Thirty years ago today, November 10, 1979, West Virginia University played its final football game at old Mountaineer Field. For the nostalgic, Mountaineer Field was quaint and inviting. To the practical, its better days were far behind it.
“We used to call it the snake pit,” laughed linebacker Darryl Talley. “The fans could reach right out and touch you on the head.”
Former coach Bobby Bowden enjoyed coaching there when his teams were winning.
And when they weren’t?
“You could hear everything they were callin’ you,” Bowden once said.
In 1975 following Bowden’s Peach Bowl victory over NC State, then-athletic director Leland Byrd got an alarming report from the school’s physical plant: the stadium was falling apart. There were only two options – renovate the stadium at a substantial cost or build a new one at another location.
Eventually it was determined that the most practical solution was to build a new stadium on the site of the old nine-hole Morgantown Country Club out in Evansdale near the medical center. That meant the remaining years of old Mountaineer Field’s existence were spent in disrepair.
The wood on the bleachers was rotted and splintered. Trash, broken bottles and garbage were strewn about. The white paint on the stadium was faded and chipped. Chunks of concrete could be seen on the ground.
The administration thought it necessary to separate the rowdy students from the regular paying customers so a fence was erected that was high enough to keep the crazies away from the normals.
The Astro-turf surface installed in 1969 was in critical condition. By 1979, the T, V and I in West Virginia painted in the end zone in the bowl end of the stadium were barely visible. More ominously, the turf was becoming a hazard to the players.
“The Astro-turf stuck going in one direction and it slid like hell going in the other direction and they weren’t going to replace it because they were building the new stadium,” recalled linebacker Mike Dawson. “It was terrible and hard – oh my God.”
Talley said the wall separating the fans from the action was so close that the players could actually have conversations with the fans while the game was going on.
“You could sit there and talk to somebody about your math class,” Talley said. “You could talk to them and not get in trouble because the coaches were up in front and were farther away from you than the fans were.”
“As a quarterback you couldn’t warm up on the sidelines,” explained Oliver Luck. “You couldn’t throw behind the bench because there was literally no room. The students could reach out and knock down the ball.”
Players were often told to get down on one knee to watch the game because the fans in the first three rows could not see the action.
“You’d hear this guy yell, ‘Hey 65, sit down! We can’t see!’” said Dave Oblak. “Those first three rows were so low to the ground and they couldn’t see over the players.”
Inside the stadium it was far worse.
“There were all of these cubby holes,” said Luck. “It was all tucked back in there. You would take three steps and take a left, and another three steps and you took a right. I think there was a dirt floor in the weight room at one time.”
Current WVU assistant coach Dave Johnson, a freshman tight end in 1979, recalled the makeshift team meeting room the tight ends and tackles had to use. It was right underneath the bleachers.
“You could see the framework of the old stadium and there was dirt on the floor,” said Johnson. “They just pulled an extension cord out there so they could plug a film projector in.”
The team meeting room was so small that Frank Cignetti, who replaced Bowden in 1976, could barely get his players all in there at one time. If he wanted to talk to the entire squad, it was far easier to assemble them in the locker room.
Talley remembers working out in the dark, dingy weight room at the bowl end of the stadium underneath the iron bridge where the students walked to class.
“Could you imagine being in a cave?” asked Talley. “The weight room was literally a cave underneath the bridge and you walked in there and it was like a dungeon. You could see the kids walking to school right above you. It was like something you would see out of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“There was a little peak hole that you could see out of,” added Oblak. “Nobody knew we were down there but we knew they were out there and we could see them going to class.”
There were times when concrete would fall from the ceiling when the players slammed down their weights after performing an exercise. The one constant sound, regardless of where you were inside the stadium, was the constant drip, drip, drip of water.
“It was like you were in an alley in New York City at night time,” recalled Oblak.
Talley and many of the defensive players actually rallied around their Spartan conditions. He remembered getting a good laugh watching Penn State linemen Matt Millen and Bruce Clark walking off the team bus and looking at the stadium for the first time.
“They were wearing their gray pants and blue blazers,” said Talley. “They fit so tightly it looked like they had them sprayed on.
“The group of guys that I played with was not really that materialistic,” said Talley.
Luck and his offensive teammates weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about their modest surroundings.
“The only advantage to old Mountaineer Field was that the football players could park their cars there for classes,” laughed Luck.
Well, at least some of the players.
“That wasn’t the case for me,” mentioned Johnson. “Let me tell you, Oliver had a much better parking spot than the rest of us!”
Luck recalled getting a lightning-quick tour of the stadium on his recruiting visit in 1977. His teammates said that happened a lot in the late 1970s.
“I’m in the passenger seat of (assistant coach) Gary Stevens’ car and he drives down Beechurst and floors the gas pedal when we drive past old Mountaineer Field,” Luck said. “He says, ‘Yeah that’s where the old field is but let’s drive out to the new venue.’
“Well, he takes me right out to the golf course and there is nothing there!” Luck said. “They had this big poster they put up on an easel and he said, ‘Just visualize what this will look like.’ We spent 40 minutes out at the golf course and they wouldn’t even take you to Mountaineer Field.”
For a variety of reasons, the WVU football program was struggling mightily in the late 1970s. The Mountaineers had three straight losing seasons in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and was headed toward a fourth after an 0-3 start to the ‘79 campaign.
Then the schedule lightened up and West Virginia won five of its next six games, including tough wins against Kentucky, Boston College and Virginia Tech.
The Virginia Tech victory was particularly nerve-racking. In a span of 51 seconds, West Virginia had turned a 6-3 lead into a 23-6 deficit. Three consecutive fumbles gave the Hokies 18 straight points. Then, the Mountaineers scored 31 unanswered points in the second half to pull out a rollercoaster-like 34-23 victory.
The Virginia Tech win gave West Virginia a 5-4 record with games remaining against 12th-ranked Pitt and Arizona State. Before the season, new athletic director Dick Martin was on record as saying that Cignetti needed to have a winning record to get his contract renewed. Some players such as Dawson understood that Cignetti was in trouble, while others were not nearly as aware of Cignetti’s situation.
“Players know when a coach is struggling and fans are upset and all of that, but the only information we had back then was reading the Morgantown paper,” Luck said. “There was no Internet, Rivals and all of that nonsense. We kind of lived in our own world. We were going to class and going to school and doing the best that we could on the field.”
Talley can recall absorbing some beatings as a 200-pound freshman defensive end before his personal epiphany came during a 31-6 loss at Penn State. He remembered getting hit so hard by fullback Matt Suhey on a sweep that he was chasing the ball carrier down the field without his helmet.
“I remember going back to the huddle and looking at (linebacker) Dennis Fowlkes and he said, ‘We ain’t ever letting anyone beat us up like that again,’” said Talley.
“There were a lot of guys forced into playing that weren’t ready to play,” added Dawson.
By the time of the Pitt game, Cignetti had made the choice to play younger players – even if that meant it was going to benefit the next coach. Only two seniors were in the starting lineup for the Mountaineers against the Panthers: offensive guard Jim Himic and free safety Jerry Holmes.
True freshman tight end Mark Raugh was forced to step in for Rich Duggan, who was out for the year with a broken cheek bone. There were four sophomores in the starting lineup on offense, including Luck and split end Darrell “Coast to Coast” Miller. And the defense was even younger. Four freshmen were starting, including 204-pound nose guard Dave Oblak.
“I’m in high school and I’m looking at all of the magazines and I’m seeing names and pictures of guys I had grown up watching and then two months later, I’m in the action right there with them,” said Oblak. “I’m there. I’m playing against guys with mustaches and full beards.”
“Dave Oblak comes in as a true freshman and he’s starting at nose guard. Calvin Turner started out at linebacker and they moved him down (to defensive line),” said Dawson. “On my side was a first-year tackle, a true freshman nose guard; Darryl Talley was playing defensive end in his second year and I’m a second-year player – and we’re going up against Pitt!”
The Panthers in 1979 were a year away from having one of the best teams in college football (some say the 1980 Pitt squad with one loss was one of the most talented teams in college football history). The offense featured two future All-Pros up front in Russ Grimm and Mark May. Benjie Pryor was an outstanding tight end, and the backfield had two quality playmakers in Rooster Jones and Randy McMillian.
At quarterback making his second career start was freshman Dan Marino.
“You watched Marino all of the time on the Pittsburgh news and you wondered just how good he was,” said Dawson, who grew up in New Martinsville about two hours South of the city. “Well, I’m on the hash and my job when the ball is on the hash (in passing situations) was to back straight up and when he set his feet I was supposed to set my feet.
“This guy goes back and he’s holding the ball down around his waist like Joe Namath and I swear, he threw this ball from out of his hip pocket and you could hear the laces – even with the crowd,” Dawson said. “I get one step and put my hand out and the guy caught it about two yards in front of me. The ball was a laser beam. I knew he was the real deal after that.”
But Marino was bothered by the boisterous crowd, fumbling twice and throwing an interception.
“He used to hate the crowd at West Virginia because they used to always get on him,” said Talley. “He called us ‘the hoopies.’ But we had some fun, though.”
As good as Pitt’s offense was, the Panther defense was even better. Pitt had the best pair of defensive ends in the country in Hugh Green and Rickey Jackson. Both came from the Deep South – Green from Natchez, Miss., and Jackson from Pahokee, Fla.
“Those guys recruited size and speed and they figured they could teach you how to play,” said Talley.
Thirty years later, Dave Johnson can still remember with fine detail his introduction to major college football against Pitt in 1979. Johnson was one of two gunners on the punt team and it was his job to chase down the ball carrier once the football was in the air.
Johnson was running down the field as fast as he could, angling toward the sideline where the football was headed when all of the sudden he got blindsided.
“It just felt like I had gotten hit by a truck,” laughed Johnson. “It was right around the hash and the old turf was worn out and wet. I got hit so hard that I slid right through Pitt’s bench and hit the wall where the fans were. I can remember sliding across the turf thinking, ‘What just hit me?’”
When Johnson turned around he saw a yellow flag on the turf. And standing next to the flag looking like a cat that ate the canary was Hugh Green.
Luck also got nailed by Green.
“I don’t know what point of the game it was but I had to scramble around and I’m looking downfield like a quarterback should,” Luck said. “I completely missed Hugh Green and he puts his helmet right into my sternum. He flattened me out to the point where my mother thought I was dead.”
Pitt may have been a prohibitive favorite against West Virginia but the Mountaineers had one distinct advantage – some of the most passionate fans in college football. More than 3,000 beyond old Mountaineer Field’s 35,000-seat capacity showed up for the final game there. The fans standing on the sideline and in the end zone were at least eight deep in some places. Mark May has often joked that he never dared walk out onto Mountaineer Field without his helmet on.
Dawson recalled watching the WVU students welcoming the Syracuse players with some frozen oranges during his freshman year in ‘78.
“It’s freezing cold and those oranges were like missiles,” Dawson said. “When the team came out of the tunnel those students just pelted them. It was like deer season.”
Years later when he was in the pros, Talley remembered having conversations with opposing players complaining about some of their harrowing experiences at the old stadium.
“Some of the guys from Temple would ask me, ‘What is wrong with your fans?’ I’d say, ‘Well, they’re just here to protect us,’” Talley chuckled.
Jackie Sherrill (whose 17-6-1 record heading into his third season at Pitt was surprisingly similar to Bill Stewart’s current 17-6 record at WVU) actually enjoyed walking into the lion’s den. University of Pittsburgh sports historian Sam Scuillo was a Pitt student traveling with the team back then, “I remember Jackie Sherrill walking around the Holiday Inn parking lot wearing a little button with a derogatory remark about Pitt that was being distributed around Morgantown,” said Scuillo. “He really enjoyed those types of things.”
Before the game Scuillo was in the Pitt radio booth and he noticed in the adjacent booth Sandy Yakim, Jack Fleming’s daughter, sobbing uncontrollably when the Pride of West Virginia was doing its pre-game show.
Former WVU assistant coach Joel Hicks also had a difficult time controlling his emotions. Cignetti asked Hicks to say a few words to the team before the game and he was so worked up that he couldn’t speak.
“He started shaking and that was it,” said Dawson. “He just turned around and left. He was so fired up.”
But the most poignant moment for Dawson came at the conclusion of the pre-game prayer just before the ‘Amen’ when linebacker John Garcia jumped up and yelled, “Let’s get ‘em!”
The whole team jumped up and followed him out of the locker room.
Pitt was by far the superior team, but through sheer willpower and determination, West Virginia somehow managed to stay in the game. After trailing 10-0 at the half and then falling behind 17-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, West Virginia rallied.
The Mountaineers drove 80 yards in 13 plays to make the score 17-10, and after a third Pitt touchdown, West Virginia answered with another 13-play scoring drive that covered 60 yards.
Luck’s 1-yard TD run with 4:07 remaining kept the Mountaineers in the game. Pitt had a chance to run out the clock deep in West Virginia territory, but Talley forced Freddy Jacobs to fumble at the 20 where Calvin Turner recovered it.
Luck tried two passes, both incomplete, and then was thrown for a four-yard loss. On fourth down, Jeff Pelusi made an interception, but fumbled the ball right back to West Virginia.
Another desperation Luck pass was intercepted by Jo Jo Heath – his second and the team’s fifth, allowing Marino to take a knee to end the game.
Twenty four to 17 was the final score. It was a much closer game than anyone ever expected (Pitt won the two prior games against West Virginia by a combined score of 96-10).
“When you think about it, Pitt had that great graduating class the following year,” Talley pointed out.
For Luck, the new stadium was the key to putting the West Virginia program on a more equal footing with Pitt and Penn State.
“From my class and the class behind that with Robert Alexander and Fulton Walker, I think the new stadium was crucial to the recruiting process,” Luck said. “If the new stadium hadn’t been on the drawing board I doubt West Virginia would have gotten the classes that graduated in ‘81 and ‘82.
“To me, if the university was really going to develop a top-notch football program year-in and year-out, a massive upgrading to the facilities needed to take place,” added Luck. “It was fun to play in old Mountaineer Field and I’ve got some fond memories of my first college game, it was quaint and very intimate, but it was not conducive to developing the program.”
“I think Mountaineer Field is a great place to play and I loved it, but there was something about that old stadium,” Dawson added. “Everybody was right on top of you.”
Talley said old Mountaineer Field was an intimidating place for opposing teams to play in.
“Once we got you on that field you were surrounded, you couldn’t go anywhere,” Talley said. “It was like being thrown into a snake pit and you couldn’t get out. Our crazy fans were running around yelling at you. We had some rowdy fans, I will admit that, but they were good to us.”
For 55 years from 1924-79, old Mountaineer Field was also good to West Virginia University football.