So many employees at the mines and factories throughout West Virginia asked off their shifts when the Mountaineers played their NCAA tournament regional semifinal last Thursday that Coach Bob Huggins was told by Gov. Joe Manchin (D) that play-by-play of the game was piped over speakers so people would still go to work.
“You don't understand unless you've ever been to West Virginia how much it means to the people,” said Huggins, a West Virginia native.
There are no major professional sports teams. There are no major cities. In a state of more than 1.8 million residents, it does not get any bigger than the Mountaineers, who reached their first Final Four since 1959.
Huggins explained this to assistant coach Billy Hahn three years ago. Hahn, a Maryland alum and former Terrapins assistant, joined Huggins on a coaches' caravan. Once Hahn actually saw the way they were received in towns in the state, he was in awe.
“Hugs, this is unbelievable,” Hahn remembered telling Huggins that day. Hahn holds great affection for Maryland, where he spent a good part of his adult life and sent his two children to school. But he and his wife are believers in the passion West Virginians hold for the Mountaineers.
“Of all the places I coached — and I coached at a lot of different places — the passion that West Virginia fans have, the passion that the people of the state of West Virginia have for the Mountaineers, is unlike anything else,” Hahn said.
Sophomore walk-on Cam Payne is the only player on the team from West Virginia. He spent Saturdays as a child going from Charleston to Morgantown to watch Mountaineer football. He rushed the court at the Charleston Civic Center when the Mountaineers upset Florida in December 2002, and he began choking up with nearly 10 minutes remaining in Saturday's win over top-seeded Kentucky at the thought of hearing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with a trip to the Final Four sealed.
Payne fought tears when explaining the role of Mountaineers sports in the lives of his fellow West Virginians, and the pride that they have in a native son — Huggins — leading a team to the apex of college basketball.
“Coach Huggins is a direct reflection of the state of West Virginia,” Payne said, “and we're a direct reflection of Coach Huggins.”
Payne said his teammates are just starting to understand the relationship between the team and the state, one that transcends fanaticism because the team embodies the rugged persona of its coach.
For a mistake in practice, players must pay a trip to a treadmill along the sideline. Do it enough, and it instills a personality that the players admit has won the hearts of their fans.
“They're blue-collar workers who work so hard for everything they want, and this is just a blue-collar team,” senior forward Wellington Smith said. “When you mix that together, you find so much support and so much love from everybody.”
West Virginia basketball analyst Jay Jacobs has been on Mountaineers broadcasts for 32 years — long enough to have analyzed Huggins as a player — and played for the Final Four team in 1959 with Jerry West. He watched Huggins transform the current team into Huggins's image, and said the fans have embraced the team for that reason.
“I know that when this guy walks into any place, whether it's Joe's Diner in Lewisburg, West Virginia, or the chop house in Charleston, West Virginia, he absolutely devastates,” said Jacobs, who now lives in Frederick, Md. “It's his presence. The way he just carries himself, and the state just loves him.”
Which is why Jacobs believes it when Huggins relayed Manchin's message about the broadcast going through the mines and factories in the state. The broadcasts reach both the big and small towns, and late-shift workers need a way to hear the game.
Two years ago, Jacobs received phone calls from radio stations in towns throughout West Virginia because of a talk show he did on the Mountaineers' network. Jacobs and his wife decided to drive around the state and give shirts and hats from Huggins to the fans. Jacobs did not know many of the small towns in his native West Virginia that he marked down on the map. They drove 900 miles and found gas stations and diners to distribute the merchandise.
“It was the most rewarding thing I've ever done,” Jacobs said. “These people sometimes just don't get the opportunity to be able to come to Morgantown. They can't afford it. The areas we went into, I just wanted to thank them. And they just responded unbelievably. I know, as I thanked them for listening, what it was two years ago, and I could only imagine what it would be today. These people are absolutely elated, because it's been 51 years and you're looking for something down there.”