West Virginia driven to new heights

Rodriguez has Mountaineers in national contention

August 27, 2006|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

It sounds, of course, like a John Denver lyric. But it's absolutely true. The foundation of Rich Rodriguez's philosophy about both life and coaching was formed, oddly enough, during countless bus rides on the dusty country roads of rural West Virginia.

He was just 24 at the time, barely older than some of his players, but he was a college head coach, in charge of the football team at tiny Glenville State College, a Division II program in Glenville, W.Va., (population 1,700) with little prestige and even less money.

Given an opportunity at that age, a man learns to appreciate even the most basic luxuries, and so Rodriguez vowed to never forget those long, cramped bus rides to games that were played in front of modest crowds, often hundreds of miles from home.

"At that level, you don't even dream about getting on a plane," Rodriguez said. "Every member of my current staff, they come from what we like to call the `bus leagues.' You learn when you're down there to appreciate what you've got, because those are the kinds of things you have to do to build a program."

Rodriguez's surroundings have changed, but his attitude and his philosophy have not. Instead of Glenville State College, he's now in charge of the University of West Virginia's football program, which is roughly the difference between staying at the Four Seasons instead of a Super 8.

The Mountaineers fly to nearly all their games, they have a large and passionate fan base that contributes millions of dollars to the school, and Rodriguez (known simply as "Coach Rod" to most) has become something of a celebrity in his home state, adored by the legions who live, eat and breathe West Virginia football.

Rodriguez, however - a walk-on who played at West Virginia, but never had a scholarship - still coaches like a man who has plenty left to prove, and he has carefully constructed his football program with that as his dogma.

As much as anything, that belief - perhaps best summed up by T-shirts his players and staff have been wearing bearing, "STAY HUMBLE, STAY HUNGRY" - might be the key to the Mountaineers' recent success (three straight bowl games), and the reason many experts are picking them to contend for a national championship this season.

West Virginia, which stunned Georgia, 38-35, last season in the Sugar Bowl to cap an 11-1 season, returns 14 starters, has a favorable schedule and was one of just six teams featured on regional covers of Sports Illustrated this month as part of the magazine's college football preview. The Mountaineers are ranked No. 5, the highest national ranking in school history, and begin their season at home Saturday against in-state rival Marshall.

`Let's embrace it'

"I think if you talk about it too much, it becomes a burden," Rodriguez said of the Mountaineers' championship buzz. "But at the same time, I feel like, `Let's embrace it.' Top programs have those kind of high expectations every year, and as long as we don't change who we are, I think those kind of goals are a good thing."

It wasn't all that long ago, really, that the Mountaineers couldn't dream about playing for a national championship because they simply couldn't beat Maryland.

Rodriguez and Terps coach Ralph Friegden both took over their alma maters at the same time, in November 2000, and the schools met four times over the next three years. Maryland won all four, including the 2004 Gator Bowl, and Rodriguez and his players could hardly walk down the street in Morgantown without their fans pestering them about why they couldn't find a way to beat the Terps.

That changed in the 2004 season when West Virginia beat Maryland, 19-16, in overtime in front of a packed house in Morgantown. Ever since then, the programs have been heading in opposite directions. Maryland is trying to rebound from back-to-back losing seasons, and the Terps dropped their second game in a row to the Mountaineers in 2005.

"Maryland has always been a long-standing rivalry for us," Rodriguez said. "It seems like the winner of that game always goes on to have a good year. They were beating us pretty soundly there for a while. At least now we're giving them our best shot."

Now the talk is of going undefeated, and of what a national championship would mean to the state and to the university. On the day of a West Virginia home game, there are only a handful of schools in the country that can rival the atmosphere of Morgantown, and few, if any, exist outside the Southeastern Conference.

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