(EDITOR’S NOTE: This football season will mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of Mountaineer Field. We thought it would fitting to go back and talk to former players, coaches, executives and fans and get their favorite personal memory of time spent at what is now Milan Puskar Stadium. We weren’t looking for game memories, but personal moments. This is the second installment in a number of such articles through the coming weeks.)
MORGANTOWN — Both John Conte and Shelly Poe have their place in West Virginia University football history, although they took different paths to Mountaineer Field, which came to mean so much more than just a stadium to them.
Conte came to WVU from Morgantown High, although he didn’t get to Morgantown until high school while Poe was a native. His family roots, however, reached into Morgantown and in his heart he was a West Virginian as he became a Mountaineer lineman and a starting center.
“I moved here in 1991 while I was a freshman in high school,” Conte said.
He, of course, became a WVU fan and two years later Don Nehlen’s team surprised the world and went undefeated before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
“The town was just on fire,” he said.
Figuratively, and literally, for in those days there was tradition after winning big games not only of tearing down the goal posts but of setting couches on fire across town.
Happily, that tradition has been extinguished, so to speak.
Conte proved to be a solid player at Morgantown and was getting ready to go to college where he wanted to play football.
“In the spring of 1994,” Conte said, “Coach Nehlen brought me and my mom into his office. I committed right on the spot, in front of my family. My dad had gone to West Virginia and met my mom there. That was where I wanted to play,” he said.
And Nehlen gave him his chance.
Playing didn’t come easily, because Nehlen had recruited five offensive linemen the year before he recruited Conte and they were good ones, so he had to wait his turn, finally landing a starting job in 1999.
“But, know what,” Conte said. “Not once did I ever think of transferring. I wanted to play at West Virginia.”
And, he said, that even with today’s easier transfer rules, he would not have thought about transferring, because Mountaineer Field was home.
It paid off in his Mountaineer Field moment.
“I talked to Coach Nehlen about this in 2019 at the Spring Game. Our senior year I was with Anthony Becht, Marc Bulger and Barrett Green. We had a lot of talent,” he said.
They really did, there was also Jerry Porter, Perlo Bastien, David Carter, Khory Ivy, Boo Sensabaugh, Nate Terry, Mark Plants, Jay Taylor, Anthony Green, Rick Oleyar, Donnie Lindsey, Vince Pellis and Greg Robinette.
As much senior talent as they had, they still finished a dismal 4-7.
“The ball just didn’t bounce our way,” Conte said. “We had some bad breaks. We were on the cusp of beating Virginia Tech (a 22-20 loss to the nation’s No. 3 team when quarterback Michael Vick broke loose on an amazing 26-yard scramble that led to Shane Graham’s 44-yard game-winning field goal as time ran out) and Miami (a 28-20 loss to the nation’s No. 23 team as they gave up two fourth-quarter TDs to erase a 21-14 lead).
“But we never gave up and we ended up the year beating the tar out of Pitt, beating them, 52-21, after we had beat them 52-14 the year before. We had nothing to play for then because we weren’t going to a bowl.”
But the Pitt game itself was not the memory was not the memory.
“No, no,” said Conte. “Our last practice in pads, like on Thursday before the game, was wonderful. Coach appreciated us. It didn’t turn out as great as we wanted it to turn out, but Coach Nehlen after that practice had all the seniors carried off the field.
“That was really special. Coach Nehlen was pure class all the way. I just loved him. I loved our line coach, Bill Legg, too.
Poe’s roots run deep into West Virginia, being a descendant of the first English settlers in West Virginia and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She went to University High, then to WVU as a Merit Scholar, graduating magna cum laude in journalism in 1985, working four years in the sports information department as a graduate assistant. She would later become the sports information director for football, a trailblazer for women.
Her Mountaineer Field roots run as deep as her WVU roots.
“When I grew up in Morgantown the debate was going on … are we going to build the new stadium? Are we going to keep the old stadium downtown?” she said over the phone from Auburn, Alabama, where today she is the football information director after spending 19 years as SID at WVU and five years at Ohio State.
“We grew up going to games in the old stadium,” she said, describing it as a totally different experience than it is now. “You’d park downtown. You’d go to the game, stop and get hamburgers somewhere, walk up the street and go to the stadium. It was a family thing to do. We’d do that or my Dad would just let us off and meet friends and go to the game.
“One year we stopped and picked up my class ring on the way to the game, my sister and me,” she said. “That was the way it was. I don’t know the people who lived in Morgantown were convinced they wanted a new stadium.”
But it was built and the effect it had on Morgantown and West Virginia was stunning.
“My senior year of high school was the first year the stadium opened and we didn’t go to any of the games. We just always had something going on and it wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said.
The next year she became a freshman at WVU.
“That was the fall of ‘81 and that was the first year the stadium was open with all the bells and whistles. Before that, in the first year, they had two grandstands on either side but they didn’t have the other stuff.
“Now we had the office building, all the amenities and it really looked like a stadium. Wow! I don’t think anybody could walk in there and not realize this was a step up, especially for West Virginia,” Poe said.
“I was lucky, as a student I got to travel around and go to Pitt Stadium and Penn State and places that were not new and fancy and nice. OK, our stadium wasn’t fancy for today, but it was new and nice and clean and organized,” she said. “I think that was the first building block of getting the whole state to think ‘Hey, we can be somebody in this football business. We have something nice here that doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody.’”
West Virginia had suffered long enough. They had gone through five tough years under Frank Cignetti but Don Nehlen had come in and his coaching and the new facility changed the entire outlook for Mountaineer football.
It was another step forward for a school that was just coming of age.
“I’m not old enough to recall but I think people had the same feeling of pride back in 1960 when we built the medical center. Everyone took part in that. They turned in their pop bottles and a penny of each bottle went toward building the med center,” she said.
“It became a matter of pride — ‘Look what we did as a state.’ It was new and nice and most of all, it was ours. It was like when your family buys a house for the first time. That was a point of pride that went way beyond a ball game. It was really cool.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel