April 3, 2010 in Sports

W. Virginia fans’ pride runs deep

John Marshall Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Enthusiastic West Virginia fans are on board as they cheer for their team in its East Regional championship victory over Kentucky.
(Full-size photo)

Final Four

At Indianapolis

Today’s semis (CBS) •Michigan State (28-8) vs. Butler (32-4), 3:07 p.m.

•West Virginia (31-6) vs. Duke (33-5), 40 minutes following

INDIANAPOLIS – Hundreds of feet below the surface, in the skin-shriveling chill and squinting-dim light of West Virginia’s coal mines, the voice of Jay Jacobs echoes in the tunnels.

The radio analyst of the Mountaineers and a Morgantown native, Jacobs is the link to the basketball team that has formed a just-like-us bond with the blue-collar people of its home state.

“It’s unbelievable,” Jacobs said Friday, a day before West Virginia’s first Final Four game since the 1959 team he was on made it this far. “They’re on the wagon. They’re really on it now, and it’s a big thing.”

This thing has roots that run deeper than the mines dotting West Virginia’s rugged landscape.

The people of West Virginia have always been fervent sports fans, living through the university’s football and basketball programs and Pittsburgh Pirates baseball as a means to escape what can sometimes be a tough life.

It’s the kind of place where people could, before the advent of television, walk down the street and not miss a pitch of a Pirates game because everyone was sitting on the porch, listening to their radios. Where kids would sit on their grandfather’s lap to listen to West Virginia football. Where miners listen to Mountaineers basketball deep underground.

“It’s hard to explain if you’ve never spent time in West Virginia,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. “It’s not like any place I’ve ever been. Once you go to school here, once you become a part of it, you start to understand the passion the people of West Virginia have for Mountaineer athletics.”

A piece of this passion comes from West Virginia’s lack of a professional sports team. It’s fine to latch onto teams from Pennsylvania and Ohio, but there’s a difference when it’s your team, from your state. There’s ownership.

There’s a woe-is-us mentality in West Virginia, too: In more than 100 years of athletics, the Mountaineers have never won a national title in a major sport, unless you count the numerous rifle championships.

At the core, though, is loyalty.

The basic credo of West Virginians is that once you’re with us, you’re always with us. Scorn the state or its people, you’re never going to be forgiven.

Just ask Rich Rodriguez. The West Virginia native spent six years as head football coach at his alma mater after replacing Mountaineers legend Don Nehlen, claiming it was his dream job.

The dream ended abruptly in 2007, when Rodriguez resigned to become head coach at Michigan, just four months after signing a contract extension at West Virginia. A chance to become immortalized in his home state, Rodriguez became West Virginia’s Brutus.

“There’s just a loyalty here,” said Jacobs, a lifelong West Virginian. “This is a state that just rallies around its own.”

That’s how Huggins got this homespun run started.

A West Virginia native and alum, the former castoff in Cincinnati made a triumphant return to West Virginia, where an entire state wrapped its arms around him like proud parents.

Huggins has reciprocated the adulation, making time for everyone, never turning down interviews, talking with people who walk up to him at nine-hole golf courses in small towns. He told West Virginians to expect banners to be raised, that mining takes a back seat to the people when it comes to the best thing in the state.

Huggins has deflected credit, too, approaching success matter of factly, as if he expected to be here but is still thankful it happened. Purely West Virginian.

He’s simply “Hugs.” One of us. Always.

“It all starts with Coach Huggins,” Mountaineers forward Kevin Jones said. “Everything we’ve done, the support we’ve gotten, comes from what he has done.”

What Huggins has done is create a winner in his image, which puts it in the same likeness as his home state.

Playing gritty defense to make up for shaky shooting, scrapping for loose balls and doing all the little things that add up to a lot, the Mountaineers are in the Final Four the first time since Jacobs, Jerry West and Mary Lou Retton’s father, Ronnie, captured a state’s imagination with the last national-title run in 1959.

“There’s just a toughness there, a willingness to the dirty things needed to win,” Jacobs said.

Strictly blue-collar stuff, just like the people in the mines, listening to Jacobs’ voice reverberating off the walls in the dark depths.

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