This will be my 42nd year in the business, and I still get excited about football season.
This weekend, I will hit two games in three days, a perfect way to start the season. Here are some random thoughts.
n Two of our state’s all-time greatest high school athletes will be doing all they can to help the Alabama Crimson Tide beat WVU Saturday in Atlanta.
You know about Tide coach Nick Saban. He was an incredible athlete out of tiny Monongah High School in Marion County. He quarterbacked the team to a Class A state title in 1969, was spurned by WVU in recruiting, played defensive back at Kent State for Don James and has gone on to win national championships at LSU and Alabama.
An outstanding all-around athlete, Saban was also the first-team all-state shortstop in 1969 back when baseball was all one class in our state. According to the longtime sports editor of the Welch Daily News, Gary Dove, Saban finished ahead of future major leaguer Steve Swisher (Parkersburg South) and future NBA coach Mike D’Antoni (Mullens) for that honor.
Also working for Alabama on Saturday will be Joe Pendry from Oceana, who grew up near the swinging bridge at Matheny in Wyoming County. Pendry was an all-state selection in football and basketball and led the Indians to an undefeated season and a Class AA state basketball title in 1965. He went to WVU, where he considered playing football and basketball. Sadly, what could have been an outstanding career ended with a devastating football injury his sophomore year. He then turned to coaching and became one of the great offensive line coaches in the NFL and college football.
When Pendry was an assistant coach at WVU, he gave an overachieving defensive walk-on from Hurricane named John Holliday the nickname of “Doc.” It stuck, and we now know Holliday is creating his own coaching legacy. After helping Saban and the Crimson Tide to a couple of national titles, Pendry retired from on-the-field coaching, but he still helps the Alabama program as an administrator.
n One of the most entertaining football players in our state this fall will be Marshall junior fullback Devon Johnson. To get a feel for his ability, picture former WVU fan favorite Owen Schmitt, only with more speed and athleticism.
Johnson is from Richlands, Va., but, he really is a West Virginian. He’s a part of the rich football heritage from War and the old Big Creek High School. War and Big Creek are just over the mountain from Richlands and produced such names as coaches Merrill Gainer, Joel Hicks and Mario Poletti, and players such as Oscar Patrick, Bob Gresham, Randy Flinchum, Randy Jamison, Mike Bailey, Danny Abercrombie and Jim Hickam (brother of Rocket Boy Homer).
n Remember the name Angelo Jean-Louis. You may not know his name yet, but if he stays healthy, you will.
The young Marshall wide receiver originally committed to the Miami Hurricanes, but is now in Huntington. After sitting out last year, he is eager to show why he was one of the top receiver recruits in the country coming out of high school in Wellington, Fla.
n Most fans and media are not many giving WVU a chance against Alabama Saturday in Atlanta, but I’m not so sure. I have been saying for months to anyone who would listen that this is a good year to play Alabama.
No one really knows if the Crimson Tide has a quarterback. Nick Saban likes mistake-proof football, and that usually does not happen when you are not certain you have a quarterback. Alabama could come back to the pack a little, not only nationally, but in the SEC West. Add to the mix, improved defensive coaching leadership at WVU and a stable of running backs, including talented Rushel Shell, and this one could be closer than many think.
n Finally, if you see her around Morgantown, make sure you give a hug of encouragement to Karen Stewart, the widow of former WVU head coach Bill Stewart. I have a feeling this is a tough time of the year for her.
Since 1978, Karen Stewart enjoyed the anticipation of a new season with her coaching husband. Now Bill is gone and son Blaine is off playing at James Madison. This can be a melancholy time of the year for her. I hope you will not forget about her and offer some encouragement for “Mrs. Stew”.
Reach Frank Giardina at firstname.lastname@example.org.