Over the course of my short time covering West Virginia University as a beat, I’d like to think I’ve done a fairly good job of detaching myself from all biases and rooting interests that come with being a lifelong state native and an alumnus.
But I’ve gotta tell ya, it may never be more difficult than it is this week.
If you’re around my age -- now 37 after my birthday last week -- I don’t need to tell you anything. You lived through the Big East days. You know what this one means.
I’m not sure the people of my generation ever looked at Pitt as WVU’s biggest rival. It wasn’t Pitt number one and Virginia Tech number two. It was 1A and 1B.
I hope the current student body at WVU gets a feel for that this week. I get it, they were infants, at best toddlers the last time the Hokies visited Morgantown all the way back in 2005. Those are the days most of us romanticize about, the ones filled with bitter rivalries in front of packed houses full of fans figuratively (and sometimes literally) spitting mad at the thought of a certain opponent invading town and leaving with a win, but they’re long gone now. They're still fresh in some of our memories, but it's in the past.
It’s a feeling this fan base, the part of it that has been alive and active long enough, misses dearly. And it’s coming back in full force for what's forecast as a beautiful Saturday this week.
While I’m not sure the youngsters have a handle on the meaning of the Black Diamond rivalry with Virginia Tech, WVU coach Neal Brown seems to get it, despite this week being his first matchup with the Hokies while at WVU. In his postgame press conference after a 66-0 manhandling of Long Island, he said as much.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest home games we’ve had in my tenure here,” Brown said. “I think the atmosphere is going to be electric. I look forward to it. I look forward to the preparation this week, our practice this week and the opportunity next week in front of a big TV audience and what I hope -- and really expect to be -- an electric crowd on Saturday afternoon at noon. I hope [the fans] get here early. They can pretend it’s a 5 o’clock kick, just get here a little earlier and get started.”
You heard the man.
I certainly hope all of my friends in the Blue Lot turn out and they’re not deterred by the noon start time or their possible reservations toward Brown or quarterback Jarret Doege. None of that matters. Not on Virginia Tech week.
Growing up, I can remember watching Major Harris play … vaguely. I can remember a little more of the unbeaten team in 1993. But the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s, as I went through my formative years, the Mountaineers were … eh, OK.
To say the least, then-newly hired Rich Rodriguez didn’t seem poised to take the Mountaineers on the run he eventually did, not after going 3-8 in 2001, his first year. And sure, WVU started out 7-3 in 2002, but I can remember the moment I was finally sold on Rodriguez, and to me it was the first truly great WVU moment of my generation.
It came when linebacker Grant Wiley soared over the line of scrimmage to stop Lee Suggs on fourth down from the Mountaineer 1-yard line to preserve a 21-18 WVU victory at Blacksburg over the No. 12 Hokies. It gave Rodriguez his first win over a ranked opponent. More importantly, it gave the Mountaineers their first win over Virginia Tech in four years.
That was the game that changed everything. My generation doesn’t remember much of Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett. It remembers Mike Vick’s run and Marcus Vick’s finger. It remembers blocked kicks and the Kyle Kayden hit.
And I remember what pepper spray feels like. A good friend of mine remembers the pain of a torn ACL. His injury occurred while hopping the wall at Milan Puskar Stadium to storm the field after WVU’s 28-7 win over No. 3 Virginia Tech in 2003. Mine happened shortly after I made it to one of the end zones.
We walked to a friend’s house on campus that night, him with an arm draped around my shoulder hopping and shouting instructions on which direction to take as I blindly fought my way through the hordes of celebrating Mountaineer fans.
I couldn’t see. He couldn’t walk. Neither of us could’ve cared less. WVU had just beaten Virginia Tech and ruined a possible national-title shot for the Hokies. We could’ve floated home.
For those of you too young to remember, that is what this means to those my age and up. This is what it means to truly hate an opponent. And I’m sorry you’ve been deprived of the traditions and memories these games created for fans over the years and decades. Seemingly nothing is fair in love and conference realignment.
So, will Morgantown feel the same as it did on that night 18 years ago?
I don’t know, but I sure hope so.
Minus the pepper spray.