There was once a time when Kentucky’s Bear Bryant and Tennessee’s General Neyland used to come into West Virginia and frequently steal its best football players.
That changed when Art Lewis and Gene Corum arrived at West Virginia University in 1950. Corum coached 10 seasons with Lewis and then led the Mountaineer program for six more as head football coach from 1960-65.
Last Saturday, Corum, 88, died in an assisted living facility in Frederick, Md.
Corum was a native son, playing for John Brickels at Huntington High School before coming to WVU as a 178-pound guard, playing before and after World War II for the Mountaineers. With the exception of two years coaching at nearby Point Marion (Pa.) High School, Corum’s entire career was spent at West Virginia University.
“Coach Corum was an outstanding assistant coach, an outstanding head coach and he was always a great ambassador of our state,” said West Virginia University Director of Athletics Ed Pastilong, a quarterback for Corum from 1963-65.
Pastilong’s allegiances were always with West Virginia University, but there was a time when Notre Dame and Tennessee were trying to obscure them – that is until Corum came over to Moundsville to set him straight.
“He came into my house and sat in our little living room and encouraged me to go to West Virginia,” said Pastilong. “He was such a sincere man. There was nothing artificial about him.”
Corum presided over the biggest cultural change in the history of the athletic department when he integrated Mountaineer football in 1962 with the signing of Dick Leftridge and Roger Alford.
Actually, Corum wanted to integrate the football program much earlier but he couldn’t because African-American football players at the time were reluctant to come to West Virginia. When Corum was certain Leftridge and Alford were coming, he told his sports information director Eddie Barrett to begin informing the press.
“We let people know it was coming that we were actively recruiting black athletes at the time,” Barrett said. “It was much anticipated, particularly in the case of Leftridge, because he was such a good football player.”
Integration went off without a hitch.
“He did it in such a manner that no one even noticed it,” said Pastilong. “Plus, he picked two excellent players to do it.”
Corum led the Mountaineers to the 1964 Liberty Bowl, but his best football team was the ‘62 squad that went 8-2, losing to only Oregon State and Penn State on the road. That team had a great senior class led by Tom Woodeshick, Ken Herock and Gene Heeter.
“That was a very good football team,” recalled Pastilong. “That was my sophomore year and I was supposed to play but I hurt my shoulder two weeks before the season.”
Corum’s ‘62 team posted four shutouts, beat Pitt 15-8, and was the first West Virginia squad to ever win at Syracuse.
Woodeshick, who later starred for the Philadelphia Eagles, remembered Corum giving one of his most stirring speeches at halftime of the Syracuse game. Woodeshick said Corum walked into the locker room with a look of concern on his face and in a hushed tone asked his players to gather around him.
“He said, ‘Fellas I hate to tell you this but somebody broke into the dressing room and stole all of your wallets. All of your valuables are gone!’” laughed Woodeshick. “We left that locker room ready to kill them!”
Another time, Corum was tipped off that the Pitt student newspaper had direct quotes of Panther players stating that West Virginia was rebuilding its football program with Western Pa “garbage.”
Corum got copies of the article and he patiently waited until Friday afternoon before informing his players what their biggest rival really thought of them. He didn’t want his players getting fired up too soon.
“He read it verbatim,” said Woodeshick. “Oh God did we take it to them that day.”
“He knew when to push buttons and when not to push buttons,” added Pastilong.
Not all of Corum’s years were good ones. In 1960 when he took over for Lewis, Corum was forced to play all sophomores and that led to the only winless campaign in school history. Ties against Boston University and Richmond kept the year from being an utter catastrophe.
Corum managed to keep his good humor, though, once describing in 1962 the difficulties he encountered that first season.
“A fellow called me from Clarksburg one Friday night and asked me what time our game started the next day,” Corum joked. “I don’t know. What time can you get here?”
Corum’s 1963 team entered the season with great expectations only to lose the opener to ninth-ranked Navy 51-7. A couple of weeks later the Mountaineers lost 35-0 to Oregon. Close losses to Pitt, Syracuse and Penn State led to a third losing season.
“We had a very tough schedule that year,” said Pastilong.
In 1964, West Virginia rebounded to win seven regular season games, including four in a row to end the season when Corum switched Allen McCune from safety to quarterback. McCune led the Mountaineers to one of the great victories in school history when they defeated ninth-ranked Syracuse, 28-27, in Morgantown.
After the game, West Virginia was invited to play Utah in the Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City, N.J.
Corum’s final year in 1965 saw West Virginia record an unforgettable 63-48 victory over Pitt in Morgantown. At the time it was the highest scoring football game in NCAA history. Corum couldn’t believe what he was watching as both teams ran up and down the field.
“I can still see Gene on the sideline saying, ‘John, damn it, did you see that? What in the hell is going on out there? I just don’t know what the hell is going on out there?” defensive back John Mallory chuckled. “And Gene wasn’t one to use cuss words.”
Possessing a West Virginian’s eye for irony, Corum labeled Bill Sullivan’s sliding tackle to stop Pitt’s two-point conversion try as the play of the game. At the time the Mountaineers were leading 49-48. Corum dryly pointed out afterward that it was one of the few tackles made by either team that afternoon.
While Corum was a tough and demanding coach on the field, he was a gentle and caring person off it. He long carried the nickname “Gentleman Gene”. Corum was also a devoted family man and key member of the Morgantown community, once serving two terms on city council when he was assistant football coach. Gene and his wife Lucille were married for 62 years, raising two daughters, Wilma Jean and Mary Katherine.
“Watching the two of them together made quite an impression on me,” said Pastilong. “Lucille was such an outstanding lady and they were such an outstanding couple.”
After his coaching career, Corum remained at West Virginia University as a distinguished instructor in the School of Physical Education. He held positions of professor, assistant dean, acting dean, acting athletic director and later Associate Dean Emeritus.
“It was an honor to play for him and it was an honor to work for him,” said Pastilong. “I learned the value of the team approach from Coach Corum. You can accomplish a lot more as a team than you ever can as an individual. We is much bigger than I.”
By John Antonik