EDITOR’S NOTE: Second in a series. Staff writer Rick Ryan has seen a lot come and go in his newspaper career. Following are recollections from his days at the Wheeling Intelligencer (1978-90), Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times (1990-94) and Charleston Gazette-Mail (1994-2020).
Lately, I’ve been conducting research in our newspaper’s electronic library in a quest to verify the most memorable football game I’ve covered in 40-plus years on the job.
I had a hunch it would be WVU Tech’s incredible 35-34 victory at West Liberty in 2001, and when I revisited that story, I knew I’d struck gold. Hands down, that’s the wildest, craziest, most unforgettable game I’ve ever seen, much less covered.
Just to set the stage:
n Tech trailed 31-7 at halftime and was still down 34-14 with less than four minutes left in the game;
n The Golden Bears recovered not one, but two onside kicks in the final 3 minutes and 30 seconds;
n One of the architects of Tech’s upset win, backup quarterback Phillip Reed, threw up three times in the final two minutes due to total exhaustion, once while still on the field;
n Tech ran 29 straight offensive plays at one point (due to the onside recoveries) in a game that featured 111 passes and took 3 hours, 41 minutes to play without an overtime.
n The Golden Bears scored what proved to be the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left but then, with the tidal wave of momentum completely in their favor, let a West Liberty receiver beat triple coverage on the game’s final play only to see a deep pass glance off his fingertips.
Memorable, indeed. Miraculous, really.
To be completely honest, I’m not sure why I was even attending that game. I can’t recall the Gazette-Mail ever covering any other football road games for WVU Tech, a program that won just six times in the 1990s, but was vying for a winning record that season.
And even though I worked for 12 years at The Intelligencer newspaper in Wheeling, it’s not like I was dying to get back to Russek Field, the site of the game. I never covered a home football game at West Liberty from 1978-90 because our sister paper in Wheeling, the News-Register, put out the Sunday edition with its staff.
No matter the reason, I’m glad I was there to witness it and document it.
The improbable victory gave Tech its first three-game winning streak since 1983 in the West Virginia Conference (as it was known then), and it beat a Hilltoppers team that was the defending league co-champion. West Liberty had also won nine of its previous 10 games against the Golden Bears.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, Tech was in the running for a WVC title under coach Mike Springston, then in his third season. Springston called it the biggest game he’d won at Tech.
“To come back the way we did was just phenomenal,’’ Springston said afterward. “I feel very blessed today to have won this game.’’
The tide started to turn for Tech when West Liberty quarterback Tim Hicks, the WVC leader in passing yards and touchdowns, left the game late in the third quarter after taking a shot to the elbow of his passing arm. He didn’t return until late in the game, but at that point the Hilltoppers still led 34-14.
Tech began its rally with 5:40 left in the game, getting the ball at its own 24 with the elusive Reed in the shotgun. Reed, who was subbing for ineffective starter Eric Smith, scored on a 5-yard run to make it 34-21 with 3:30 remaining.
Golden Bears kicker Fadi Hanbali then executed his first successful onside kick, a high-hopper that ricocheted off a West Liberty player and into the arms of Tech’s Ryan Browning at the WL 45. Later, on fourth-and-goal from the 7, Reed rolled right and found Damieon Mills in the end zone and it was 34-28 with exactly two minutes to play.
Tech’s only chance was to have lightning strike twice with another onside kick, a ploy that, at best, works maybe twice in a season. This time, Hanbali’s boot was a low, slow dribbler that Tech’s Naieem Harrison swiped from the arms of a WL player at the Toppers 48.
“We never practice onside kicks,’’ Springston said, “because of the high level of contact involved. But Fadi Hanbali made two absolutely perfect kicks. You know the Lord’s looking down on you when that happens.’’
Tech had to convert a third-and-5 from the WL 30, which it did with a 27-yard Reed pass to Nick Towns. On the next play, Reed was hit hard after a 1-yard gain and couldn’t make it back to the huddle, kneeling on the field and vomiting. Tech called timeout with 22 seconds left and put Smith back in at quarterback. This time, he knew what to do.
From the 2, Smith rolled a little to the right and threw back across the field to Michael Terrell, the former East Bank and Riverside standout, who caught the ball on his knees in the end zone. Hanbali’s extra point put Tech ahead 35-34.
But it still wasn’t over. West Liberty got the ball on its own 34 with 14 seconds to go. Hicks, now back in the game, threw three incompletions, two of which were drops. On the game’s final play, receiver Collin Hardwick somehow got behind a trio of defenders at about the Tech 20, only to see Hicks’ heave glance off his fingertips.
Another vivid memory of the day was the brief interview I had with West Liberty coach Bob Eaton, whom I’d previously known when he was coaching at St. John’s High School in nearby Bellaire, Ohio. Eaton was obviously steaming coming off the field, but paused long enough to address WL’s failure to protect the lead.
“For 31/2 quarters, we dominated the game,’’ he said. “They weren’t even in the game until we let them in the game. If you can’t recover two onside kicks … you can put kids in position to make plays, but you can’t make them for them.’’
And with that, he turned and left.
Despite missing more than one quarter, WL’s Hicks wound up with 318 yards and three TDs passing and ran for a fourth score.
Springston said Tech got a boost in the fourth quarter when it learned that WVC-leading Shepherd had lost to Glenville State, putting the Golden Bears in the middle of the league title chase at 3-1 in WVC games.
Unfortunately, Tech wasn’t able to maintain that momentum, finishing out the season with a 5-6 overall record and 4-3 in league games. WL ended up 5-5, 3-4. The Bears did post a winning record the following season (6-5), but left the WVC after the 2006 season and dropped football following the 2011 season. The school also moved from Montgomery to Beckley in the fall of 2017.