By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
They knew about the football, these outsiders who had come into West Virginia University to coach and play in the football program.
They couldn’t help but know.
There were victories over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. There were players like Patrick White and Steve Slaton, Marc Bulger and Amos Zereoue, and before them a guy named Major Harris.
They knew about the coaches, Don Nehlen in the College Football Hall of Fame and Rich Rodriguez. They may even have known that a guy named Bobby Bowden had gotten his big-time college football coaching start here.
Yeah, they knew the football legacy, but they knew little else about the state they had adopted and, as you look back on what happened to last year’s football team, maybe that hurt more than anyone knew.
That certainly had to be what coach Dana Holgorsen was thinking as he analyzed why this team that was sending maybe four or more players into the NFL could have fallen apart as it did, defensively from the start and then even offensively as it dropped six of its last eight games.
It was as if they didn’t know what they were playing for, about how much the sport meant to the people of West Virginia and how important winning at the game of football was. They didn’t know about culture of the state, nor could they really feel the underdog spirit that has always driven those who performed here.
So it was, during the off-season, as Holgorsen worked on rebuilding the football part of the program, he initiated a program to instill a sense of state history into his players — and coaches — along with state pride. He brought in guest speakers, each with a tale of West Virginia to offer.
This, he felt, would bring his team together and give what they were doing meaning beyond just playing for their place in the NFL. They were playing for each other, for those in the stands and those in front of their TVs, but also for those in the coal mines.
“Country Roads” and pepperoni rolls were about to become the official state song and food, and they were going to know what that meant, along with all else that was West Virginia.
“For our young men, it’s a way of recognizing we’re representing something bigger than ourselves,” is the way defensive coordinator Keith Patterson explained it. “Sometimes it becomes me, me, me, so we’ve tried to create an atmosphere of respect and that has players thinking ‘I’m honored to be here.’”
Darwin Cook is a safety who came to town from Cleveland, Ohio. That, of course, is home to the athletic director, Oliver Luck, who also was the quarterback who helped Nehlen establish his program here.
Not that he knew that. He might as well have been from Bulgaria.
“We’d go through the Mountaineer Mantrip last year and really didn’t know anything about it,” Cook said. “We didn’t even know the coal out there came from a real coal mine. We just thought it was fake coal.
“But now we know the importance. Next year, when we do the Mantrip, it’s going to feel better to be a part of it. Coach Holgorsen has really pushed Mountaineer Pride, and it makes me feel special just to be here.”
He is not alone.
Paul Millard is a quarterback who came out of Flower Mound, Texas, and who may wind up inheriting Geno Smith’s starting job.
Like Cook, he didn’t know much about West Virginia.
“I was definitely impressed,” he said. “My dad went to Penn State, so I knew about Joe Pa and the history there, but I never knew about West Virginia. I really learned a lot.”
Indeed he did.
“Learning about the players like Pat White and Steve Slaton or way before that, like Ira Errett Rodgers, guys I knew nothing about, to be honest with you. It’s been great learning the history of the sport here,” he added.
Ira Errett Rodgers?
He played at WVU around the turn of the decade — the 1910 into the 1920s. They called him “Rat” and he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame and now you have a 21-year-old kid quarterback talking about him.
But it isn’t just football.
“We did the man trip. It blows my mind what those coal miners go through on a daily basis and the grime that they do,” Millard said. “We sometimes think we have a hard time playing football here, but at the end of the day those guys are sacrificing their life every single day.”
Tony Gibson coaches the safeties. He had been at WVU under Rodriguez, now is back and Holgorsen felt he had something more to offer than just his coaching.
His father had been a coal miner, had died of black lung disease, and he addressed the team.
“He was talking about how his dad was in the coal mine and that struck home with so many people,” Millard said.
One of them was Patterson, his boss as defensive coordinator and a man who had hired him at Pitt for a year when Rodriguez sat out between Michigan and Arizona.
“To hear Coach Gibson, whose father was a coal miner who passed away from the black lung, to see him stand up in front of our team and talk about the history of coal mining in this state, it was inspirational and educational,” Patterson said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.