks, while White was something of an afterthought who would lead Don Nehlen’s Mountaineers to that 31-14 victory over TCU.

It was something of an unexpected victory at the time, TCU possessing an All-American running back named Kenneth Davis, while the Mountaineers had finally established themselves under Nehlen with three consecutive 9-3 seasons that included a stunning upset of Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl and an even more stunning upset of Oklahoma in Norman the next time they took the field in the 1982 opener.

But Oliver Luck and Jeff Hostetler had come and gone and had turned the reins of the team over to White, who physically did not match up with either of those players or the quarterbacks who could come in the future like Major Harris, Patrick White or today’s star, Geno Smith.

Coming out of Casa Grande Union (Ariz.) High, he stood just 5-foot-11 and weighed all of 160 pounds — maybe. While athletes today are bigger and faster than ever, that was small even in 1981 as he came out of high school.

“I played for a very unsuccessful high school team, and I shared in our lack of success — with lots of support, I might add,” White once joked.

But there was something there that his high school coach John Kashner saw, something that made him play him and to push him to every college contact he had on the East Coast, perhaps because he thought it might be an easier sell to coaches who had not seen him play.

White explained it this way:

“That guy went out from college to college, and, of course, he was also making his contacts and having a good time with his old coaching buddies. He knew (WVU assistant coach) Bill Kirelawich and he made a stop at West Virginia, made his spiel, and they expressed interest, but really they had a lot of guys in front of me,” White said.

“Then lo and behold they had a couple of back-outs, and I was the last little puppy in the litter, and they called me up after the signing date and asked me if I wanted to come.”

West Virginia or Villanova or Lehigh? That seemed to be the choice, although White was as unfamiliar with West Virginia as they were with him.

White actually had to look WVU up in a book, the Internet not yet having become a reality.

He arrived when Luck was still running the team and was there for Hostetler’s time, before taking over in 1984 as a senior.

“This guy comes in at 5-11 and 155 pounds and I’m saying, ‘Holy mackerel, who are we going to beat with this guy?’” Nehlen famously said at the time.

Who, indeed?

How about Penn State during that 1984 season, a team the Mountaineers had not defeated since 1955?

A sign hung behind the Penn State bench at Mountaineer Field that day and it read:

“28 years, 2,800 tears, 28,000 beers.”

There were no tears that year, but plenty of beers.

The Mountaineers, with White running the team, also beat Virginia Tech and Pitt and the week before Penn State they beat Doug Flutie and Boston College, 21-20.

They were on the Orange Bowl Express, but lost their last three games to Virginia, Rutgers and Temple and wound up in the Bluebonnet Bowl instead. It was the kind of fate WVU is trying to avoid this season now with two straight losses and TCU now the next opponent.

TCU had fallen on bad times before the Bluebonnet Bowl. The Horned Frogs had gone 19 years without a bowl game until revived by Jim Wacker, a coach who was intent on bringing back the glory days and doing it honestly, which was rare in the Southwest Conference in those days.

They went 8-4 that season, the last loss being to White and the rock-ribbed WVU defense that held TCU to 14 points. White passed for 280 yards, six of his completions to receiver Willie Drewery for 152 of those yards.

TCU, at the time, could not know it, but it would not attend another bowl for a decade as Wacker’s dream was crushed by a scandal, Davis and six other players having received payments to play at TCU, something Wacker knew nothing about.

That, though, was yesterday. Today, TCU has a Rose Bowl championship it can call its own from 2010 among the 11 bowl games it has attended since 2000. But the Horned Frogs still can’t avoid scandal, the quarterback Casey Pachall leaving school to receive drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment after being suspended from the team for being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.

This week’s game, like the 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl, is a critical one for the way this season will be looked upon for both schools as they meet for the first time as members of the Big 12.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.