Jay Rockefeller and Mountaineer Football

  • By John Antonik
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  • January 13, 2013 01:01 AM
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Famous French mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote that if Cleopatra’s nose was shorter, the whole face of world history would have been different.

Pascal opined that without Cleopatra’s great beauty, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony would not have fallen under her spell, the great wars of that period would not have been fought, and today, we might all be speaking Latin. A is connected to B and to C, leading all the way down to X, Y and Z.

Well, if you subscribe to that line of thinking (the historians call it counterfactual history), a strong argument could be made that had Jay Rockefeller not implored those wanting to add an upper deck to the old stadium come out of the fog and regain their senses, Mountaineer football might not be in the position it is in today.

For instance, if the aforementioned improvements would have been made to old Mountaineer Field on WVU’s cramped downtown campus, would Dick Martin have decided to leave the Big Eight Conference to come to West Virginia to be the school’s new athletic director?

If Martin didn’t come, would West Virginia have been able to land Don Nehlen from Michigan?

If Nehlen didn’t leave Michigan, would West Virginia have been able to attract a coach who was willing to remain for the 21-year run of success that Nehlen enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s – the two cracks at a national championship in 1988 and 1993; Nehlen’s loyal coaches developing all of those All-American and NFL players and the renewed prestige the program enjoyed that eventually led to full-fledged membership in the Big East Conference?

If not for Nehlen’s success and its Big East Conference affiliation, would West Virginia have been in a position to attract Rich Rodriguez from Clemson when Nehlen retired in 2000 and experience continued success from 2002-07? And if not for that consistent success and the increased exposure of playing in a major Eastern all-sports conference, would West Virginia have been appealing enough to woo the likes of Dr. Jim Clements and Oliver Luck, who championed the Mountaineers’ jump to the Big 12 Conference when the Big East was imploding?

Naturally, no one knows for sure how things would have turned out because the dots are impossible to connect, but it is interesting nonetheless.

At any rate, those were some of the thoughts going through my mind when I first heard the news on Friday that Rockefeller is planning to retire from the Senate when his present term ends in two years.

Rockefeller is said to love Mountaineer football; he was a big, big supporter of Don Nehlen and he has always held the belief that West Virginia University could achieve great things.

I recall a story former athletic director Ed Pastilong once told me about Rockefeller hastily assembling an emergency meeting in the Governor’s mansion down in Charleston when it became clear that there was not enough money to build a complex for the team when construction on the new football stadium was nearing completion in the fall of 1980.

Rockefeller invited the state’s wealthiest and most powerful to dinner, locked them in a room and after exchanging pleasantries, immediately got down to business. Rockefeller said the meeting was being called with the goal of raising enough money to help WVU construct a new Facilities Building to house the coaches offices, locker rooms and the space needed to operate a major college football program. And to get the ball rolling, he was going to make the first pledge, although the amount he tossed out now escapes me.

Then, Rockefeller passed out cards to the rest of those sitting around the table and instructed them to write down a figure that they were willing to contribute, fold it up to conceal the amount, and slide it down the table in his direction. When all of the cards were collected and the pledges were tallied, a frown formed on the governor’s face.

Not good enough.

So Rockefeller discarded those cards and issued another set of cards and told them to dig a little deeper in their wallets. This time, he got the amount he was looking for and West Virginia had its first-class football complex.

A couple years later, when Nehlen was being pursued by South Carolina to replace the fired Jim Carlen, Rockefeller once again came to the rescue by encouraging West Virginia’s cash-strapped administration to think a little more creatively in order keep its successful football coach. They did and Nehlen stayed.

And the rest, they say, is history.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.