In 1959, Tom Sloane remembers sitting in his bedroom gripping his radio as hard as he could.
Leo “Jack” Fleming was doing the play-by-play.
“I can remember feeling unbelievably proud then, and there is no other feeling like it,” says Sloane, who is currently serving as senior associate dean of students at West Virginia University. A native of Morgantown, Sloane has worked at WVU for more than 35 years. He was in ninth grade at Morgantown Junior High the last time the Mountaineers made it to the Final Four.
Today – 51 years later – WVU is again one of the Final Four. But the Mountaineers have become more than stars. They are central to the national and international conversation. Everyone is talking about the team, the school and the state. Even the president of the United States is picking the Mountaineers.
In countries like Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain and Dubai, WVU alumni are donning the gold and blue and gathering around the computer or TV to cheer on their team.
Where at the beginning of the season the Mountaineers were seen as the “David,” the underdog, they are now being referred to as the “Goliath” by media outlets like ESPN, The Indianapolis Star, The Charleston Gazette and the New York Post.
WVU has turned the corner. The Mountaineers are a top dog. But, the truth is – they have been for a long time.
WVU ranks nationally for prestigious scholarships. The University boasts 25 Rhodes Scholars, 21 Truman Scholars and 33 Goldwater Scholars and they keep coming. Just this week, the University announced junior Jared Crawford as its 21st Truman Scholar and junior Scott Kevin Cushing as its 33rd Goldwater Scholar.
The FBI named WVU its national leader for biometric research. The Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute at WVU is the only research institute in the world dedicated to the study of human memory. And, annually the University’s faculty generate more than $141 million in sponsored contracts and research grants.
People can add a little swagger into their steps as they recognize the state and University for its success, not only in athletics but in its size, scope and overall.
“This has brought out that hope in the future,” Sloane said.
The Mountaineers are West Virginia’s team; as The Charleston Gazette said, they are to West Virginians “what the Steelers are to Pittsburgh.” They are a symbol of success; they carry the hopes and dreams of the state.
The Mountaineers exemplify West Virginia; they are persistent, talented and hard working.
WVU has been pulled into a national dialogue. As one blogger wrote, “it means that our state is receiving headlines because the team is demonstrating that – you can be excellent in a place like Morgantown, a place like West Virginia, surrounded by some of the most caring, generous people on earth.”
And, the pride does not stop in West Virginia.
It has traveled across state lines and national boundaries.
WVU Dental School graduate Dr. Ali Ashkanane will rise at 4 a.m. in Kuwait to watch “this historic moment in WVU history.”
While only one player is from West Virginia, Coach Bob Huggins has instilled a love of the state and a home in every Mountaineer player.
That is why senior guard Da’Sean Butler, of Newark, N.J., told the media after winning the Big East Tournament that the team “wanted to win this for our state first because the people there love us so much and support us so much – I definitely know it means the world to them.”
“You don’t have to live here to be a Mountaineer. It goes beyond. It is this Mountaineer feeling,” Sloane says.
University President James P. Clements recognizes that passion too.
“The national attention of the NCAA Final Four appearance has been unbelievable in terms of building relationships with our alumni and fans and increasing the visibility and image of our University,” Clements said.
“Being a part of the national athletics stage shines a spotlight on the University’s achievements across the board.”
Saturday night, Sloane – and the rest of West Virginia – will be gripping their remotes tight.
With each basket, points will be scored for Mountaineers in the state, country and across the world.
By Colleen DeHart
News and Information Services
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