Compared to many Mountaineer fans, I have had a relatively short history with the flagship program of West Virginia.
Starting as a freshman in 2000, I entered into a time of great change in Morgantown. Don Nehlen was putting the finishing touches on his long career, which was a turbulent enough time, what with Rich Rodriguez's 3-8 first season that followed. Surely, that should have been enough "excitement" for one small town. Unfortunately, a year later, it would get much, much worse.
On December 22, 2001, the Mountaineers walked into Knoxville and beat a very good Tennessee Volunteers team. It was a great win, considering that West Virginia had just brought in the most heralded freshman class in recent memory. Names like Hargett, Schifino, and Sally were to keep winning games like this for the next four years. Of course, that would be the second to last win of the season, and during the early months of 2002, the WVU program would implode right in front of my eyes. If you forget how bad it got, just say the words "Drew Catlett" and wait for an inevitable cringe.
I attended the press conference announcing Dan Dakich as head coach. It was an exciting time, which isn't saying much after ending the previous season on a 1-18 skid. Almost anything would have been exciting. But, there I was, cheering on Dakich as the savior of Mountaineer basketball. Eight days later, the honeymoon was over, and Dakich tucked his tail and returned to Bowling Green, deathly afraid of possible NCAA sanctions that never came. I heard him on the radio not too long ago, as some type of "analyst." It's funny how life works out sometimes.
I attended the press conference announcing John Beilien as head coach. It was a much less exciting time, mostly because I was finally tired of getting kicked in the nuts by one team for so long. Beilien said all the right things, but I would be lying if I told you I had any clue where the program was going once I left the Coliseum that day. Most of the smattering of fans -- certainly less that attended Dakich's presser a few weeks earlier -- just shrugged shoulders walking to their cars. WVU basketball wasn't a blank slate, it was a black, dusty slate, and all I could do was cross my fingers.
Now, let's not get too dramatic -- it's been pretty much nothing but roses since then. Beilein's tenure was a near unequivocal success, save for the second half of the Elite Eight Louisville game and Kenton Paulino. He had saved our program from demise, which was nothing short of a basketball miracle at the time. And while West Virginia meant something again in the world of college basketball, it took Bob Huggins to truly unite this state around a burgeoning powerhouse.
There's a feeling unlike any other time in this state right now. Maybe it's being back to a place similar to before 13-9 happened -- I really don't know. This team and the state have become so intertwined that I don't really know if its West Virginia University or simply just West Virginia playing in the Final Four. Based solely on anecdotal evidence, the entire state will be Indianapolis this weekend. It has a lot to do with the players, obviously, but Huggins has been the galvanizing force behind this movement. His press conference after the UConn game will live in Mountain State infamy. But that wasn't just a one-off performance from Huggins -- it was the just the beginning of a statewide rallying cry behind these Mountaineers. He has a dream, and nothing short of the best will do for this team and state.
On Saturday, Da'Sean Butler & Co. have the chance to become the first Mountaineer basketball team to play for the national championship since 1959. The days of Hundley and West and Robinson were much before my time, but they were right in the heart of my father's childhood. And while I often consider myself to be a tortured Mountaineer fan, I know there are many more that have come before me that will appreciate a national title much more than I. I also know there are those that have already passed that never got to see West Virginia reach that pinnacle. For all of us, I hope that this chosen team can get it done -- not just for me, but for this entire state.
Then, and only then, will Huggins' vision have come true.