In the over 100 years that the Mountaineers have competed on the gridiron there have been numerous momentous, and not so momentous, moments that have been program defining. Below we countdown the ten most important moments in modern Mountaineer football history.
10. Governor Joe Manchin Becoming Senator Joe Manchin
As Governor, Joe Manchin was intimately involved, some would say too much so, in the inner workings of the Mountaineer football program. He was the sole reason the Mountaineers agreed to the "Friends of Coal" series against Marshall, and was instrumental in hiring Bill Stewart following the 2008 Fiesta Bowl victory. Both of those things were largely controversial among the Mountaineer fan base.
As Senator, Joe Manchin was able to apply a substantial amount of heat on United States Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who was trying to get the Big 12 to pull their invitation to WVU in favor of Louisville, which is McConnell's alma mater. Manchin went as far as to appear on MSNBC and call on a Senate Ethics investigation into whether there was wrongful conduct in the Big 12 briefly reconsidering their invitation to WVU. Manchin leaving the Governorship allowed the WVU administration to discontinue the series with Marshall, and his move to the U.S. Senate allowed him the profile to challenge McConnell and bring national attention to McConnell's actions.
9. Moving to the "New" Mountaineer Field
Leading up to the move from "Old" Mountaineer Field then Governor Jay Rockefeller was leading the charge to get the Mountaineers new facilities. Rockefeller convinced some of the wealthiest people in West Virginia to invest in his vision for an upgraded stadium that "ushered in a new era—better facilities, better sports teams, more successful programs" (Rockefeller was also responsible for bringing John Denver to Morgantown to christen the stadium with "Country Roads"). True to Rockefeller's vision, new Mountaineer Field (or the promise of new Mountaineer Field) allowed WVU to convince Don Nehlen to be their coach and jump start their struggling football program.
8. Adam Bednarik's Injury
After a disappointing 2004 season where the Mountaineers underperformed high expectations 2005 appeared to be a reboot season where the Mountaineers would take a young team through its paces before perhaps competing a year or two down the road. To begin the season Adam Bednarik was the starting quarterback and Jason Gwaltney, perhaps the most heralded recruit in WVU history, was being groomed to be the star running back in Rich Rodriguez's run heavy spread offense. Seven weeks into the season the Mountaineers were in the fourth quarter of their matchup against Louisville and facing their second loss of the season when Bednarik got injured. White came in the game led a thrilling comeback victory that prompted Tony Caridi to for the first time utter the now famous catch phrase "It's a great day to be a Mountaineer wherever you may be!" White's rise was coupled with that of Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt, all three future pros, who led the Mountaineers to unprecedented national success. The Mountaineers were a remarkable 35-8 in a three and a half year stretch with White under center, and an even more stunning 4-0 record in bowls with White.
The Mountaineers had only been that close to a national championship on two other occasions. Although there is no doubt it was one of the most important moments in Mountaineer history I refuse to say anything else about it here.
6. Oliver Luck Becoming Athletic Director
When Eddie Pastilong stepped down former WVU President Jim Clements set his sights on former WVU quarterback Oliver Luck who had established himself as a well respected sports administration figure both nationally and internationally. The crowing achievement of the Oliver Luck Era was getting the Mountaineers into the Big 12 (see below), but Luck's tenure also included several other game changing moves. Those moves included
breaking up the "old boy" network that had too often permeated WVU athletics and stunted the growth of the athletic department, reducing alcohol related incidents at Mountaineer Field by banning pass outs and allowing beer sales in the stadium, and negotiating a lucrative deal with IMG for WVU's tier three rights.
5. 2008 Fiesta Bowl
The Mountaineers had been national darlings for three straight years following their Sugar Bowl victory, but in the aftermath of 13-9 Rich Rod bolted for Michigan and the media turned on WVU. WVU who had been ranked as high as #1 in the nation just a few weeks earlier now faced the scorn of the national media who predicted the Sooners would route the Mountaineers. In the face of tremendous adversity Bill Stewart delivered one of the most stirring pregame speeches of all-time and the Mountaineers delivered a signature win proving they were more than just a one hit wonder. After the game Pat White set the stage for the hiring of Bill Stewart with his endorsement of Stewart.
4. Major Harris's Injury in the Fiesta Bowl
Perhaps the best quarterback to ever suit up for the Mountaineers, Harris led WVU to an 11-0 regular season in 1988. The 11-0 season culminated in a trip to the Fiesta Bowl to play Notre Dame for the National Championship. Harris, a future college football Hall of Famer, was a true dual threat quarterback, but when Harris dislocated his shoulder early in the game the Mountaineers were forced to tweak their game plan and limit Harris's runs. Following the game Don Nehlen admitted to changing the game plan saying, "we probably would have run 10 or 12 more option plays and two or three more quarterback draws had he been healthy." The Mountaineers lost the game 34-21, and WVU has not played in a national championship game since.
3. Joining the Big 12
After surviving the initial ACC raid in 2003 the Big East was fatally crippled when Pitt and Syracuse made the decision to jump ship in 2011. The Mountaineers were left in limbo for several months as talks of SEC and/or ACC invitations that the fans desired the most never materialized. Oliver Luck used his Texas sized connections to secure the Mountaineers an unexpected invitation to the Big 12. Louisville eventually jumped ship to the ACC and the remaining Big East was left on the outside looking in. Outside of the obvious geographical limitations the move has been a net positive financially and exposure wise. Most importantly, the Mountaineers have a seat at the table with the Power 5 conferences, and remain a part of the college football haves moving forward.
2. Winning the Sugar Bowl
Conference realignment reared its ugly head in 2003 when Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College bolted the Big East for the ACC. The move crippled the reputation of the once well-respected Big East and the additions of Louisville, Cincinnati, and Connecticut did nothing to stop the criticism of the Big East being allowed to keep their automatic bid to a BCS bowl. Things didn't get any better when in 2004 Pitt got blow torched by the Utah Utes who had earned an at-large berth and were not at the time in a Power 5 conference. When an unknown WVU team earned the conference's automatic berth the following year in the Sugar Bowl versus the SEC Champion Georgia Bulldogs the complaining about the Big East's automatic berth was deafening. The Mountaineers responded by jumping allover the Bulldogs and racing to a 28-7 lead before sealing the game with a fake punt. The victory saved, at least for a few years, the Big East and put a young Mountaineer team squarely on the national radar.
1. Hiring Don Nehlen
The Godfather of Mountaineer Football Nehlen is a Hall of Famer, invented the flying WV, and was the coach for the 1988 and 1993 seasons when the Mountaineers played for the national championship and a share of the national championship respectively. The lucrative Florida pipeline that feeds Morgantown was first established under Nehlen, and there are several Mountaineers who made the NFL under Nehlen's watch. The Mountaineer football program would not be where it is today without Nehlen who laid the foundation for all the future success of the program experienced. Hiring Nehlen was far and away the most important moment in Mountaineer football history.