So the Mountaineers are once again heading to Norman, Okla., to play a football game at famed Memorial Stadium. Norman has certainly been a mixed bag for West Virginia through the years, the first trip for the Mountaineers to the Sooner State coming way back in late 1950s.
Back then, West Virginia athletic director Red Brown was taking some heat for the soft schedules his football teams were playing in the old Southern Conference so he asked coach Art Lewis if it was OK to do a little upgrading.
“Sure, bring ‘em on!” Lewis told Brown, not realizing that his AD would actually take him up on his offer.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, West Virginia exchanged football opponents Waynesburg, Otterbein, Western Reserve, Fordham, Marquette and Geneva for Texas, Wisconsin, USC, Indiana, Illinois, Oregon and Oregon State - all of them on the road! However, the biggest name to show up on West Virginia’s grid schedule was Bud Wilkinson’s powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners in 1958.
Oklahoma’s NCAA record 47-game winning streak had ended the prior year in 1957, but Wilkinson had another strong team ready to ambush the Mountaineers in the ’58 opener.
West Virginia already had one victory under its belt – a 66-22 pasting of Richmond in Morgantown - and afterward WVU publicist Eddie Barrett was feeling pretty good about the Mountaineers’ chances against the Sooners. He flew out to Oklahoma ahead of the team to advance the game for the Oklahoma City Quarterback Club, informing its members that West Virginia was going to open things up that Saturday with plenty of passes to its flankers and split ends.
When the Oklahoma City Associated Press writer sitting there amongst the Sooner football rooters got Lewis on the telephone later that evening and asked him to comment on what his young sports information director had told the Oklahoma Quarterback Club, the coach was aghast.
“Why, he wouldn’t know a flanker from a wooden Indian!” Lewis cracked.
Turns out Lewis already knew he was headed for a walk to the electric chair anyway. The coach spent most of the morning before the game at the Hotel Lockett sharing stories with an old Navy buddy from Oklahoma who was there visiting Lewis before the game. Concerned that he was keeping the coach from doing some last-minute game planning, his old friend politely tried to excuse himself. Art wouldn’t have any of it.
“Stick around Chief, we’re just waiting to go out and get killed anyway,” the coach remarked.
He was right: Oklahoma 47, West Virginia 14.
Twenty years later, the WVU administration chose to repeat past mistakes by putting together another killer slate of non-conference football opponents that featured long road trips to Palo Alto, Calif., Dallas, Texas, Berkley, Calif., and Tempe, Ariz.
A second jaunt to Norman, Okla., in 1978 was also part of the plans.
In his first five seasons at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer had lost only five games and just two of those were at Memorial Stadium. Meanwhile, in the second of what turned out to be a brief four-year WVU coaching tenure, Frank Cignetti owned just three road victories over the likes of Temple, Tulane and Virginia - not exactly awe inspiring.
Once again, it was pretty clear to everyone that this one had zero chance of turning out well for the Mountaineers.
Morgantown attorney Rocky Gianola, a backup center and first-string wedge buster on the punt team that year, sets the scene down in Norman: “It was miserably hot and it was just into the third quarter and a lot of their guys were already standing on the sidelines with their shoulder pads off, just chilling,” he recalled.
Rocky had already had some bridgework done to him earlier in the game - he thought by one of the Selmon brothers, but a quick check of the Oklahoma media guide reveals that Dewey, Lee Roy and Lucious were already out of Dodge by then (stories always sound better when it includes one of the Selmon brothers, by the way). At any rate, with his nose broken and half his teeth gone, Rocky was in a pretty foul mood when he was asked to go back out in the 115-degree heat to cover another punt.
As the ball went airborne, Gianola used his 5-flat speed to rumble down the field, pulling up about 10 yards short of the punt returner to give himself ample room to figure out which way he was going to go. In the blink of an eye, however, the ball carrier was already 15 yards past Rocky running up the near sideline. Rocky quickly put on the breaks (it’s easy to stop when you’re not going that fast), turned around and took off in the opposite direction.
“This is fruitless,” Rocky thought to himself.
But he kept running, even though he was still losing ground. Suddenly, the Oklahoma punt returner stopped and began to reverse field in the other direction – right into a gasping-for-air Rocky Gianola, who lowered the boom on him. Helmets flew and the football was on the ground for anyone to pounce on.
“It was purely by accident because I was so slow,” Gianola laughed. “We’re down about 42-3 at that point but I still got up and talked a little trash to him. For years, I would tell that story about killing that Oklahoma guy, but I never told anybody that he ran right into me – it was always me getting a good shot on him!”
Oh, and by the way: Oklahoma 52, West Virginia 10.
In the summer of 1982, sitting behind a film projector watching that 1978 Oklahoma massacre was WVU coach Don Nehlen, who took over for Cignetti following the 1979 season. All Nehlen could do was shake his head in amazement at the terrific athletes Switzer had at his disposal back then.
“All of their good players had their shoulder pads off and were standing on the sidelines by halftime,” Nehlen later recalled.
The reason Nehlen was watching four-year old film was because he was trying to get a little extra intelligence on Barry Switzer’s Sooners, who his Mountaineer team was facing in the ’82 opener that year.
Despite upsetting Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl, nobody was giving West Virginia much of a chance against the nationally ranked Sooners in the stifling Oklahoma heat. Oklahoma was just too big, too fast and too talented for the upstart Mountaineers, the experts said.
“I’m going in thinking we’re in deep trouble,” Nehlen recalled years later. “I looked at that team and they were bigger, faster and stronger than us at every position. But our coaching staff did a great job of preseason planning.”
After spotting the Sooners an early 14-0 lead, Nehlen’s Mountaineers roared back with a 20-point second quarter to take a 20-14 halftime lead. With the score tied at 27 with three minutes left in the third quarter, West Virginia took control of the game behind the strong-armed passing of quarterback Jeff Hostetler. Hoss found Wayne Brown for the go-ahead score with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter before giving the ball to tailback Curlin Beck for the game-icing TD with two minutes remaining.
“We executed beautifully and that stupid draw play I always called just ruined them,” Nehlen said.
The final score: West Virginia 41, Oklahoma 27.
“With their wishbone they didn’t know how to play catch up football,” Nehlen explained. “They would hand it off to the fullback and kept that clock running. I said, ‘Just keep doing it brother; keep doing it.’”
Hostetler believes the outstanding program Mountaineer football has become today was born out in the searing heat in Norman, Okla., that September Saturday afternoon.
“It all started off with Oklahoma because we didn’t have a chance and that’s what everybody was saying,” said Hostetler. “We were going to go out there and kill their horse because he was going to be running around that field so much because they were going to score so many points.”
Two years ago, when Switzer came to West Virginia to help promote WVU’s move to the Big 12 Conference, I got the old coach on the phone to talk a little football. My first question was about the ’78 game in Norman.
Silence. He couldn’t remember a single thing about it.
Then, I asked him about the ’82 game. He remembered that one.
“Jeff Hostetler beat us and people didn’t realize how good he was,” said Switzer. “And Don is a real good friend of mine, even after that (butt) kicking he put on me back here years ago.”
Switzer was also quick to point out that it’s often difficult for old ball coaches to remember the wins, but they never forget the losses.
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