Justin K. Aller
Take a trip down WVU memory lane to a time before big stadiums, interstates and the Flying WV
A couple weeks ago I introduced everyone to the Hyundai Fanthropology contest where the folks at Hyundai look to find the most rabid fan out there and reward them with a trip for two including tickets, airfare and hotel to a game of their choosing this season. Knowing you West By Godders as I do, I figured we'd get some good stuff. What I didn't expect was a WVU fan with such an intimate and long-lasting relationship with the program that we all love.
Meet our Smoking Musket Finalist Jamie Smith, lifelong Mountaineer fan and son of the late Charleston Daily Mail Sports Editor Bill Smith who served in that capacity from 1964 through the mid 1990s. Jamie had an up-close and personal relationship with his Mountaineers and remembers a time before 60,000 seat stadiums, national TV games and even quick interstate trips. Even better he's a very capable writer and made my job here pretty easy. I asked him a couple questions in the emails and he took it from there with tales of pepperoni rolls, all-day trips and the birth of the Flying WV. With that said I'll turn it over to him:
I always thought my father had the perfect life. He got paid to watch sports, and then write about the games he watched. It's every sports fan's dream. Because my father covered sports was enough reason for me to root, and I rooted for whatever he covered.
I saw all the West Virginia Conference basketball tournament games. I met all the Charleston Charlies before they even played their first game. My father covered the games and was the official scorer. I got to meet all the players and coaches. When the Big Red Machine came to town, I was there. When Wilt Chamberlain broke George Mikan's all-time NBA scoring record in the Charleston Civic Center (on a FT, oddly enough) in 1966, I was there. If there was any major sporting event in West Virginia when I was a kid - my father covered it - and I was there taking it all in.
As for my interest in WVU sports, it was when WVU hired Jim Carlen that my rooting interest was sealed. Former Daily Mail Sports Editor Dick Hudson turned the Mountaineer beat over to my father after the 1964 season, and he took me to meet the coaches and players before the season started. That got me hooked, and my father's stories were the line that kept me anchored. But it wasn't until Carlen's offensive coordinator, Bobby Bowden, took over in Morgantown that he started to take the whole family up to the games.
Before the Interstates were built, a trip from Charleston to Morgantown was an all day trip. For the Smith family, that meant all day for 2 adults and 4 children in a Volkswagon Bug. We got a lot of very strange looks as our VW passed people on the road, but it was worth it. We found out about pepperoni rolls long before they became a WVU tradition. I've been hooked on them since. In my mind, WVU football and pepperoni rolls will always go together. After all, it's the sights, sounds, and smells that are the keys to memory, and my memory is full of happy times discussing WVU sports with my father over a bag of pepperoni rolls.
I could go on to name numerous events that stick out at one time or another in WVU sports history, both good and bad. But for me it was always good, because I got to discuss it with my father. He was a fan, since everyone he wrote about was a friend. You just couldn't help it. But he wasn't a fan wearing blue and gold blinders. He told it like it was, even when it wasn't pretty, and unfortunately that was the case more often than not. This season is a perfect example, and right now we need my father to tell it like it is.
He had a way of cutting through all the BS, and getting right to the heart of the matter. We were a lot alike, he and I, which is probably why we had so many arguments as I was growing up. We were too much alike. But it's also why we became so close. I was glad to see him start to write again before he passed away. He was a story teller - the best I know.
But the telling thing about him was that all his best stories were about the players, and their lives outside of sports. He called them "human interest stories", and you could tell he was interested in the humans he portrayed. It was a big part of why he was so good at such stories, because his interest was obvious. It was that human touch that made his column so well read, whether you agreed with him or not. My father even closed his daily column, "All Bases", with "later" - my way of saying goodbye. I always say it isn't a "goodbye", it's more like "see you later", since I always came back eventually. He felt the same way with his readers. He wasn't saying "goodbye", it was "see you later - in the next column."
I hope to see him again someday - later.
That's fascinating, especially the trips to Morgantown for games. I know a lot of folks (including myself) made that same trip, but interstates certainly created a different experience. As did minivans. Also love the pepperoni rolls. The story has always been that they were developed for guys going into the mines, but you wonder if it was maybe WVU road trips that spread them all over.
One thing I'm curious about would be your recollections of Old Mountaineer Field. I always love talking to WVU fans who've been around - especially pre-1980. They have a better and wider perspective. I'd be curious as to your memories of the transition: a new coach, new stadium, new look with the flying WV all in the same year. What differences did you notice when Don Nehlen took over? What did your dad think about the new young guy from Michigan?
Did you ever consider following in your father's footsteps and pursuing writing? You clearly know how to put words together.
We discovered pepperoni rolls thanks to our neighbor who worked for Columbia Gas. He knew somebody, who knew somebody, who said he should get 'em. So he did, and he liked 'em. He then told us about it, and we liked 'em. We'd buy 'em still warm, and a couple of bags would disappear before we hit the Monongalia County line. I make my own now. It's actually pretty easy.
We never had any problems at the old stadium that I knew of. My father's assigned parking spot was just below the old main campus, on the back side of the old stadium, where you could walk to the press box elevator. There was a narrow road that went straight up off the road to the parking area. But the thing I remember most about the old stadium was how the sound echoed. The old stadium sounded louder than the new stadium has ever sounded. If the university ever decides to build a new stadium, they should think about relocating it to the head of some narrow valley, so they can get a good echo effect.
The students used to flow from bar to bar down Sunnyside, and into the stadium on either side of the old one way bridge behind the stadium. I remember when Don Nehlen came to WVU. I've still got the gold and blue golf bag they gave my father at the WVU Classic that introduced Nehlen to the WVU Alumni Association.
My father said Nehlen's first great move for WVU was to tell the folks at WVU to get rid of the ungodly glob on the helmet, and change it to something distinctive. There are a lot of stories about the design of the Flying WV logo. The story I was told was that a sports marketing fellow in Kansas City, distantly related to Nehlen by marriage (I think - the memory isn't what it used to be due to numerous knocks on the noggin), knocked out that design in about 15 minutes. He then gave it to Nehlen - free of charge - who did the same by turning the rights to the logo over to WVU.
My father liked Nehlen, which is why Nehlen chose my father to write his autobiography, "I'm Nobody Special," published in 1984, updated and republished as "Perfect" after the 1988 season. Nehlen did a lot of good at WVU, and paved the way for all the success to come afterward. Nehlen put WVU on the national stage. But the foundation for Nehlen's success was laid down by Frank Cignetti, Sr., who held the head coach's job between Bowden and Nehlen. It was Cignetti that recruited the players that would fuel Nehlen's big early upsets, and Cignetti was instrumental in raising the funding that led to Milan Puskar Stadium being constructed. Without Cignetti's contribution, WVU would have been on the outside looking in for some time now.
I thought about following in his footsteps more than once. I was even the assistant editor of the Yellow Jacket, WV State's newspaper, as a freshman. I was supposed to return to school as sophomore and take over as editor. But I wasn't ready to go to school at that time, and preferred construction. So I never followed through on following his path. I sometimes wish I had. My father had the perfect life for someone who enjoys sports.
Thanks to Jamie for his time to share his stories with me and provide an intimate and unique look at the history of WVU. GOOD LUCK TO HIM!
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