Playing Oklahoma is a lot like facing Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, USC or any of the other traditional college football programs – fans always seem to remember something about games against those teams, even the ones that don’t turn out well.
That is certainly true of Oklahoma: one of college football’s most storied programs and a team that West Virginia will be facing for the fifth time this Saturday in Morgantown.
Naturally, most West Virginians will quickly bring up the last two meetings against the Sooners – a surprising 41-27 upset victory in Norman in 1982 and an equally surprising 48-28 triumph in Glendale, Ariz., in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Much has been written about those two games over the years.
But there were two other unforgettable meetings against the Sooners, if not for the masses then at least for most of the participants, one played in 1958 when Bud Wilkinson was still in his prime and another played 20 years later when Barry Switzer was ruling the roost.
Back in the mid-1950s, when the national media was hammering the Mountaineers for their soft football schedules as members of the Southern Conference, athletic director Red Brown went to Coach Art “Pappy” Lewis to see if he was willing to beef up the slate a little bit.
“Sure, bring ‘em on,” was Pappy’s response.
So teams like Otterbein, Waynesburg, Wooster, NYU, Western Reserve and Geneva were replaced with Texas, Wisconsin, USC, Indiana, Oregon, Illinois , Oregon State and, of course, Wilkinson’s powerful Sooners.
Naturally, the Mountaineers took their lumps, and they took a few more against the Sooners in 1958 when they got whacked 47-14 in Norman. West Virginia’s sports information director Eddie Barrett was required to advance games back then and he spoke to one of the booster groups in Oklahoma during the week about how West Virginia planned to open up its passing attack with the use of flankers and wide receivers later that Saturday.
When word got back to Lewis in Morgantown about Barrett’s remarks, the mortified coach told a reporter, “He wouldn’t know a flanker from a wooden Indian!”
That afternoon, it was actually the Sooners who aired out the football. Wilkinson ditched his traditional T-formation to make use of his fleet set of flankers and split ends, unleashing a staggering barrage of laterals and long passes that totally confused the much bigger (and much slower) Mountaineers.
For his part, Lewis had a pretty good idea what was in store for his team. Before the game, the West Virginia coach was visiting with old Navy buddy and former Oklahoma State star basketball player Cab Renick in the lobby of the Lockett Hotel. Lewis and Renick were having a ball sharing stories and telling off-color jokes when Renick realized that he was probably taking up too much of Lewis’s time just hours before kickoff, so he tried to excuse himself.
“Art, I better leave you alone so you can get ready for today’s game,” Renick said.
Lewis wouldn’t have any part of it, “No, stick around, Cab, we’re just waiting here to go out and get killed!”
Twenty years later, in 1978, West Virginia’s schedule makers were still tweaking things. Ten years prior, in 1968, Mountaineer coach Jim Carlen had convinced Brown to finally get out of the Southern Conference and play more intersectional football games. Gone were William & Mary, VMI, Davidson, The Citadel and Villanova to be replaced by Cal, Stanford, SMU, Illinois, Arizona State, and, yes, Oklahoma on the road once again. Incidentally, the guy who wanted to play these teams - Carlen - was also long gone by then.
Once more, West Virginia walked the plank.
Coach Frank Cignetti had replaced Bobby Bowden in 1976 and was in the midst of a massive rebuilding job when his Mountaineers took on the fourth-ranked Sooners in mid-September, 1978. Cignetti was going into Norman with a roster full of freshmen and sophomores to face an Oklahoma team that went on to finish the season with an 11-1 record and was a mere three points shy of winning another national championship. That day those Oklahoma boys were like wolves circling their prey.
During a telephone conversation I had with Switzer last spring, I asked the legendary coach about the game his team played against West Virginia in ’78 and he admitted that he couldn’t remember a single thing about it. However, he did recall in great detail how his team lost the national title to Nebraska that year.
“That (game) cost me a national championship,” Switzer recalled. “Billy (Sims) won the Heisman that year. We were the best team in the country, and we got to play Nebraska again (in the Orange Bowl) and we didn’t turn the ball over and we had them, 31-10 in the fourth quarter. We fumbled nine and lost six the day we played them in Lincoln and lost to them 17-14. If they would have done that against us we would have put half-a-hundred on them.”
Switzer may have been a little foggy on the West Virginia game, a 52-10 Sooner victory, but Morgantown attorney Rocky Gianola remembers it fairly well. I dug up my notes from a conversation I had with Rocky a couple years ago about his trip to hell and back.
“It was miserably hot and it was just into the third quarter and a lot of their guys were standing on the sidelines with their shoulder pads off,” Gianola recalled. “They were just chillin’ over there.”
Gianola, a backup center and kicker, also remembers getting some dental work done by one of the Selmon brothers.
“I got my nose broken and my front teeth knocked out,” Gianola said. “He used the palm of his hand and it came right up under my facemask and hit me in the mouth, broke my teeth, and broke my nose. It was an interesting afternoon from that point on.”
Later, when his teammates were falling like ducks in the brutal Oklahoma heat, Gianola was forced to go back into the game to cover a punt.
“We were at about midfield or so, we punted the ball, and I forget who their return man was, but the only thing I know is he is about 10 yards away from me when he caught the ball. The next thing I knew he was halfway up the sideline about 15 yards past me.”
Gianola, still groggy from his meeting with Dr. Selmon earlier in the game, continued to run after the ball carrier.
“I’m running as hard as I can and not only am I losing ground, but I’m thinking this is fruitless,” he said. “All of a sudden, he stops and starts to reverse his field and he runs right into me. Man, I lowered the boom on him, helmets flew and he fumbled the ball, but it was purely by accident because I was so slow.”
But old Rocky, like any good Mountaineer worth his salt, was able to get in a little taunting after his helmet-jarring hit, despite his team only
being down by 39 at the time.
“I always tell that story about me getting a good shot on him – not the part about him running into me,” laughed Gianola. “We couldn’t play football (that year), but let me tell you, by God we hit you!”
Middle guard Joe Jelich, now coaching high school football in Ravenswood, remembers getting in a couple of good licks as well.
“Sims bounced off of someone and kind of turned back in the middle and I was there and got a pretty good shot on him. He just didn’t give you very many chances (to hit him),” Jelich chuckled.
And although Switzer clearly has forgotten this today, he had some fun with reporters after the game trying to describe a couple of indescribable plays.
Switzer’s team was called for a 15-yard penalty in the first half when his quarterback completed a forward pass to an offensive guard. In the second half, West Virginia did the exact same thing. “West Virginia liked the play so much they put it in at halftime,” Switzer joked.
But the former Oklahoma coach does remember the loss his team absorbed to the Mountaineers four years later in 1982.
“(Quarterback) Jeff Hostetler beat us and people didn’t realize how good he was,” said Switzer. “He was a great player and when he won a Super Bowl that puts you at the top of the game and he had done that. We knew he was good that day we played and it was one of those days when they were the better team.
“And Don Nehlen is a real good friend of mine, even after that ass kicking he put on me back here years ago!”
No matter the outcome – a big win or a disappointing loss – games against teams like Oklahoma are always memorable. Just ask anyone who takes part in them.
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