The Night My Fandom Died
On December 1, 2007, West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh played a football game. It’s nearly impossible to overstate just how much WVU was supposed to win this game. West Virginia was playing at home, at night, against a team that was 4-7 and had lost in embarrassing fashion to teams like Virginia and the University of Connecticut. WVU was 10-1, ranked #2 in the country, and had just blown out that same UCONN team 66-21 the week before. WVU had Pat White, Steve Slaton, and Owen Schmidt. Pittsburgh was coached by a mustache with headphones. Signed, sealed, and delivered, West Virginia was going to the national championship game.
It’s hard to describe to a non-West Virginian what being a WVU fan is like. Growing up in West Virginia can sometimes be a bummer. Whether it’s the pervasive “you’re from West Virginia? My cousin lives in Richmond” comments or the clichéd redneck jokes, West Virginians learn to take a lot of crap. The football team gives us something to rally around, be proud of, and use as an outlet for some of the bitterness that builds up over time. WVU football becomes a part of our identity. Maybe you don’t know that Richmond is in a different state, but I bet you’ve heard of our football team. The mountaineer isn’t just our football team’s mascot; it’s our nickname for us. Football games aren’t just football games; they’re a fight for respect.
In 2007, this was taken even further. “I bet you’ve heard of our football team” became “our football team will kick your football team’s ass.” We were no longer just another football program hoping to play in a bowl game; we were a team that had just blitzed Georgia in the Sugar Bowl the previous season. We were no longer a fan base craving some kind of national attention and respect; we were on the cover of Sports Illustrated and about to go to the national championship. Respect us now.
West Virginia lost to Pittsburgh that night 13-9. Rich Rodriguez gave a press conference that night following the game in which he was obviously and understandably crushed. Rich Rodriguez is a native West Virginian. I have no doubt that he understood what this game meant not only to himself, his career, the school, but West Virginians everywhere. Rodriguez was somehow able to hold back tears. I wasn’t.
I’d been disappointed in WVU many times in the past. WVU fans are conditioned to wait for the other shoe to drop, but not this time. This time there wasn’t supposed to be a shoe, and then it dropped. I was devastated. I didn’t just feel that my favorite football team or alma mater had lost a football game, I felt like we had lost a football game. This was West Virginia’s chance at real respect. Now what? A sporting event had made me cry.
As I began to slowly recover (thanks in large part to this), I realized that I’d always be a WVU fan, but never to that extreme. It’s one of many things that define West Virginia, but it’s not the only thing. West Virginia football is something to be proud of, but winning football games won’t really change the national perception of the state or its people. It was up to the state and its people to work to change that perception. It’s taken me a long time to accept my own role in that, but I’m trying.
The loss to Pitt was a turning point for the football program, and not necessarily in a good way. Rich Rodriguez announced he was leaving for Michigan 16 days later. WVU has had two BCS victories (and coaches) since, but has not sniffed another title game. The team did reach #5 in the country last year, but ultimately ended the season 7-6. This year’s team looks even worse, but that’s ok. WVU football is going to have good seasons and it’s going to have bad seasons. We may have another shot at a national championship, but the odds say we won’t. That’s ok too. I’ll always love WVU football. I’m still happier when the team is winning, but I’m no longer devastated when we lose. After all, it’s just a football game.
Let’s go mountaineers!