For many West Virginia fans, the 2007 season mentally occupies a space of tremendous frustration, anger and bitterness. That bitterness and resentment festers not just because we lost to Pitt, but also everything that transpired in the aftermath. Losing to your arch-rival is a punch in the mouth; losing an opportunity to play for the national title in the process is a hay-maker to the gut. Throw in Rich Rodriguez leaving to Michigan, a perceived betrayal made worse by the nastiness of the legal battle that ensued between him and the University? Yikes. But to really put a bow on top of all of that, the West Virginia Mountaineers spent the next four years slowly declining. We went from dominating the Big East and being on the precipice of a BCS National Championship game to getting dominated by Syracuse and the University of Connecticut.
I try not to think about all of that anymore.
My father introduced me to sports essentially from the time I was able to walk and talk. We were season ticket holders for years, went to bowl games - my father’s ‘game hat’ had commemorative pins celebrating every Mountaineer bowl game he attended since the 1976 Peach Bowl – the whole nine yards. Game days in our house were a big deal. For my father and I, sports – and football in particular – served as a bonding ritual. We spent hours talking football. He was about as die-hard of a WVU fan as you could get, too. He only missed watching games for two reasons: fishing and the first day of squirrel season, but even then he would find a way to listen to the game on the radio – taking his headset with him into the woods and listening in the cool autumn breeze to Toni Caridi’s play-by-play.
He was so dedicated to Mountaineer football that when he had a heart attack during the 2000 Miami game, he constantly sent me out of the Ruby Memorial Hospital emergency room to check the score, and even had the surgical staff tune the TV in the operating room to ESPN. He had sustained damage to over 60 percent of his heart, but he still needed to know the score. His passion and dedication were infectious, and instilled in me a love for WVU sports. When I went to college in 2003, we spoke nearly every day by phone, catching up on the latest sports news, sometimes arguing sometimes agreeing.
The 2007 season saw West Virginia rising to a level we had not achieved since 1993. I remember, in the lead up to the Pitt game, talking to my dad about whether or not he wanted to go to New Orleans if we played in the championship game. I called him from the field that night, just before the game started. It was surreal. There was just this energy, this feeling that after so many years of being good maybe we could be great. Then when it was all over – I called him. I was upset, on the verge of tears. “Now Andy,” he said, in his sort of soft, southern drawl that instantly endeared him to you. “It’s just a game.”
When Rich landed at the airport and angrily yelled at Greg Hunter, I called him to complain about Rich obviously lying. I worried about who we could hire, who would even want the job? “Now Andy,” he begun in the familiar tone, before talking me off that ledge. Over the next month, we talked about the various rumors who might replace Rich.
On January 1, 2008, he passed away at the age of 55 from complications of a second, major heart attack. To be honest, after that sports were never the same. It has been nearly a decade, but I still find myself wanting to call him to talk about the latest recruiting news or whatever hot sports topic has captured our national attention at the moment. The start of football season comes with a certain bifurcation. I am both excited for the sport to be back, but also longing to share it with my father.
Maybe my view of the saga of the 2007 season is colored by that perspective; I often think of how trivial the entire debacle seems in retrospect. Sports can be an incredibly powerful social institution, at a macro and micro level; but that is adjacent to the actual game itself. Sure it was great to share in WVU’s success or commune together in mutual solace at a defeat, but many of my strongest memories of my father were just being together talking about football. I could dwell on how awful the experience of losing your father at a relatively young age - I was 22 at the time - or I can focus on what matters, on what was good.
13-9 sucked. Rich leaving a few days after while the body was still warm sucked even harder, but neither really sort of matters anymore. Instead of thinking about that month in 2007, we could think about plastering the shit out of the Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl, embarrassing UConn, or the magical triple overtime win against Louisville.
Like I said, I don’t think much about the painful memories from that season anymore. You shouldn’t either.