There was a critical moment in West Virginia’s 1975 victory over California when sophomore safety Tom Pridemore showed his true grit and determination. The Mountaineers were leading the Bears 14-10 early in the fourth quarter when Cal completely fooled West Virginia’s defense.
Instead of running another pitchout to tailback Chuck Muncie – a play it had run successfully several previous times – this time Cal coach Mike White instructed Muncie to throw a pass down field to 9.4 speedster Wesley Walker.
Walker pulled the football in at the West Virginia 30 and began his sprint to the goal line. But Pridemore, deceptively fast, took off after Walker much like he had done a year earlier to win the 1974 West Virginia state high school hurdles title when he knocked down every single hurdle.
All Walker could manage was 14 yards before Pridemore caught up with him at the WVU 16. The Mountaineer defense held Cal and went on to record a memorable 28-10 victory over a Golden Bears team that captured a share of the Pac 8 title with UCLA and USC that season. It was a play Coach Bobby Bowden hadn’t forgotten after the game.
“That was just pure pride, guts and determination,” Bowden said afterward. “He just put his head down and went after their guy -- an excellent play.”
Thirty years later Pridemore, now living in Georgia, recalls the Cal win giving West Virginia a great deal of confidence after its season-opening victory over Temple.
“That was a huge win for us traveling out to the West Coast,” he said. “It was a team that was just loaded with talent with guys like Chuck Muncie, Wesley Walker and they had some other guys, too. We went out there and played a solid game and shut them down. That was a big win for us.”
Pridemore distinguished himself from the moment he stepped onto campus as a freshman in 1974. The former all-state running back at Anstead (W.Va.) High School proved to be a natural on defense at safety. It was the speed of Pridemore and senior Mark Burke that allowed West Virginia defensive coordinator Chuck Klausing to incorporate an aggressive, attacking defense that year. It was comforting to Klausing to know he had two burners in the secondary to help cover up any mistakes that took place up front.
“Tommy Pridemore was small but he had great speed,” said Klausing. “And Mark Burke was an interesting guy who had a lot of speed, too. Both those guys I believe were high-school sprint champions.”
Pridemore credits first-year secondary coach Greg Williams with helping the defense become more aggressive and physical in ‘75.
“We had some new players and coming off the 1974 season we knew we were a better football team than 4-7,” he said. “Greg Williams came in and he was a high-energy, get-after-it kind of guy. He brought some toughness to our defense that I don’t think we had before.”
At the same time, Pridemore remembers Bobby Bowden letting his defensive coaches coach and not getting too involved on that side of the field. Pridemore believes that is one of the many secrets to his success.
“Most of my memories of Coach Bowden are grabbing some defensive coach and asking him what we’re doing out there or can’t we stop what they’re doing? It was those kinds of things but he never really got involved with the (defensive) players,” Pridemore said.
Pridemore led the WVU secondary with 82 tackles and five interceptions for 132 yards, including an 87-yarder for a touchdown in the ‘75 season opener against Temple. His play was steady throughout the year.
Pridemore recalls his Peach Bowl experience being more of a business trip.
“We went down there and did a good job and took care of business and came away with a win,” he said. “It capped off a good year that we really felt like we were kind of on our way to something special.”
But that wasn’t in the cards. Bowden left after Pridemore’s sophomore season to take over the Florida State job, and during Pridemore’s last two seasons in 1976 and 1977, West Virginia managed identical 5-6 records. His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown at Penn State in 1977 remains one of the most memorable defensive plays in Mountaineer history.
Pridemore’s 19 career interceptions at WVU included two for touchdowns. He is still considered one of the school’s best-ever defensive backs.
“I always had a huge amount of respect for Coach Bowden,” said Pridemore. “He was just a high-integrity, good guy. It was a shock that he left and some of the players at the time felt a little betrayed until we got a little older and fully understood the reasons why he left.”
Like Bowden, Pridemore went on to distinguish himself following his days at West Virginia. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Atlanta Falcons and played 15 of 16 regular games his rookie year in 1978, starting 14. Pridemore got his big break during week three of his rookie season when Ray Easterling was injured.
Later that year he was named AP player of the week for his fourth-down, goal-line stop to help preserve a victory over the Detroit Lions. Also in that game he recorded a fourth-down sack and intercepted a pass on the final play of the game.
Pridemore led the Falcon secondary in tackles from 1978-83 and his most productive season with Atlanta came in 1981 when he picked off seven passes and led the NFL in interception return yardage with 221.
His eight-year professional career saw him produce 710 tackles, 20 interceptions and recover 12 fumbles.
Pridemore, a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
“West Virginia is a great place in that the state kind of lives and dies with West Virginia University and when you do well they’re all behind you and it’s great,” he said.