Mountaineer Field and Legends
Note: This is another excerpt from my upcoming book, “Cakewalk Summers: Growing up a West Virginian.”
With the end of summer, which could be sniffed in the mid-August West Virginia breezes, came not just the dreaded return to school, but also the promising hope, thrills (and inevitable disappointment) that were part and parcel of the return of the West Virginia University football season in Morgantown.
Despite the highs and lows that come with being a WVU fan, the memories of Mountaineer Field and Legends – such as Jerry West and Jack Fleming – pile high atop one another like wisps of fog in the State’s hollers. Those games were not only great fun and incredibly exciting for a young boy, but they also became amazing teachable moments.
It is my father that created these experiences which cultivated such delightful memories. These were some of my most pleasant days with Dad. Sometimes, just the two of us would go to a game, especially as the season stretched into frigid November. Often, though, a day at Mountaineer Field included Mom and my two sisters, Mickey and April.
Equally important, a trip to Morgantown was almost a guarantee that we’d be spending Saturday night at Foxy’s house. Foxy was Dad’s mom, and her house was a four-story, nine bedroom labyrinth that included a three-room cellar which itself was a maze of adventure. The top floor included my great-grandfather’s old bed, still with the crater in the middle.
The trip did have its downside, especially for back seat riders. There were no seat belts, so if the whole gang went, my sisters and I would be flopping back and forth against one another. At the time, the drive from Clarksburg to Morgantown was not the 25-minute drive that the interstate has made it today. Rather, it was an hour-and-a-half stomach churning ride on narrow two-lane roads, filled with switchbacks and steep hills. It wasn’t a problem for Dad though, as he spent his career driving the roads of West Virginia peddling, in order: cash registers, cigarettes, Pabst Blue Ribbon and industrial/mining equipment. So, every year he drove at least 30,000 miles or so. And, if it wasn’t in a company car or our Olds Vista Cruiser, it was in a beer truck.
In short, he knew how to straighten out curves. (This is another valuable lesson that Dad passed on to me, much to the terror of my passengers, even today). While Dad didn’t always take the same route, there were landmarks that increased my anticipation – and relief from being tossed around in the back seat.
When we would arrive in Morgantown, we had prime parking, as Dad would simply park in front of Foxy’s house. Breakfast was light. When it was time to head to the stadium, we’d begin by walking to the end of cobble-stoned Park Street then across Decker’s Creek on the South Park Bridge into downtown.
Up High Street we would walk, surrounded by hundreds of other fans and students. At the end of High Street at its intersection with Willey Street, there was a chain restaurant on the southwest corner that sold roast beef sandwiches. That was our first and only stop before reaching the stadium. I’d gorge myself. At Willey Street, we’d turn left until we came to University Avenue. Occasionally, along Willey Street, we’d detour through White Hall, which today houses the Physics department and Dad would say, “Now you’ve been to college.” Back on University Avenue, we’d stroll past the statue of the West Virginia Mountaineer to our right.
From there, we’d walk through campus towards the stadium. Dad would always stop and pause at the Mast and Bell from the USS West Virginia, which was badly damaged at Pearl Harbor but was repaired in time to participate in the war and be at the signing of the Japanese surrender. Dad never failed to teach the lesson of patriotism. In fact, service to community and country was preached and demonstrated often throughout the generations in our family.
It stood just beyond the Mountain Lair, the hub of student activity on the WVU campus. There, the streams of fans from various streets and parking areas began congregating, and where you could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of game day building!
We’d walk past Woodburn Hall – on our left, across from the Mountain Lair – and finally past vendors selling buttons and little dolls of players from the other team. I don’t know if we were supposed to use them like Voodoo dolls or what, but I never had a chance to find out. Dad was not going to part with his money for “that junk.” So, up to the ticket booth and into Mountaineer Field we went.
In the mid-1960s, when our whole family would attend, Dad would walk up to the ticket window, put down his money, and walk away with two adult tickets at $4 each and three child tickets at $1 each. Yep, for $11, our entire family could see the West Virginia Mountaineers play the likes of Penn State, Pitt and Syracuse. There were also games against Maryland, Virginia Tech (then VPI), Villanova and others. Back then, a fan could drive to just about any away game in just a few hours.
A few times, Dad and Mom took all of us to Pittsburgh for the game, followed by an adventure brand new to us at the time – shopping in a mall. Two stories tall! Later, in high school, our folks would let me travel with family friends and one of my teachers to away games at Maryland.
These rivalries were intense, but having opponents so close by made for great traveling parties.
At Mountaineer Field, we’d always sit in the end zone seats. Walking out of the concrete underbelly into the open seating area, the view on a sunny day was a sea of green, blue and gold. On the field, groups of players were running through drills, and the sun reflected off of the brass instruments and uniforms of the band members, also going over last-minute preparations.
I’d look at the homes on the hills above the stadium, where students and others would be sitting on rooftops, getting a free view from their perches.
Mountaineer games started at 1 p.m. every week. As soon as we were seated, I’d begin my vigilant observation of the Woodburn Hall clock tower, which stood tall on a hill overlooking Mountaineer Field. I would impatiently watch the minute hand creep ever so slowly towards one o’clock.
My heart beat intensified at the sound of the band rehearsing under the bleachers. The aroma of hot dogs and brown mustard (the only condiment) proved too tempting. Yes, even after chowing down on a couple of stacked roast beef sandwiches 30 minutes earlier, I was ready for hot dogs! But I hated leaving my seat once I got to it, something that has not changed even to this day.
After the teams finished their warm-up exercises, they’d head through the tunnel under our seats back to the locker rooms. If we were playing Pitt, however, the scenario often played out differently. As Pitt players and coaches jogged back to the locker room, liquor bottles would be crashing off of their helmets. (Dad would just grumble about wasting whiskey!) And Pitt would just as often take their time getting off the field, holding up the band’s pre-game performance. The entertainment had just begun!
Pitt was, after all, “The Backyard Brawl”. And yes, by halftime when the teams went back into the tunnel, it was now mostly empty whiskey bottles being thrown. Anyway, at a precise time – I’m not going to trust my memory to say exactly when it was, but maybe 20 minutes before kickoff – the band would be primed just under us in the tunnel. I’d then scoot up to the edge of my seat, brace myself with hands placed beside me, and wait for the sound of the drum roll.
“And now,” the public address announcer would boom, “from the College of Creative Arts on the campus of West Virginia University, we are proud to present the Mountaineer Marching Band!” The announcer would also acknowledge the director at the time, saying “Under the direction of …” (In 1975 when West Virginia played in the Peach Bowl, the phrase, “The Pride of West Virginia” was added to the band’s introduction).
Formations varied. Certain songs, however – all composed or arranged by WVU staff, students or alumni – were habitual. The drum major led the way out of the tunnel. A version of “Mountain Dew” generally opened the show, but “Fight Mountaineers” and “Hail West Virginia” got the place rocking. Later, in the early 70s, an arrangement of John Denver’s “Country Roads” was added to the opening routine. How better to get the blood flowing? The band would form an outline of the state as they marched back and forth the length of the field, spell out WVU, and do all sorts of amazing things while walking backwards with tubas and such in their hands. The marching band definitely increased the excitement and thrill of the fans in the stadium!
Fans dressed far more formally then. It wasn’t the sea of gold t-shirts or sweatshirts one sees today. It wasn’t uncommon for women to wear dresses or skirts and men to wear ties and jackets. Besides, a flask was easily hidden in a men’s sports coat or a lady’s hand purse. Of course, others dressed more casually. Still, with Homecoming, Mountaineer Week, Band Day and other annual traditions, it was a party for 35,000 or so people. They dressed for it as they would a Friday evening social event customary to the time.
Speaking of traditions, I do not know when or why Band Day was abandoned, but I am so happy that it was part of my experience at Mountaineer Field. That Saturday was dedicated to showcasing the state’s high school bands, and it was one of the most colorful days on the schedule. As part of the halftime show, the bands from throughout the Mountain State would entertain the audience, with a number or two, as I recall, with The Mountaineer Marching Band. On a sunny day the field was literally covered with bands. The sun reflecting and flashing off the instruments was blinding. Uniforms and flags of every color combination imaginable flowed in the breeze.
Still, there was a football game to be played. While feeling like a party of tens of thousands, it was that much more more enjoyable when the Mountaineers were winning. When not winning, West Virginians can get particularly grumpy. The fans have been known to hang a coach or two in effigy. And those were West Virginia coaches! One (some fellow named Bobby Bowden) went on to some success elsewhere, I’ve heard told.
Over the course of my countless visits to Mountaineer Field, probably half were just Dad and me. Of course, I didn’t have his undivided attention. There was a football game to watch. And, not-too-discreetly, he’d occasionally reach into his sports coat pocket and take a belt from a flask. Discretion wasn’t necessary, as flasks in the rowdy end zone seats were as common as losses to Penn State.
But it was an opportunity for him to teach me the basics of football, which he did. He knew it well, as he had served as a manager on the team at some point during World War II. He played high school football at St. Francis High School in Morgantown. It was there that he was injured and developed an infection that led to him having osteomyelitis – and the Last Rites. Though the infection didn’t kill him, it left his left elbow immobile at about a 45 degree angle. He was done playing football.
Staying away from Mountaineer Field, however, was unthinkable to a man who grew up in Morgantown and frequented the stadium and the campus as a child, and later, along with his older brother, attended WVU.
Dad certainly did his best to make sure I had a similar experience. That is why he loved the end zone seats. They were the cheap seats, but we could watch the play unfold and he could explain what had happened. I did love those seats, for what you didn’t see at the far end of the stadium was more than compensated for by unforgettable plays. I shall never forget watching Danny Buggs fly down the sideline, catching a 50-yard pass in stride and zoom into the end zone. Sadly though, I did not see him score the longest catch and touchdown from scrimmage in WVU history – 96 yards – against Penn State in an away game in 1973. As exciting as it was to hear Jack Fleming, “The Voice of the Mountaineers” call the play, it was also another early lesson about being a fan of the West Virginia Mountaineers. They could thrill with plays like that, but leave fans silent as the clock ran out. On the day of that record setting play, it was only one of two touchdowns the Mountaineers scored in a 62-14 loss to the undefeated Nittany Lions.
Still, while I didn’t see that play, I did see Buggs – and so many other household names throughout West Virginia – from the perch in the bowl seats. As Dad said more times than anyone could count, “Granddad (Max Mathers, whom you’ll learn more about later) always asked, ‘Have you ever seen a touchdown scored on the 50-yard line?’” As Dad pointed out, in the long haul, we’d see at least half of the action close up on our end of the field.
I suspect we did, but I don’t remember. That’s because what I do remember is more important – the essence of what going to those games accomplished. They helped establish a healthy relationship with Dad that, as the years went on and we became, oh, more contrary with one another, those experiences and interests proved to be the only thing that we sometimes could find in common.
Yet, there are still many details which form – or inform – the joyful memories I have of these Saturdays. They were always included Dad. Often, I had taken mom’s ticket. Sometimes, they would let me tag along, which itself was an adventure watching their antics with their friends. My sisters did sometimes join, but I don’t recall them being big fans. For me though, I don’t recall ever missing a chance to go.
If I close my eyes, I see and hear the marching band playing the fight songs and constantly in motion changing formations. I hear the public address announcer asking us to stand for the Alma Mater and to remain standing for the National Anthem.
And, no matter who we played that Saturday, the moment of silence that followed the completion of the Star Spangled Banner would be inevitably interrupted by scattered shouts of “Beat the hell out of Pitt!”
That’s a rivalry. Or was.
Other moments enrich the memories: The team mascot, the Mountaineer, shooting off his gun after a touchdown; sitting at home in front of the television set doing score-keeping for a Southern Conference basketball game between WVU and Davidson; Dad taking me to the bottom of the stands following a home football game and introducing me to Syracuse Head Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, a WVU football great of the 1930s, who was about 15 years older than Dad, and yet acted like no stranger.
There was the perennial unending question – Will this be the year we beat Penn State?
I can still feel my little gold transistor radio, small enough to hold in the palm of my hand, pressed against my ear, as the voice of Jack Fleming would carry me to the sights and sounds of the game.
If I wasn’t actually at a game while in Morgantown, I would sit on Foxy’s front porch, anxious about the game’s outcome. She despised football for its violence so would not allow me to listen to the game. Nevertheless, I’d wait for the first fans to come by. It generally wasn’t a good sign when they’d start walking by about 3 o’clock or so.
There were weekends when we would stay at home and dread the return of Dad and Mom after games like the one in 1970, when West Virginia held a 35-0 lead over Pitt at halftime, only to lose 36-35.
As for the legends, there were many, but the two most famous Mountaineers at the time were Jerry West, then a player with the Los Angeles Lakers; and, Jack Fleming, “The Voice of the Mountaineers.”
I met them both. Again, Dad busted a gut to make it happen. On the way to the Nathan Goff Armory in Clarksburg for an Alumni gathering featuring West and Fleming, Dad got pulled over for speeding. Dad told the truth. The policeman understood and told him to get going or we’d be late. What kid in West Virginia didn’t want to meet those two fellows?
Fleming was a contemporary of Dad’s older brother (who was killed in the Korean War). Dad introduced me to Jack Fleming; he in turn introduced me to Jerry West, who graciously provided his autograph to this speechless kid. Dad was acquainted with everyone it seemed. Between growing up in Morgantown and being a naturally-born salesman, he just didn’t meet a stranger. So I couldn’t tell if Dad was long-lost buddies with somebody or had just met them for the first time. In retrospect, such experiences are not surprising. Neighborly familiarity is what I experienced growing up in West Virginia.
A rare treat – likely because of weeknight games in the winter – was attending a WVU basketball game at the Field House on Beechhurst Ave. Bordered by a close sidewalk on one side and the Monongahela River on the other, it was cozy and crowded at the same time. It was also a great home, as the Mountaineers won more than 80 percent of their games there. Built in 1929, the team played 41 seasons there. One game in particular stands out. George Washington scored 97 points. However, WVU scored 127. In a forty minute game. I just remember walking to the car afterwards wondering if I would ever hear again!
When, for some reason, we couldn’t make a WVU game, Dad would look for other options. In 1967, he took me to the Fairmont State-Waynesburg State NAIA game played at East-West Stadium in Fairmont. As it turned out, we saw Fairmont State play again that year at Mountaineer Field, where they won the NAIA National Championship.
Sure, I’m a die-hard Mountaineer fan, so of course “Hail West Virginia” might make my eyes a bit misty. Sometimes, I even recall specific games and plays. Always, though, when I think of Mountaineer Field and Legends, I think of Dad. We’ve walked through Morgantown. As we approach the stadium, I am holding onto his jacket, staying close so as to not get lost in the crowd. The vendors beckon. He buys tickets and we walk through the gate. The drums roll. We get hot dogs. We find our seats. I’m glancing repeatedly at the clock, impatiently waiting for the show to begin. Dad notices. He smiles, but says nothing.
It was simply our life. While it was fun, I didn’t, at the time, grasp the significance of these special Saturdays. I took those afternoons sitting beside Dad and the rest of my family for granted.
I no longer do.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2021.