Syracuse Memories

  • By John Antonik
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  • October 20, 2011 09:05 AM
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Early Wednesday afternoon, Charleston radio personality Frank Giardina asked me to go on his popular show The Drive on ESPN Radio (104.5 FM and 1490 AM) to talk a little West Virginia-Syracuse football history.

Well, one thing led to another, the show was backlogged with material from Wednesday morning’s Big East basketball media day and Frank emailed me to see if we could try again today.

No problem, I replied.

Then I got to thinking about all of those compelling West Virginia-Syracuse football games through the years and it hit me that Friday night could be the last time the Mountaineers will ever play in the Dome, at least for the foreseeable future.

Last month Syracuse and Pitt became the ACC's latest acquisitions, putting in jeopardy future games against two of West Virginia's most frequent gridiron combatants. Naturally Pitt is the No. 1 red-letter game on any Mountaineer fans' schedule, but Syracuse became enemy No. 2 when Penn State and Virginia Tech left the docket.

In fact, this year's game with Syracuse will represent the 59th meeting between these longtime rivals, matching Penn State as West Virginia’s second-most frequently played opponent during its 120-year football history.

Of course Pitt is first on the list with game number 104 coming up next month.

Incidentally, the ACC acquisitions department also took care of West Virginia's fourth most frequent grid foe, Virginia Tech, the two schools now in a holding pattern since the 51-game series was discontinued after the 2005 season.

As for Syracuse, West Virginia first attempted to schedule the New Yorkers during World War II when travel restrictions forced teams to try and arrange games within close geographic distance. In 1943, the late WVU athletic director Roy "Legs" Hawley got Syracuse coach Ossie Solem to agree to a pair of games in 1943-44, but soon afterward Syracuse opted to shut down its grid program for the '43 season and the first game didn't happen until two years later in 1945 when the war was winding down.

Syracuse won that game 12-0.

The following year, West Virginia returned the favor in Morgantown when the Mountaineers captured a 13-0 verdict at the old stadium. Then the two teams took a nine-year hiatus until Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse’s famous coach and a former Mountaineer player for Greasy Neale in the early 1930s, revitalized the series in 1955.

They have been playing ever since.

In 1950s and 1960s, when Schwartzwalder was stockpiling NFL teams with hall of fame talent, wins over the Orangemen (as they were called then) were extremely rare. In fact, just a 1957 victory in Morgantown and a surprising 17-6 triumph at old Archbold Stadium in 1962 were West Virginia's only wins during a nine-year stretch.

West Virginia's Tom Woodeshick, later an all-pro running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, recalled coach Gene Corum giving the team one of the most memorable halftime speeches he had ever heard.

Upset with the way things were going, the gentlemanly Corum told his players to gather around him because he had some important news to reveal. He said that he had just found out that the team locker room at been broken into at some point during the first half and all of the players' valuables - wallets, watches and rings - had been pilfered.

No such thing had happened, just as Knute Rockne's win-one-for-the-Gipper speech was more imagination than truth, but it did the trick.

"By god we went out there in the second half and just killed them," Woodeshick laughed.

Woodeshick, apparently still thinking his wallet had disappeared for good, signed a professional contract with the Buffalo Bills right underneath the goal post after the game. He also later signed a pro contract with the Eagles, making him a rare double-signer. A team of WVU law professors was required to get him out of that one.

In 1964 on a snowy, dreary day in Morgantown, Bob Dunlevy's late touchdown reception spoiled Syracuse's afternoon and catapulted the Mountaineers into the 1964 Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City, N.J.

Before the game, heavily favored Syracuse announced that it had accepted a bid to play LSU in the Sugar Bowl and in its pre-game press release had already counted a victory over West Virginia. Several Mountain State scribes held on to that press release as a keepsake.

In 1967, during Jim Carlen's second season at WVU, the Mountaineers absorbed one of their worst physical beatings at the hands of the Orangemen. Years later Bobby Bowden, Carlen's offensive coordinator at the time, was once asked to recall some of his experiences playing against Syracuse. He brought up the '67 game first.

"We didn't leave Syracuse," he said. "We were evacuated!"

Bowden said that Syracuse team was made up of the biggest, meanest bunch of football players he had ever seen. Two West Virginia players were knocked out of the game on the same play, and later, quarterback Tom Digon had to be carried off the field as well. Afterward, some of the members of the travel party had to remain in Syracuse until the wounded players were released from the hospital.

Syracuse had a streak of terrific running backs, starting with Jim Brown and Ernie Davis in the 1950s, and continuing into the 1960s with Floyd Little and Jim Nance, but no Syracuse ball carrier struck the fear into the hearts of West Virginia players quite like Larry Csonka.

Csonka was easily the biggest guy on the football field and he would frequently run over West Virginia's biggest defenders and then help them up, politely telling the guy he had just flattened, "Good job little fella."

"He was calling our defensive tackles - our biggest guys on the team - little fellas! Can you imagine that?" laughed WVU kicker Ken Juskowich.

But eventually Schwartzwalder's teams began to taper off in the early 1970s and Bowden frequently got the best of them when he became West Virginia’s head coach, WVU claiming four out of five games from 1970-74.

There was a lull in the series during the Frank Cignetti-Frank Maloney years in the late 70s, but interest picked up once again in the early 1980s when longtime coaching buddies Don Nehlen and Dick MacPherson took over the two programs at West Virginia and Syracuse respectively.

In 1987, the Mountaineers came within a two-point conversion of spoiling Syracuse's undefeated season. The next year in 1988, WVU returned the favor by knocking off the Orange 31-9 in Morgantown to cap off the school's first-ever undefeated, untied regular season.

The most controversial game occurred in 1992 when a bench-clearing brawl marred an otherwise well-played contest. The melee took place near the Syracuse sideline when West Virginia's Tommy Orr hit Syracuse quarterback Marvin Graves as he was going out of bounds. Whether Graves was actually in bounds or out of bounds is a matter of contention.

Graves clearly thought he was out of bounds, got up, and fired the football at Orr and the two teams began pushing and shoving.

However, it was when a Syracuse assistant coach grabbed Orr that the pushing and shoving escalated into a bench-clearing brawl. When it was over, West Virginia lost three key defensive starters and Syracuse was forced to carry on without its third-string guard, a player not even listed on the flip charts issued to reporters before the game.

When writers learned of the ejections and went over to see veteran Syracuse sports information director Larry Kimball to get the name of the ejected Orange player, all Kimball could do was offer a shrug.

"I have no idea who he is," Kimball growled.

Adding insult to injury, Syracuse ended up winning the game on a late touchdown pass from Graves - the guy who started the fight in the first place!

During his post-game press conference, Nehlen uttered the word "crime" at least 20 different times before writers stopped counting. Veteran newsman Mickey Furfari was nominated as the pool reporter to go into the officials' locker room to get their version of the story, but no one is sure if Mickey ever asked a question.

All that could be heard was old Mickey berating the zebras for the lousy job they had done that afternoon.

Afterward, West Virginia video coordinator Don Poluzek poured over the game footage as if it were the Zapruder film and eventually sent off a pretty convincing presentation to the Big East office that is likely still sitting on someone's shelf collecting dust.

The only real satisfaction West Virginia fans got out of the entire episode was tying up the Big East's fax machine on Monday morning with the letters of protest it kept spitting out. Some irate fan had called into one of the Sunday night talk shows to give out the fax number.

There are other memories.

I remember watching nervous freshman center Eric de Groh getting into the game up at the Dome in '95 and snapping pop-ups to quarterback Chad Johnston - while Johnston was still under center. Afterward, Chad was joking with Eric on the plane ride back to Morgantown that some of his snaps were so high that he needed to issue a fair catch signal to keep from getting killed. Of course de Groh later went on to become an outstanding three-year starter for the Mountaineers.

Just when it seemed like Syracuse was getting the upper hand in the series, Marc Bulger, Amos Zereoue and David Saunders turned things around with a big victory over the nationally ranked Orange at Mountaineer Field in 1998.

Then two years later, Syracuse used some late-game heroics of its own to pull out a 31-27 triumph in Morgantown. Immediately after the game, Nehlen announced that the 2000 season would be his last at WVU.

There was Chris Henry's unforgettable performance in the Carrier Dome in 2003, and that key season-opening victory at Syracuse in 2005 before a nationally televised audience on ABC that started WVU down the path to the Sugar Bowl.

And of course, who can forget last year's stunning Syracuse upset victory in Morgantown to kick start the Doug Marrone era.

Ah, the memories … I will leave you with one more.

The late Bill Smith of the Charleston Daily Mail used to hate going to Archbold Stadium to cover Syracuse football games.

“You wouldn’t believe that place,” he once recalled. “One Saturday we were up there in late November, it was overcast, cold, and it was almost completely dark in the middle of the afternoon.

“They had the lights on and only about 17 bulbs came on,” Smith continued. “The place would have been better lit if everyone in the stands had a flashlight. The press box was unheated and when you sat there you froze to death. They served you clam chowder and it was wonderful because it warmed you up.”

According to Smitty, the only saving grace came at the end of the games when Larry Kimball brought out a bottle of whiskey to share with the writers.

“Sometimes it took you a little longer to write your stories,” Smith said.

Enjoy Friday's game.