“Almost Heaven,” John Denver famously wrote of West Virginia 40 years ago. Visiting football fans would not agree.
West Virginia was 16-5 in Big East home games its final six season years in that beleaguered conference. But that's not why opposing teams dreaded going to Morgantown.
WVU does not have a great reputation for football hospitality. Some in Morgantown think this is the time to change that.
The Mountaineers host Baylor on Saturday in the first Big 12 game in West Virginia history. And West Virginia officials would like to spare Baylor fans what fans from Pitt and Marshall and Maryland and Louisville have experienced for decades.
“I think the move to the Big 12 does give you a different opportunity as far as making a first impression,” Matt Wells, West Virginia's assistant athletic director for marketing and sales, told the Charleston Daily Mail.
West Virginians are known for throwing things, yelling insults and burning couches at football games. Which I guess is better than burning coaches.
But WVU athletic director Oliver Luck prefers nothing be set afire, except the Mountaineers' reputation for inhospitality. The Mail reported that Luck has “pushed to tone down unsavory fan antics for months.”
Chris Northrup, executive director of the student fan group Mountaineer Maniacs, said WVU fans were well-behaved during games earlier this month against Marshall and Maryland, and WVU police chief Bob Roberts said unruly fan incidents are down this season.
"I hope we'll create on-field rivalries but that over the years, the fans will stay a little bit more friendly than we were in the past,” said Northrup, a senior.
Northrup and Luck met with students at the beginning of the school year, asking for better behavior, and that the students were receptive. Northrup told the Mail that he's seen more self-policing from the Maniacs. Northrup has sent invitations to his counterparts at other Big 12 schools to tailgate with the student group before games, and the group has emphasized sportsmanship more this season than in any since his arrival in Morgantown.
"You only get one chance to make a first impression," he said.
Retired postmaster Tommy White is coordinator of a new group called the Goodwill City ambassadors, who try to assist visiting fans on game days.
“I want those people to see the beauty that we have up here,” White said. “I want them to see that ‘Almost Heaven' portion.”
Visiting fans would settle for anything this side of “not quite Hell.”