WVU's border rivalries worth saving
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Try as they might - and they certainly have tried - almost no one associated with West Virginia's football program these days has a feel for what used to be.
I'm not saying that's good, bad or indifferent. Truth is, I doubt it really matters all that much.
When Dana Holgorsen arrived as coach, he was here just in time to experience life in what had become the fractured Big East. He coached against Pitt and against Syracuse and against Rutgers. He was there at the tail end of the recently revived rivalries with Cincinnati and Louisville and with what was becoming a rather contentious series with Connecticut.
His assistant coaches? Most of the ones on the staff now weren't even a part of those games during Holgorsen's first season. Shannon Dawson is the only one left from his original coaching staff. Yes, Lonnie Galloway was around for a few of those games in his prior incarnation on Bill Stewart's staff, and JuJuan Seider lived through some of it as both a player under Don Nehlen and later as a grad assistant.
The players? Yes, the older ones have a feel for it, I guess. Then again, think of how the roster has turned over in the past two years. Many of them wouldn't know Pittsburgh from Pittsburg, Kan., or Rutgers from Ramapo.
And while Holgorsen and his staff have made a concerted and quite admirable effort over the last year to indoctrinate all these newbies - themselves included - into the history and tradition of the university and the state and its football past, there still is something missing.
It's familiarity and it's tradition. It's the familiarity and the tradition of playing teams with which West Virginia has a history and a past. As exciting and as intriguing as playing at Oklahoma or hosting Texas might be, sometimes you just yearn for a game and an opponent that is equal parts old friend and hated foe.
Which brings us to Maryland. And to Tony Gibson.
"Yeah, you miss it. You miss those things,'' Gibson said. "The good thing with Maryland is it's [scheduled to] go on for another five or six years, and hopefully it keeps going. I hope we don't lose all of the close games.''
Gibson is one of the few involved with West Virginia's football program these days with an acute sense of the past. Offensive line coach Ron Crook grew up in the state, but until only a few months ago had never been directly involved with the program.
Gibson, WVU's safeties coach, not only grew up in Boone County, he went to school in the state and has coached in it for all but a few brief years. He's old enough to remember West Virginia playing Penn State, and he coached against all those other rivals while on Rich Rodriguez's staff.
Certainly Gibson understands why things aren't the same anymore, all the conference shuffling being what it is. He's not complaining, either. Stuff happens, right?
"I think the whole face of college football has changed, obviously,'' Gibson said. "I mean, you've got Maryland going to the Big Ten. Who would ever have thought that? The whole face of college football has taken a turn, and everybody understands why it happened and when it happened.''
Still, nostalgia sometimes rears its head, and Gibson misses the old days.
"Oh, no doubt,'' Gibson said. "Anytime you have a border rivalry, like a Maryland or a Pitt or Virginia Tech or any of those, those are big games. They're big games for the state. We recruit a lot of the same guys. There's a lot more to it than just a football game.
"It goes into recruiting wars. It goes into state against state. It's a rivalry game, and I told our kids that early in the week.''
Perhaps little of this matters from a player's point of view. Really, it's a fan thing more than anything else, right? Once upon a time, games like the one in Baltimore on Saturday were the norm - teams in close proximity with long histories of playing each other. Players just play. Coaches game plan the same no matter if the foe is old or new, close or far. It's all pretty regimented.
Then again, some of that emotion and familiarity can be injected once in a while, and given that this is the only old rival remaining on West Virginia's schedule, that probably wouldn't be a bad thing to do.
"It did [feel a little different] today,'' Gibson said Tuesday after West Virginia went back to work after a day off. "The kids were flying around. There was a little more buzz out there. I think the kids understand what this game means to our program and that it means a lot to our season.''
There aren't many of these games left, and we're not taking about this season. Maryland is signed up for games the next four years. Virginia Tech comes back on the schedule in 2020. There's a Penn State series hanging out there. Who knows if anything will ever happen with Pitt or Syracuse or Rutgers?
And that's a shame.
"I think the style of football we play, we're a great fit in the conference we're in,'' Gibson said, referring to the Big 12. "But would you like to be playing Pitt and Maryland and Penn State and Syracuse? Yeah. It's easier and obviously a lot less costly, and those are natural rivalries. Sometimes you wonder where it's all gone, but I also understand the big picture of college football.
"Still, when you do have a game like this, a border rivalry like this, there's a different feel to it.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.