On Saturday, West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team will host the Kentucky Wildcats at the Coliseum in Morgantown, West Virginia. It’s a matchup of two high-profile teams and two volatile, mediagenic head coaches, TV-made for a national ESPN audience.
But the game will mean more to West Virginia and Kentucky than just the final score.
Both West Virginia and Kentucky are small Appalachian states. Neither has a major league professional sports team. As such, the big college teams dominate each state’s sports fandom. Allegiances are passed down from generation to generation — if you live in West Virginia, you’re a WVU or Marshall fan; in Kentucky, either a Kentucky or Louisville fan. There is very little crossover. Games are the stuff of memories. I remember listening to Jack Fleming calling Mountaineer football games on the radio in the 1970s while raking leaves with my Dad.
Both WVU and Kentucky’s basketball programs have long, storied pasts that are closely tied to their state’s heritage. West Virginia is the home of Chelyan’s Jerry West, arguably the greatest player in NBA history, so great that his image is used as the NBA’s logo. Charleston’s Rodney “Hot Rod” Hundley dazzled WVU fans and was the first pick in the 1957 NBA draft. He played six years in the league and went on to another career as an NBA broadcaster.
The Kentucky Wildcats are the most successful program in NCAA history, with more wins and a higher winning percentage than any other program. The team had a four-decade run of success under legendary head coach Adolph Rupp. The state produced old-time stars, including Ralph Beard, Cliff Hagan, Jack Givens, who preceded the steady stream of out-of-state, blue-chip talent the school now attracts, such as John Wall.
In recent years, the WVU and Kentucky programs have grown closer thanks to the personal bond between the head coaches. WVU’s Bob Huggins and Kentucky head coach John Calipari are longtime friends; earlier in their careers they were both seen as coaching outlaws, willing to take chances on talented-but-sometimes-troubled players that other programs passed up. Their teams have played several times over the years; Huggins’s teams routinely beat Calipari’s.
In 2002, their paths grew closer in a coincidental and dramatic way. That year, Huggins suffered a heart attack in the Pittsburgh airport. When he regained consciousness in the ambulance, one of the EMTs told Huggins, “Coach, listen. I can’t let you die. I’m John Calipari’s cousin, and you can’t die until we beat you at least once.”
Despite their many similarities, there is a key difference between the Kentucky and WVU basketball programs: NCAA national championships. Kentucky has eight; WVU has none. WVU has zero national championships in football, as well. In fact, WVU’s football team has the dubious honor of having won more games than any other NCAA football team without having won a national championship.
And that statistic is at the heart of the bittersweet but unbreakable bond between West Virginians and their sports teams.
Both WVU’s football and basketball teams have flirted with greatness, but always fallen short, often in heartbreaking fashion. As a small state, West Virginia does not produce enough top-level high school talent to consistently stock the University teams, as in the case in Florida, Texas and California. As such, WVU’s teams have been forced to get the recruits they can, coach them to be better, snag the occasional overlooked superstar and pray for a convergence of external events to vault the teams into championship contention.
Only to see fan’s hopes crushed.
This was the case in 1959, when West led WVU’s basketball team to the national championship game — only to lose to the University of California by one point. WVU’s football team played for the 1988 national championship against Notre Dame, but star quarterback Major Harris was injured on the game’s third play, effectively ending the team’s chances. In 2007, star quarterback Pat White was set to lead WVU to play in the national championship game; only a poor 4-7 Pitt team stood in the way. For a generation of fans, “13-9” is a score of infamy. Huggins took his 2009-10 team to the Final Four, but during the semifinal game against Duke, star forward Da’Sean Butler went down with a knee injury, dooming the team.
This has been the way for WVU fans, so much so that sports writer Mike Casazza wrote a book about WVU football cleverly titled, “Waiting for the Fall.” Allowed momentary prosperity, WVU fans are always waiting for the fall.
Huggins was born in Morgantown, grew up in Ohio and played basketball at WVU. And though he spent his coaching career elsewhere before being hired by WVU in 2007, West Virginia has always been home for him. The connection between the school, the team and the residents of the state is no joke to Huggins. It is something he deeply believes in and cultivates in his players, most of whom are from out-of-state.
To teach his players about West Virginia and a driving force in Appalachia, he has taken them to visit a coal mine. Huggins brought homemade food and visited families affected by the deadly Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in Raleigh County in 2010. He made it his job to inculcate out-of-state football coach Dana Holgorsen into West Virginia, including him on a fishing trip in the southern part of the state.
On the court, Huggins has crafted a team to fit West Virginia’s identity. Despite his success at WVU, Huggins has been unable to recruit a string of Top 50 high school players like his buddy Calipari at Kentucky. Instead, he finds players willing to work hard and he makes them play a harassing full-court-press defense whose goal, the New York Times once wrote, “seems to be annihilation.”
It is not always pretty, a Huggins-coached team, but it is effective and it fits its fans. Huggins routinely tells anyone who will listen that his players play for the state’s 1.8 million residents. But he recently took the observation a bit deeper, and drew a straight line between his team and the residents of West Virginia.
“We are a microcosm of our state,” Huggins said. “We are grind-it-out, tough-it-out, be tougher than everybody else and be successful because we are tougher. We are equipped to endure more. It’s West Virginia. Everybody else plays for the school, the old alma mater. We play for an entire state.”
“Equipped to endure more.” Yep, that’s us. Huggins takes this to heart, literally. West Virginia fans gasped in horror last February during WVU’s game against Texas when Huggins, walking on-court during a time out, clutched his chest and dropped to his knees.
After a few minutes, Huggins stood and was checked by medical staff. He had been stunned by the activation of the defibrillator planted in his chest following his 2002 heart attack, shocking his heart back into a normal rhythm.
Then he went back to his stool at courtside and kept coaching. WVU won.
Frank Ahrens, a West Virginia native, is a public relations executive in Washington D.C. He was a Washington Post journalist for 18 years and is the author of “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.” Contact him at www.frankahrens.com.