On nights like Thursday night, it feels like it’s the very mountains that are keeping us down. No matter how high we climb, it’s never quite high enough.
Very few people outside the state of West Virginia know that the Mountaineers are the winningest college program without a national championship. But West Virginians? We feel it acutely, like the last breath of winter slicing through the trees, like the numb feeling after a Mountaineer loss.
My father will never get to see WVU win a national championship. On a cold morning last fall, two days into hunting season and two days before Thanksgiving, his heart stopped.
Maybe it was the thousands of miles he had walked along the trout streams of the Monongahela National Forest. Maybe it was the passion with which he devoted himself to the city of Elkins and his friends, family and neighbors. Maybe it was the countless times his heart had skipped a beat worrying about the Mountaineers at the end of a close game. Maybe it was just time.
He took his last breath under the canopy of a deer blind, with the golden light of day driving away the dawn along the hillside below him. He was only 64, but it was a fitting close to the life of a Mountaineer.
I thought about my dad a lot while watching the game. How he would have jumped out of his chair – shouting “yeah!” – when we went up by three after the break. How he would have slapped his hands together and muttered “shoot” when Gonzaga went up, stretching out the “shhhhh” like a curtain drawing close.
This past year was hard. A close friend from high school succumbed to the depression that had plagued him since childhood — an occurrence, like heart disease, that is far too common in the state. A win, in some ineffable way, would have felt like a defeat over that darkness.
I understand intellectually, perhaps, how ridiculous it is to put this emotional baggage on a basketball team. But the Mountaineers aren’t just another basketball team and WVU isn’t just another school. It has roots. I went there; my father went there; his father went there. My great-uncle played basketball with Charlie Huggins, who went on to be a great coach in Ohio and father to the current WVU coach. My uncle played football with Joe Manchin, who went on to be our U.S. Senator. The school, like the state, is a part of me, just as WVU is interwoven into the fabric of the state like no other college in the country.
With so many panhandles and regional quirks, the school is a unifying force in a state stretched in so many directions. Those of us who grew up there know it’s three, four, maybe five states in one, while others don’t even know we’re a state at all (is that near Richmond?). For those of us driven away by the lack of opportunity, who long for country roads to take them home (there’s a reason every great song about the state is written through a rear view mirror), Mountaineer sports provide that momentary connection. In a state that has seen such economic distress while enduring a hundred years of condescension and belittling stereotypes, WVU’s athletic success over wealthier, more pedigreed schools is the comeuppance we so desire, even as that one big win eludes us.
Our shared love of — and continual frustration with — WVU athletics was a cornerstone of my relationship with my father, as it is with so many sons and fathers in the state. I can remember Tony Caridi’s golden voice crackling out of an old radio while we shucked beans on our back porch. I can remember calling him from the stadium to shout over the din of a crowd singing “Country Roads” arm-in-arm after Pat White and Steve Slaton stunned Louisville in a triple overtime win in 2005. And I can remember calling him on Skype while living in London to lament that horrible football loss to Pitt in 2007 — the closest we had ever come to playing in a national championship in my memory.
He was proud of WVU despite its losses, proud of the state despite understanding its flaws, proud to call himself a Mountaineer despite the destruction we inflicted on its mountains and his beloved streams. In a state blighted first by industry and then by its exit, it sometimes feels like hope and pride are too much to ask.
The Mountaineers made us proud.
Coach Huggins, one of the great coaches in the sport, prepared the team well just a short time removed from a heart-related scare of his own and WVU gave the country one of the best basketball games of the year. It was ugly and beautiful, excruciating and thrilling. Javon Carter seemed at times like a one-man offensive barrage against an entire army of blue and red. Nathan Adrian ended his career doing what he did best, diving out of bounds for a loose ball, creating something out of nothing, reminding us again that putting in the hard work and effort can pay off for a hometown boy. And Sags [Sagaba Konate] had the most beautiful block I’ve ever seen – Chris Webber sounded so excited I thought he was going to jump from out behind the announcers’ booth and sub in for Elijah Macon just to get in on the action.
And yet, despite our best efforts, the state will have to wait another year for a national championship. It will have to wait another year for a lot of things: a better economy, an end to the opioid epidemic, that maddening last section of Corridor H. But the grit, the determination, and, yes, the heart the team showed in the face of a more talented and higher ranked squad made us all a little prouder to call ourselves West Virginians.
More importantly — and this is perhaps the essence of what makes WVU matter so much to this state – the team gave us hope.
I know if my dad were alive, I would have gotten a call after the game. After recounting the highlights, he would have told me the team played a great game and the players should be proud of themselves.
And as he wished me goodnight, I would have heard him smile over the phone: “Well, there’s always next year.”
Seth Gainer (@SethGainer) is a business consultant and former staffer to Senator Jay Rockefeller. He lives in Washington, D.C. but still calls Elkins home. He hates that his new D.C. plates get him tickets driving those country roads.