Alexander the Great
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
February 2, 2005
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Assistant football coach Garrett Ford felt a great sense of relief when star recruit Robert Alexander announced his decision to attend West Virginia University during an elaborate afternoon press conference set up inside the West Virginia Governor’s mansion at the request of Gov. Jay Rockefeller.
There were an estimated 50 reporters conspicuously blended in with the running back’s family, high school coaches and friends on hand to witness his announcement. Rockefeller, noting the large turnout, remarked: “I wish there had been half as many people on hand when I announced for governor.”
Ford had been through this anguish plenty of times before, going down to the wire only to be informed that his school wasn’t the one. Before there was a national signing day coaches used to go directly to a prospect’s house and deliver the scholarship papers in person to be signed. Often there were several other coaches in the home at the same time. Sometimes it was a free-for-all.
“(Former WVU fullback) Walter Easley was a situation like that,” Ford said. “There were four of us sitting in Walter’s living room on the morning of signing day and he’s sitting upstairs and we had to wait for this 18-year-old kid to come down and make a decision.
“All of us had spent unlimited time with this kid,” Ford noted. “You’d try to play it off and talk but everyone was thinking the same thing, ‘He’s coming to my school.’ There were many times when the kid would come downstairs and say he hasn’t made his mind up and he needs more time.”
But Alexander’s mind was made up on Jan. 25, 1977, and he was ready to announce to the world his momentous decision. In passing, Gov. Rockefeller noted that in the difficult times of the mid-1970s (West Virginia, like the rest of the country, was dealing with high unemployment and outrageous gas prices due to a national energy crisis) “we’re very glad that Robert can do something to bring pride and happiness to the state.”
Alexander, wearing a dark blue tie outlined in gold, addressed the crowd by saying he was going to West Virginia University because he “felt at ease with the coaching staff and it was his hope that he would lead the school to national prominence.”
Robert Alexander was as good as there was in 1977.
So good, in fact, that while the rest of the West Virginia coaching staff covered their normal recruiting territories Garrett Ford was assigned just one recruiting project that year: Robert Alexander.
“I went down to Charleston on Mondays and came back on Thursdays for recruiting meetings,” recalled Ford, now the school’s associate athletic director in charge of academics. “My job was to recruit Robert Alexander the whole year. I went to the games, I went to the house; we did dishes together. I spent a lot of time with Robert and his family.”
Alexander led the Kanawha Valley in scoring with 150 points as a sophomore in 1974 and his legend grew each time he carried the football. By the time his prep career was finished in 1976 he had scored 96 touchdowns and ran for a state-record 5,872 yards that lasted 22 years before West Virginia recruit Quincy Wilson broke the mark in 1998. Alexander averaged 184 yards per game and 7.2 yards per carry for his prep career.
He was a two-time Kennedy Award winner as the state’s top high school football player and was rated the No. 1 running back in the country his senior season, earning mention on the Parade Magazine All-America team.
Alexander had scholarship offers from an estimated 200 schools and he narrowed his final choices to Penn State, Maryland and USC. Every time Ford heard that another big-name coach was headed to South Charleston High School to make their bid to land Robert his heart just sank.
“All these big guns would come in and we were West Virginia and back then I had this complex of how can I go up against these guys?” Ford said. “I just gave it my best shot and I got to know him very well and he’d come up and a lot of people in West Virginia were involved with recruiting him.”
That included the entire coaching staff. Ford remembers spending lunch with Alexander in the high school cafeteria with seven other WVU coaches, including head coach Frank Cignetti.
“To show you how important Robert was, eight of us went to South Charleston High School and spent lunchtime with him,” Ford laughed. “Now what do you think is going through that kid’s mind when he sees these eight grown adults coming here to recruit him? What was the attitude of the other kids around him? I remember at (high school) basketball games Robert used to have autographed pictures of himself that he used to give out.”
Because West Virginia was coming off a losing season in 1976 after Coach Bobby Bowden’s successful run, and because it was his sole responsibility to land the state’s latest “natural resource,” Ford felt enormous pressure to come through for the program.
“I felt pressure because he was so big -- I’m talking about nationally,” Ford said. “He had Tony Dorsett calling him (for Pitt) and Franco Harris calling him (for Penn State).”
Ford soon came to understand the sheer magnitude of landing a football player of Alexander’s reputation.
“I realized if you had a super blue (chip) player on your team that was worth putting the individual time in recruiting because he could make your program if you got him,” he said. “Robert was on CBS News being proclaimed as ‘Alexander the Great’ and he was scoring six touchdowns a game playing maybe two or three quarters. He was an outstanding high school player and I knew if we got him he was going to be a big addition to our program.”
But Ford also harbored some inner reservations having watched Alexander for an entire season. He knew the competition he played against was good -- not great -- and that Alexander didn’t have that extra burst that elite runners like Tony Dorsett and Anthony Davis of that era possessed.
“He was tall and lanky and he was a straight-up runner,” Ford said. “He didn’t have great breakaway speed. He had a good time in the forty but it was hard for Robert to hit an 80-yarder like some of the great backs.”
That became evident to those involved in the Mountaineer program when Alexander arrived on campus with great fanfare. Some of the players on the team were jealous of his enormous billing and tried to take it out on him in practice. Alexander also had great difficulty adjusting to Cignetti’s veer offense utilizing two runners that was modeled after Houston.
“Everyone was really happy that he decided to come and of course in the Charleston area everyone was patting him on the back and congratulating him,” Ford said. “The reality didn’t hit him until he got here his freshman year during that first practice.”
Alexander didn’t reach his great promise until 1980 when Don Nehlen arrived and scrapped the veer for the I-formation. Alexander ran for 1,064 yards as a senior and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He ran for a career-best 187 yards in the 1980 season opener against Cincinnati.
Alexander spent two seasons in professional football as a backup running back with the Los Angeles Rams in 1981-82 and one year with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL.
Because Alexander didn’t enjoy the fabulous career predicted of him (himself once caught up in the moment claiming he would win four Heisman Trophies at WVU), other top-notch in-state products were hesitant to follow in his footsteps.
Pineville standout running back Curt Warner decided to go to Penn State in 1978 instead of attending his home state university. Ford, by that time working for the school in academics, says WVU assistant coach Joel Hicks was responsible for recruiting Warner.
“Curt was from a small area and Robert was from Charleston and that was like big-city, small-city,” he said. “Some people thought Curt couldn’t play here and I think that word got back to him and he wanted to show them and he went to Penn State and became a great tailback.”
As for Alexander, even though he isn’t today considered a household national name like he was in the winter of 1977, Ford says anyone over the age of 35 from West Virginia knows who Robert Alexander is.
“We haven’t had a whole lot of great players in the state but Robert is still well known,” he said. “A lot of older people still remember him.”
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