Last year, I read an interesting book by former CNN, CBS and NBC political analyst and journalist Jeff Greenfield called Then Everything Changed
. What Greenfield was practicing was a little counterfactual history, or what-ifs, if you may.
He hypothesized what would have happened if JFK HAD been assassinated in December, 1960 right before he was about to take office (Yes, a would-be suicide bomber was actually plotting to kill Kennedy outside of his Palm Beach home on Dec. 11, 1960 just three years before Lee Harvey Oswald actually did the foul deed. The would-be assassin didn’t push the switch to ignite the seven sticks of dynamite strapped to his body because he didn’t want to kill Kennedy in front of the President-elect’s wife and daughter).
Greenfield also wondered what would have happened in 1968 if Bobby Kennedy had somehow avoided the pantry in the Ambassador Hotel that hot June night in Los Angeles and not been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan. Would RFK have won the Democratic nomination and defeated Richard Nixon in the general election?
Finally, Greenfield projected what the future would have looked like if Gerald Ford had not made his embarrassing gaffe during a second Presidential debate when he asserted that Poland and Eastern Europe were not under the domination of the Soviet Union - a mistake that ultimately helped Georgia’s Jimmy Carter win the 1976 Presidential election.
Greenfield’s alternative histories may have been speculative and hypothetical, but were interesting nonetheless.
There are countless instances throughout West Virginia University’s long and storied football history when a bounce of the ball here or some good fortune there could have meant the difference between success and failure.
Take last year, for instance. What if Bruce Irvin doesn’t roll up on Zach Collaros’ ankle or Eain Smith wasn’t able to block Cincinnati’s game-tying field goal attempt? Does West Virginia go on to win that game? What about Stedman Bailey
’s sliding 26-yard reception on fourth down that led to Tyler Bitancurt
’s game-winning field goal at South Florida? If that game goes into overtime, does West Virginia win it?
On a larger scale, if WVU had slipped up in any one of its remaining three regular games against Cincinnati, Pitt or South Florida (won by a combined seven points) those 70 points scored against Clemson in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl would have never happened.
Speaking of the Orange Bowl, what would have happened if Darwin Cook
hadn’t made that great heads-up play in the second quarter when Clemson was still moving the ball at will on the Mountaineers? Cook’s strip of Andre Ellington and subsequent return for a touchdown was either a 10 or 14-point swing depending upon whether or not the WVU defense could have kept the Tigers out of the end zone (up to that point it hadn’t). Does West Virginia win the game if Cook doesn’t make that play?
Stepping back into history, what if Joe Marconi was able to hold on to Fred Wyant’s pass in the end zone on that fourth-down play in the second quarter against Georgia Tech in the 1954 Sugar Bowl? At the time of Marconi’s drop, the Mountaineers were only trailing 20-6. West Virginia wanted to control the football with its huge offensive line and powerful running game and wear down the much smaller Yellow Jackets, but it never could do that because it was chasing them the entire afternoon. Could a Marconi touchdown have turned the tide, or, Tommy Allman’s long touchdown run early in the game that was called back because of a penalty?
What if split end Oscar Patrick hadn’t blown out his knee during pregame warm-ups before West Virginia’s 1969 game against Penn State in State College? Both teams were undefeated at the time, and a run-first West Virginia offense had no chance of moving the ball against Penn State’s dominant defense that afternoon; plus, Patrick had had great games against Penn State in the past. Could it have been West Virginia instead of Penn State in the 1970 Orange Bowl if Patrick had not gotten hurt? Would Jim Carlen have stuck around for a couple more years if the Mountaineers had made the Orange Bowl that season?
What if Jeff Hostetler doesn’t connect with Darrell Miller for that long touchdown pass right before the end of the first half at Oklahoma in 1982? Or, what if Don Nehlen doesn’t roll the dice and call for an onside kick right before Hostetler’s TD throw? Does West Virginia go on to record one of its biggest victories in school history?
What if Major Harris hadn’t injured his shoulder on the third play of the game against Notre Dame in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl? Or, what if Darrell Whitmore didn’t break his arm during the Syracuse game, forcing the Mountaineers to juggle their secondary for the Irish by moving strong safety Bo Orlando to free safety? Would having Whitmore and Orlando in the lineup together been enough to slow down Notre Dame’s passing attack and give (a healthy) Harris enough of a cushion to lead the Mountaineers to their first (and only) national championship? And, if that would have happened, would the program have charted a different course afterward?
What if West Virginia hadn’t gone undefeated in 1993? What if Mike Logan doesn’t make that great defensive play that led to Eddie Hill’s game-winning touchdown catch at Boston College? Would the Mountaineers have had enough juice to become full members in the Big East Conference (which ultimately led to the school getting into the Big 12 Conference in 2011) had it not gone to the Sugar Bowl in 1994? Would Temple or Virginia Tech have been picked instead?
What if David Saunders would have been able to get a hand on Tremain Mack at the end of the Miami game in 1996? If Brian West had successfully punted away the football could Miami have scored a touchdown against the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense to win the game? Additionally, if West Virginia had defeated Miami, would it have run the table against Syracuse, Rutgers and Virginia Tech to get into the national championship hunt?
What if West Virginia had opened the 1998 season with Ohio University instead of No. 1-ranked Ohio State? Would the Mountaineers, possessing arguably one of the most talented teams in school history, have made another run at an undefeated season that year? Back then, if you recall, West Virginia was running off undefeated campaigns in five-year intervals (1988 and 1993) and 1998 was the next team in line to do so.
What if Phil Brady’s fake punt had not been successful near the end of the 2006 Nokia Sugar Bowl? Could West Virginia’s defense have stopped Georgia from scoring the game-winning touchdown? And, if West Virginia had lost to the Bulldogs, would the Big East have survived another crushing BCS bowl loss?
Finally, what if in 2007 West Virginia hadn’t put up 66 points on Connecticut to claim a share of the Big East title? What if the Mountaineers had ONLY defeated the Huskies by a touchdown or two (WVU was only leading 24-14 at halftime) instead of the dominating 45-point victory they eventually managed to produce? Would that have made a difference in the Pitt game the following week? What if Pat White hadn’t injured his thumb against the Panthers and missed half of the game? Would the Mountaineers have scored enough points to beat the one-dimensional Panthers? Would West Virginia have defeated Ohio State in the 2008 national championship game instead of LSU?
What we do know is that history doesn’t turn on a dime, as Greenfield wrote, but instead it turns on a “plugged nickel.” And then, of course, everything changes.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 available in bookstores this fall. 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.