West Virginia driven to new heights

The Baltimore Sun

It sounds, of course, like a John Denver lyric. But it's absolutely true. The foundation of Rich Rodriguez's philosophy about both life and coaching was formed, oddly enough, during countless bus rides on the dusty country roads of rural West Virginia.

He was just 24 at the time, barely older than some of his players, but he was a college head coach, in charge of the football team at tiny Glenville State College, a Division II program in Glenville, W.Va., (population 1,700) with little prestige and even less money.

Given an opportunity at that age, a man learns to appreciate even the most basic luxuries, and so Rodriguez vowed to never forget those long, cramped bus rides to games that were played in front of modest crowds, often hundreds of miles from home.

"At that level, you don't even dream about getting on a plane," Rodriguez said. "Every member of my current staff, they come from what we like to call the 'bus leagues.' You learn when you're down there to appreciate what you've got, because those are the kinds of things you have to do to build a program."

Rodriguez's surroundings have changed, but his attitude and his philosophy have not. Instead of Glenville State College, he's now in charge of the University of West Virginia's football program, which is roughly the difference between staying at the Four Seasons instead of a Super 8.

The Mountaineers fly to nearly all their games, they have a large and passionate fan base that contributes millions of dollars to the school, and Rodriguez (known simply as "Coach Rod" to most) has become something of a celebrity in his home state, adored by the legions who live, eat and breathe West Virginia football.

Rodriguez, however - a walk-on who played at West Virginia, but never had a scholarship - still coaches like a man who has plenty left to prove, and he has carefully constructed his football program with that as his dogma.

As much as anything, that belief - perhaps best summed up by T-shirts his players and staff have been wearing bearing, "STAY HUMBLE, STAY HUNGRY" - might be the key to the Mountaineers' recent success (three straight bowl games), and the reason many experts are picking them to contend for a national championship this season.

West Virginia, which stunned Georgia, 38-35, last season in the Sugar Bowl to cap an 11-1 season, returns 14 starters, has a favorable schedule and was one of just six teams featured on regional covers of Sports Illustrated this month as part of the magazine's college football preview. The Mountaineers are ranked No. 5, the highest national ranking in school history, and begin their season at home Saturday against in-state rival Marshall.

'Let's embrace it'

"I think if you talk about it too much, it becomes a burden," Rodriguez said of the Mountaineers' championship buzz. "But at the same time, I feel like, 'Let's embrace it.' Top programs have those kind of high expectations every year, and as long as we don't change who we are, I think those kind of goals are a good thing."

It wasn't all that long ago, really, that the Mountaineers couldn't dream about playing for a national championship because they simply couldn't beat Maryland.

Rodriguez and Terps coach Ralph Friegden both took over their alma maters at the same time, in November 2000, and the schools met four times over the next three years. Maryland won all four, including the 2004 Gator Bowl, and Rodriguez and his players could hardly walk down the street in Morgantown without their fans pestering them about why they couldn't find a way to beat the Terps.

That changed in the 2004 season when West Virginia beat Maryland, 19-16, in overtime in front of a packed house in Morgantown. Ever since then, the programs have been heading in opposite directions. Maryland is trying to rebound from back-to-back losing seasons, and the Terps dropped their second game in a row to the Mountaineers in 2005.

"Maryland has always been a long-standing rivalry for us," Rodriguez said. "It seems like the winner of that game always goes on to have a good year. They were beating us pretty soundly there for a while. At least now we're giving them our best shot."

Now the talk is of going undefeated, and of what a national championship would mean to the state and to the university. On the day of a West Virginia home game, there are only a handful of schools in the country that can rival the atmosphere of Morgantown, and few, if any, exist outside the Southeastern Conference.

"The football stadium is really the place to be here in the fall," said David C. Hardesty Jr., who has been the president of the University of West Virginia since 1995. "I was a student here, I graduated from here, and I've followed Mountaineer football all my life. It's an important tradition. ... I'll put it this way: Our stadium is right next to a teaching hospital, and throughout the year, the hospital lots are pretty full with the cars of patients and doctors and such. But seven days a year [during Mountaineers home games] we clear the lots for tailgating."

It's not unusual to hear the phrase "blue collar" pop up when the national media talks about West Virginia football. It's an obvious cliche - a nod, mostly, to the state's working-class roots - but even those within the program concede that it's somewhat appropriate.

"I think the football program represents the state itself," All-America center Dan Mozes said. "West Virginia is a blue-collar state, one where people really have to work for what they get. I think that's why we've worked so hard to have the success we've had. Coach Rod grew up in a coal-mining town [Grant Town, W.Va.], and his dad was a coal miner. That sets a pretty obvious example of how hard you have to work to get what you want out of life."

Even West Virginia's star players don't have the typical All-America pedigree. Mountaineers quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, both sophomores, weren't heavily recruited but have become Heisman Trophy candidates.

West Virginia was the only school willing to give White a chance to play quarterback, and all he did his freshman year was throw for 828 yards and eight touchdowns, while running for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, despite not starting until the seventh game of the season.

One who got away The biggest surprise, however, turned out to be Slaton, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound playmaker with 4.37-second speed in the 40-yard dash. If you want to see a Maryland fan wince in pain, just mention his name. Slaton, who ran for 204 yards and scored three touchdowns against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, originally committed to Maryland out of Conwell Egan High in Fairless Hills, Pa. The Terps, though, were still interested in a couple other running backs locally, and at some point, the two parties made what Slaton describes as a "mutual decision" to part ways. His parents remember things a bit differently, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year that Slaton was "determined to prove [the Terps] wrong."

"I don't think they realized the talent that I had," Slaton said. "They had some guys they thought were a better fit for their program. The decision was mutual."

Slaton wasn't a starter until the sixth game of the season (and didn't even play in the Mountaineers' 31-19 win over Maryland), but he finished with 1,128 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. How well he plays this year will be a major factor in determining how far West Virginia goes.

"I think it would mean a lot for us to win a national championship," Slaton said. "The school has never won one, and for us to be the first to grab it, it would really show people that we've arrived, and that there is a lot more to come from West Virginia."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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