Starkey: Living, dying with the Mountaineers
Their devotion cuts across economic lines, gender lines and state lines. Shoot, it even stretches across the boundary that divides life from death.
Once a Mountaineer, always a Mountaineer.
Hopefully, the following three scenes capture the essence of what it means to West Virginians that their basketball team is headed to the Final Four for the first time since 1959 ...
As the funeral mass for beloved WVU fan John Fleming wound down Tuesday in Morgantown, W.Va., the Rev. Dr. Ken Ramsey said, "I know it's a funeral, but ..." and launched into a chant West Virginia fans learn in the womb.
Ramsey said, "Let's Go ..." and the standing-room-only crowd at Hastings Funeral Home responded with a hardy "Mountaineers!" They went back and forth, as recounted to me by Morgantown mayor Bill Byrne.
John Fleming, by the way, wasn't just any fan, but the younger brother of late and legendary Mountaineers broadcaster Jack Fleming, who also called Steelers games with Myron Cope.
John Fleming died of a heart attack. He was 66. He owned a popular Morgantown store called The Book Exchange. A Final Four pennant was placed in his casket Monday. A CD played orchestral renditions of all things Mountaineer — the alma mater, the fight song, etc.
And when the chant began• Put it this way: Chills were felt all the way to Charleston.
"That," Byrne said, "is a measure of what this all means to people."
The day of Fleming's funeral, I was 15 miles and several worlds away, in Grant Town.
It should be called Ghost Town.
Like many rural outposts across the state, this one is hurting. Every business on Main Street is closed. City Hall has one employee — a woman who tells me the population of the once-prosperous coal-mining town is "about 560."
Up the street, I run into 74-year-old Joe Clark, a living testament to the passion, loyalty and recurring heartbreak that is so familiar to every West Virginia sports fan.
Clark listened to Jack Fleming's call of the 1959 national championship, when Jerry West's team lost to California by a point. He remembers, too, when the football team played mighty Notre Dame for the national title in 1988, only to see star quarterback Major Harris injured on the third play.
And, of course, Clark was watching three years ago when Grant Town's own Rich Rodriguez lost to 28-point underdog Pitt, blowing a chance to play for the national title. Rodriguez then bolted for Michigan, just as basketball coach John Beilein had done a year earlier.
West Virginia fans are forever optimistic. At the same time, the ones I know fear the worst when their teams get close to winning something big.
"It just seems like we can never win it all," Clark said. "But I really believe they're going to do it this time. Coach Huggins will do it."
Ah yes, coach Bob Huggins. That leads us to the final scene.
Throughout this postseason run, a group of 60 WVU fans would fill a Phoenix, Ariz., sports bar called "Catch-22" and cheer like mad.
WVU basketball legend "Hot Rod" Hundley, 75, is part of the group. So is his old teammate, Ellwood City native Joedy Gardner, who later coached the Mountaineers and hired Huggins as a graduate assistant.
Ruth Ann Gardner, Joedy's wife, was born in Clarksburg, W.Va., and grew up in Beckley. She tells me the Catch-22 crew sings WVU's victory anthem — "Take Me Home, Country Roads" — after every win. They all adore Huggins, who was born in Morgantown and starred at WVU.
"In Bobby's heart, he wants to show that we can do things as well as anyone from anywhere else," Ruth Ann said. "He said, 'I want to win that trophy, bring it back and go on a bus through West Virginia and let everybody touch it.'
"I totally understand where he's coming from. The pride of West Virginia is unbelievable."
Those who knew John Fleming will tell you it's the kind of pride that never dies.