Madness in Morgantown

College football: When Maryland visits West Virginia on Saturday, the Terps will be battling the Mountaineers and their rabid fans, too.

September 16, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The calls come every winter into the athletics offices at West Virginia University. Typically they're from young women who've just been proposed to and have one big question themselves: Are the Mountaineers scheduled to play in Morgantown on the day of their wedding?

"I've had a lot of girls in tears, saying, `But I've already booked the hall!' " said longtime sports information director Shelly Poe.

Chances are, several weddings and a few other social events across the state have been pushed aside this weekend, with No. 21 Maryland coming to play the seventh-ranked Mountaineers on Saturday.

Smoot Fahlgren chose the Mountaineers over his godson's wedding last season, which didn't surprise his wife, Judith.

"He'd go to a game before he'd go to his own daughter's wedding," Judith Fahlgren said recently.

In that regard, West Virginians aren't unusual in this obsession about their beloved Mountaineers. They are much like fans of other schools around the country where college football is not just the biggest game in town, but the only game.

Where these folks separate themselves from the pack is in the way they express their passion. It starts long before game time, when fans have been known to wave at the visiting team's buses using only one finger.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said he doesn't expect it to change.

"You know they really like us up there," Friedgen said facetiously. "I'll have to dodge the first four whiskey bottles that come out of the stands, and I'm an easy target, so they'll really be throwing them."

As West Virginia linebacker Mo Howard, a senior from Baltimore, said this week, "If you're not a Mountaineer, they're definitely rude to you. If you're a Mountaineer, they show you all kinds of love."

Don't ask Miami assistant coach Randy Shannon to talk about Morgantown. He has memories of a garbage can hurtling out of the stands during a 1996 game, hitting Shannon in the shoulder and neck and giving him pains that have lingered to this day.

Don't ask Danyell Ferguson, the Hurricanes player who was sitting in an ambulance that night ready to be taken to the hospital when West Virginia fans reportedly tried to tip it over after the Mountaineers had a punt blocked in the final minute and blew a late lead to lose, 10-7.

But don't ask West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong to apologize for the behavior of the school's fans, either.

"It's an enjoyable place to go to a ballgame, it's an enthusiastic place," said Pastilong, who played for the Mountaineers in the 1960s and has been the school's athletic director for the past 16 years. "Like any other stadium after big wins, there have been some incidents that we preferred did not occur. However, in our particular case, I believe they have been made a bigger issue than what actually occurred."

Dave Shay, a 1985 graduate who heads the 60-member Baltimore chapter of the Mountaineer Athletic Club, was at the 1996 Miami game.

"There's no question that was a blemish, but I share this with a lot of other people, that was one of the biggest kicks in the gut we've ever had," said Shay. "That was one of the lowest points and it was accentuated by really bad behavior."

The venue at West Virginia might have a fancy new moniker -- Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium -- recently named for the local businessman who gave a $5.5 million gift to the university -- but it will still be one the most raucous college football settings in the country.

"I've always enjoyed playing there, but the last time there wasn't too enjoyable," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose then-No. 3 ranked Hokies were manhandled last season, 28-7. "They got after us pretty good."

Shay said he believes the reputation of the fans is tied to the image of the state.

"I don't really notice it being asinine," said Shay, a West Virginia native who lives in Crownsville and is married to a 1988 graduate. "I think we catch a lot of guff because the people from around here think the people from West Virginia are hillbillies."

Not only do fans drive clear across the state from Charleston and Huntington or Parkersburg, where Smoot and Judith Fahlgren live, some come from as far away as Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla. They arrive early -- the parking lots begin filling Friday morning -- and stay late, savoring every moment of victory or replaying every morsel of defeat.

Recently, it's been the latter when it comes to the Terrapins. Maryland has not just won the past four meetings, but has crushed its across-the-border rival. Last year brought nearly identical demolitions, a 34-7 loss for the Mountaineers in College Park and a 41-7 pounding in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day in Jacksonville.

"This will be a wild and woolly place. ... They're looking for that Maryland team," said Don Nehlen, who coached West Virginia for 21 years before retiring after the 2000 season. "Since Miami and Virginia Tech left the league [the Big East] ... that's about all anybody's talking about is the Maryland game."

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