NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama fans swarm into Bryant Denny Stadium with toilet paper glued to a box of detergent, symbolizing the battle cry of "Roll Tide." Seemingly half the population of Nebraska dresses in red on fall Saturdays. Throughout the land, thousands park their RVs in muddy fields and pass out the hard stuff at daybreak. The wind-chill can be in the teens, but their sons will have their shirts off and their chests painted, posing for the minicams.
Let's get this straight. College football, that bastion of western civilization, is calling West Virginia a bunch of hillbillies?
The national media had fun with homeboy John Kruk during the World Series, and the theme was revisited when the Mountaineers chose the USF&G; Sugar Bowl as their form of holiday escape. Ma and Pa Kettle go to the French Quarter is the tone of most of the reports, and West Virginians are tired of it.
"Aw, that's so old," Larry Armbruster said over his morning coffee yesterday. "I have some friends who'll wear overalls down here just to have fun with that [stereotype].
"I'll tell you one thing about West Virginia kids: They know how to take down a goal post. After we beat Miami, they had both of them down in less than 30 seconds. The next week on TV, it took somebody else 30 minutes to get one of them down. How's that for sophistication?"
Armbruster, who's from Charleston, is among the 20,000 to 25,000 West Virginia faithful who'll be in the Superdome on New Year's Day, and about half of them were on Bourbon Street on Tuesday night. WVU was allocated 12,000 tickets, but thousands more took advantage of the fire sale in Alabama after the Crimson Tide lost to Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game.
They filled more than 30 chartered jets, and are delighted that the Mountaineers chose a bigger payday and a good time here over a Cotton Bowl date in Dallas with Texas A&M;, which is ranked above Florida. They were at it last night, giving battle cries in the lobby of the Hyatt.
With no major professional teams, West Virginia's 1.8 million people -- about as many as in Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties -- turn their attention to Morgantown, home of the state's only Division I-A football.
Coach Don Nehlen didn't do anything for West Virginia's image after his team's first practice at the Superdome, when he said, "You could stick Morgantown in there and still have a development at the other end." Neither did one of the finalists in the state's high school banner contest. The recipe for Midland Trail High's "Mountaineer Magic" Gatorade: 1 Florida Gator, 1 jug of moonshine.
Oops, another sportswriter making fun of the Mountaineers.
"The writers have been showing their ignorance by perpetuating that stereotype," said Mickey Furfari, the lone West Virginia newspaperman who was also here in 1954, when Sam Huff led the Mountaineers in their only previous Sugar Bowl appearance. "We didn't get this kind of treatment the last time we were here. A lot of us feel that approach is being taken to deflect attention away from the way the team was over looked in the polls."
Eighteen of West Virginia's players hail from the state, and one of them, strong safety Mike Collins, saw the respect issue differently.
"Maybe the reason we're not getting any respect is that we haven't been successful the last few years," said Collins, who's from Huntington. "Stereotypes are associated with every area of the country. I'm from West Virginia, and if I think of say, North Dakota, all I think of is a cold, desolate place. I'm sure there's more to it than that. The fact is, West Virginia is labeled with a hick reputation."
Some of the out-of-state Mountaineers, who chose a comprehensive university whose 15 colleges and schools have produced 24 Rhodes scholars, didn't exactly embrace the issue.
"What people fail to realize is that we're not all from West Virginia," said linebacker Tim Brown, who's from McKeesport, Pa., near Pittsburgh. "A lot of us grew up in bigger cities, but we know what West Virginia's about. It's a beautiful place."
If pollsters made a mistake gauging West Virginia earlier this season, their fans were also hesitant to warm to the Mountaineers after four disappointing seasons that followed the 1988 unbeaten year and appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.
The coal-miners strike that lasted seven months and ended in early December affected 14,000 workers and had a ripple effect on an already-reeling economy. As rabid as West Virginia fans are supposed to be, there were 7,000 empty seats for a game against Virginia Tech when both were unbeaten in October, and Mountaineer Field wasn't filled until the fifth home game, against Pitt.
A record 70,222 saw the Mountaineers beat Miami. It gave West Virginia its best average attendance in four years.
"When you're winning, they're some of the best fans in the world," said Collins. "Everyone wants to be involved in a winning program, but there were 25,000 [27,751] for our last game last year."
There are nearly as many Mountaineers here.