In the pivotal scene of Rocky III, somewhere between Mickey's heart-wrenching death and a post-run beach hug that still makes a generation of male friends look at each other awkwardly, Rocky Balboa laid out his frustration with fallen fortunes with this easy to understand statement notable only in it's to-the-point simplicity. Things had been awesome and then, in the blink of an eye they weren't.
"How did everything that was so good get so bad?"
-- Rocky Balboa in Rocky III
What the hell happened?
With everything that's happened in the last few months, WVU fans can relate.
It's been a long precipitous plummet from the mountain we all sat atop after those heady early days in the Big 12. On October 6, the Mountaineers took down the uttered quotes like "if we're the sixth-best team in this league then it's a hell of a league" and "if we buy everybody in we can win 25 games with this group." The Mountaineers were the toast of their new conference, the toast of America and it seemed another 10 win season and NCAA Tourney berth were a matter of "when" and not "if."for the biggest program road win in 30 years. Five days later basketball practice opened and coach Bob Huggins seemed giddy (giddy for Huggs, mind you) as he
Things were awesome - WE were awesome - a two-headed juggernaut boasting a display case filled with BCS bowl and Final Four trophies and a world of possibility in a new conference before us. It was all there just waiting to be taken.
And then it wasn't.
How did everything that was so good get so bad?
Unfortunately to concentrate on the last half of that sentence is to do a real disservice to the first part. Things weren't just good. They weren't even really good. Things were great. To truly appreciate how great, let's take a quick history lesson.
As recently as 2001, "bad" in the football sense meant 3-8, the third year of a disappointing stretch that saw a combined record of 14-20. On the basketball side the Mountaineers went dancing in the NCAA Tournament only twice in fifteen years from 1990 to 2004. Prior to 2005 WVU had never won one of the major 4 bowl games and had only made the Elite 8 once (1959). WVU was a fringe power in football and a nonexistent power in basketball. Far from the norm, bowl wins and Sweet 16s were the exception.
What we have seen from the Gold and Blue on both the hardwood and gridiron in recent years has been nothing short of historic. The last eight years have seen the only three 11 win football seasons in WVU history and half of its 10 win seasons (4 of 8) all-time. The basketball team, which made only 4 Sweet 16s in its entire history prior to 2005 has made another 4 in the 8 years since. The football display case has seen the addition of Sugar, Fiesta and Orange Bowl trophies while the basketball accomplishments include a pair of Elite Eights, an NIT title and one Final Four.
Where did all this success come from? Some great coaching hires, some special players and a lot of hard work for sure, but WVU also enjoyed that extra-special something which characterizes any program on a successful run - catching some really good breaks at some really good times.
It's a reality that WVU fans probably find hard to appreciate and acknowledge given their self-identity as an establishment-fighting crew of hard luck upstarts, but since the spring of 2005 (and even before), WVU teams have been really, really, really lucky.
Disagree with me? Let's take a quick stroll down memory lane and look at some of the formative moments of both the football and basketball teams during this historic run. There are plenty to choose from, but in the interest of time I tried to narrow it down to the biggest 3 in each sport.
We Got A Call!
In what I would point to as the luckiest break in WVU football history, Big East refs inexplicably allow an illegal on-sides kick recovery by the Mountaineers to stand, giving the 'Eers the ball and keeping alive the historic upset bid that rung in the Pat White / Steve Slaton era. When the Louisville player attempting to receive the kick was tackled by a WVU player making no attempt at the ball, it was a rules violation that should have given the Cards possession. But it wasn't called, WVU's dream lived on and the rest is history. The Sugar Bowl, the Sports Illustrated covers - hard to see any of it happening without that one call. Speaking of that game....
Adam Bednarik's Shoulder
Before he was college football's greatest running quarterback, Pat White was a redshirt freshman seeing limited time behind starter Adam Bednarik. Bednarik had led WVU to a huge win at Maryland a couple weeks before and while he'd been inconsistent enough that White was seeing spot duty, was a solid starter that would have made a case for plenty of minutes. Then he banged up his shoulder, leaving the game in the third quarter. White took over and the spread option was football's next big thing.
(Seriously, that meaning of that '05 UL game can't be overstated. I swear I'm going to write a book about it one day.)
In all three final regular games WVU trailed in the fourth quarter, and all three times they won, with each comeback more improbable and dramatic than the one before. Cincinnati, Pitt or South Florida could all have derailed WVU's run to the Big East title in their final season in the conference, and all came up short. There were fortunate fumbles, big plays and game winning field goals - and they all broke WVU's way. Everybody remembers 70-33, but it never happens without 24-21, 21-20 and 30-27.
Dan Dakich's Yellow Streak
Sure WVU's athletic department would like to pat themselves on the back for the hire that saved the basketball program, but never forget that John Beilein only came on board when Dan Dakich fled the Coliseum after only 8 days on the job. In his eyes, the problems he saw facing the Mountaineers were too much for a man whose contract would pay him a mere $500K a year, so he retreated back to Bowling Green. Four years later, while Beilein had his club within a bucket of the Final Four, Dakich was finishing 8th in the MAC. Dan is still spitting venom about the WVU program a decade later, but his yellow streak might be the best thing to happen to Mountaineer basketball since Mr. West met Mrs. West.
When the 2005 regular season ended, WVU entered the Big East Tournament at 18-9 (8-8 in conference) as a bubble team on the outside looking in. What followed was a series of dramatic victories, a loss in any one of which would have sent the 'Eers packing and on a far different (and less notable) trajectory. Thrilling wins in Madison Square Garden (a venue in which WVU had consistently struggled) against Boston College and Villanova, Tyrone Sally's last second dunk against Creighton, the double-overtime comeback against Wake Forest - all were key in the run that put WVU basketball back on the map and made it a place Bob Huggins was willing to come back to (remember he turned down the job in 2002). Without that first big run, who knows how things would have gone for the next few years.
Five years later Lady Luck was rocking the gold and blue once again as the 'Eers captured the Big East Tournament championship with three wins by a combined seven points, two of them coming via Da'Sean Butler circus shots. This set the stage for a 2 seed and easy road to the Elite Eight, where WVU met the #1 seeded Kentucky Wildcats and used experience and a white-hot touch from 3 (they famously hit 8 3s and not a single two point basket in the first half) to win the region. If Da'Sean's buzzer-beater bank against Cincinnati doesn't fall, or if they don't take UK completely out of their game with timely shooting there's no telling how that amazing season is remembered.
Those breaks were often the difference between a good season no different than so many we'd seen for the last two decades and an amazing season that we still celebrate with posters on the wall and will tell our kids about. While we'd all like to believe that sports is a pure meritocracy where the best team always wins, you have to be a special type of naive to not acknowledge that it's sometimes better to be lucky than good and when you're both great things happen.
WVU didn't get all the breaks from 2005 through 2012, but they certainly got some big ones at critical times. That's not the type of thing you can count on every year, and when a couple of those go against you, a game can be lost in overtime, or by a score of 49-50, or on a last-second tip-in. The irony is, while the line between a win and a loss is razor thin, the difference in future outcomes resulting from that win or loss at the right time can be massive. WVU spent the last several years on the right side of that line, but it's not a place you can always expect to be. Just like we'll never know what happens to WVU if they lose that fateful game against the Cards in 2005, we'll similarly never know what positive effect a win against TCU or Oklahoma could have had on the football team in 2012.
So while you're spending the off-season replaying gut-wrenching losses and disappointing efforts in your mind, try to remember how fortunate WVU and its fans were to be getting the breaks when they did. Those wins and losses over the last several years set the stage for the transition to the Big 12, which will keep the athletics program on solid footing for years to come. Ask Cincinnati or UConn fans what it's like to be on the outside of that storefront window looking in with your nose pressed against the glass.
Obviously we all hope that this year was a temporary blip and that the football and basketball teams will return to their winning ways, but if nothing else this time of frustration should be taken as a lesson to soak up every ounce of joy from each win. Fate is a fickle mistress and who knows when she'll find a new dance partner.
It's the thing we love and hate most about college sports. With the fast turnaround of players and unpredictable nature of emotion, fortunes can change in an instant. You never know when there's a Steve Slaton lurking on your bench or an Elite Eight run in the offing. And it's because of that you can never lose hope or ever give up, even in the wake of demoralizing bowl blowouts and March no-shows.
Fate can change in a moment and you never know when that moment will be. So don't turn your head or look away - you just might miss it.