As the owner of Heartland College Sports, I went on the road last weekend, paying a visit to Morgantown, West Virginia to watch the Mountaineers take on the Baylor Bears. Here’s a look back on our trip, including stops at local establishments (Kegler’s, Gibbie’s, Bent Willey’s), game day, and more!
As you approach Morgantown, West Virginia on about 100 miles of I-68 W, the scene is almost exactly as I would’ve expected. The rolling hills of Appalachian coal country are combined with gray, winter skies, which appear to be in lockstep with the depressed nature of a once-thriving industrial community that has fallen on tough times.
But, that mood can be felt in any number of communities on the drive from New York City down to Morgantown, from Allentown, PA to Cumberland, MD, and several small cities in between. In other words: Trump Country.
Whether it was I-68, I-81, or I-70, the pride of Trump was rampant, from massive yard signs to banners on trailers and barns. These were the very folks that delivered the president-elect a victory over Hillary Clinton. They are the “forgotten people” who have seen jobs lost to Mexico and Asia. Their voices were heard for the first time in a generation and that pride could not be avoided. Good for them and God bless ’em.
As we rolled through Morgantown, it was immediately clear the University is a major part of the “new economy” in the city. WVU’s system enrollment in the fall of 2015 was 31,514, which actually exceeds the population in Morgantown of 29,660, as of 2010. The population in the city is practically flat since 1970, but has seen an uptick of 15% since 2000. Since many of the industrial and mining jobs have been lost, much of the recent growth, I believe, can be attributed to the growth of the University.
My travels were with a high school friend and his buddies who had all attended West Virginia University from 2006-2010. In my tour of campus, even they seemed surprised at the development and investment in new buildings, dorm rooms, and athletic facilities. Projects such as University Park, the Agricultural Sciences Building and Monongalia County Ballpark have given the University a feeling of forward progress, rather than stagnation, that can, unfortunately, be felt in other parts of the region.
But, with the growth and progress made by the University, comes the expansion in certain areas in and around Morgantown. We then checked into our hotel for the weekend, the Holiday Inn, a 4-floor, 187-room, brand new hotel on Pineview Drive that was about a mile from Mountaineer Field.
After a few adult beverages, we worked our way down to Kegler’s Sports Bar, which, according to some of our twitter followers has the “best wings in town!” We intended to catch the West Virginia women’s soccer game. Yes, you heard that right. The Mountaineers were getting set to face UNC in the National Semifinals at 5:00. The bar was crowded, and the game was on the majority of TVs. The choices were the soccer game or another stale episode of PTI. Soccer seemed like the go to move.
The Mountaineers ended up pulling out the 1-0 victory and the cheers amongst the crowd reminds you that in smaller, college-based communities, while football and basketball get the headlines, there is pride for all collegiate sports.
For the record, the wings were good, the half-priced alcohol until 6:00 was a nice bonus, and the wait staff was on point.
A quick stop at Atria’s, a bar/restaurant attached to our Holiday Inn eventually led to a couple of downtown Morgantown spots. Our Uber driver was a lady, maybe in her late 20’s or early 30’s, who was a mother and life insurance saleswoman by day. Here was another sign of the WVU economy at work, allowing folks a chance for some extra income.
The first spot was Gibbie’s on High Street, a casual pub that turns into a late-night bar scene. Upon arrival, the crowd had more of a local feel of gents looking to get in their last sips of booze before scattering ahead of the arrival of the late-night student crowd that began peppering the streets around 10:00.
While enjoying adult beverage number (fill in the blank) of the evening, a pair of Baylor fans waltzed into the bar to a chorus of boos, started by the degenerates I happened to be spending my weekend with.
Both were middled-aged fellas who took the playful berating in stride. In fact, they both came over to our group and proceeded to have a pleasant conversation. One of the two, Donald Wright, a real estate professional in Dallas, bought all of us a round of Fireball shots. Considering my stomach filled was with beer and wings, it took a few seconds to go down, but eventually the shot settled in nicely.
My conversation with the one of the gentleman, whose name escapes me, turned to the Bears, Art Briles, and more. He was a professional that had driven from Philadelphia and was not part of the pro-Briles crowd. He was sickened, disgusted, and embarrassed by some of the happenings at the University in recent months and hoped the University could turn over a new leaf soon. He was disappointed Chad Morris didn’t want the job and admitted Dabo Swinney wasn’t coming to Waco. In other words, he was a realist. It was nice to get this perspective from a Baylor graduate and fan in person.
After pitching Heartland College Sports to the two men and thanking Donald for his generosity, our group made its way around the corner to Bent Willey’s on Chestnut Street. This was more of a nightclub feel … Morgantown style. A mixture of ages, styles, an ethnicities coated the fairly empty establishment that didn’t get buzzing until close to midnight. Once it did, the smell of sweat, booze, and a little stank encapsulated the venue, not in a bad way, just in a classic, college-style club way. Everyone at Bent Willey’s was having an absolute blast.
Another nice treat for being in a college town compared to a major metropolitan area… drink prices. A round of 6 beers only cost something around $15. At first, I thought it was a mistake. It wasn’t!
With plans for an early tailgate set up the following morning, we exited Bent Willey’s around 1:00am to pass out and get as much rest as possible for the highlight of the trip: Game Day.
The alarm went off at 7:00 AM when two of the brave souls I traveled with woke up to park one of the cars at the Gold Lot across from Lincoln (the corner of University Ave and Evansdale Drive). That would be the tailgate location of the day.
From the Holiday Inn, we were able to walk down Chesnut Ridge Road, cut through the Health Sciences Campus and make our way over to the tailgate spot in about a 15-20 minute stroll. The Health Sciences Campus lot was filled with early tailgaters as well. There were many RVs in this lot, with multiple groups having TVs set up watching College GameDay. I suppose they were all very interested in seeing how hard Kirk Herbstreit could try to convince America two Big Ten teams deserved to be in the College Football Playoff.
Our tailgate start time of 9:30-10am was on the early end, but clearly we were far from the first in the area. A group set up across the way had the omelet cookers going and the heaters on full blast … seasoned vets to say the least.
The mixture of hot dogs, burgers, beer, country music and Top 40 sprinkled in set up an excellent 6 hours of tailgating. As the lot began to fill with WVU tents and corn hole, the atmosphere of excitement helped overshadow the dropping temperatures throughout the day.
Our walk over to the stadium began at about 3:15 up Harding Ave and included a brief pit stop in a student home that was finishing up a strong pregame session with some Garth Brooks tunes. The lively group was open to random folks stopping by, myself included. But, without wanting to miss too much of the game, our pit stop didn’t last long, and the trek to Milan Puskar continued.
Since there was little on the line in this game, other than WVU looking for just its 9th 10-win season in school history, it was a late-arriving crowd. On top of that, the Mountaineers were finishing up a road basketball game against #6 Virginia. This game was on several TVs outside of the stadium.
We arrived at our seats in Section 101, row 12. It was a great spot in the corner of the end zone that allowed a solid view of the stadium. During commercial breaks in the 1st quarter, the stadium’s jumbotron would show the WVU hoops game. The Mountaineers eventually pulled off the 66-57 upset, with strong approval from the Mountaineer faithful inside the stadium.
The first half was far from the cleanest half of football one will witness, but it was too be expected with motivation apparently low for both sides. WVU led the game 3-0 after the 1st quarter, which included a personal stop for a pretzel and a personal pizza (the latter of which left much to be desired). Milan Puskar Stadium sells alcohol, one of the few college stadiums to do that, which was a nice touch for those of us not looking to ruin all the hard work we had put in over the previous 6 hours. Overall, the stadium was really nice and clean, with good amenities.
Baylor actually led the game 14-10 at halftime, but there wasn’t much in the way of angst from the WVU fan base. I, like many Mountaineers fans in the stadium, believed the team would turn things on in the 2nd half, which they did. Skyler Howard had an erratic night, but did just enough to pull off the 24-21 win. The game was sealed late in the 4th quarter when Baylor QB Zach Smith was stripped of the ball on a pass attempt and Darrien Howard recovered at the Baylor 30 with 27 seconds left.
A personal highlight shortly followed: the crowd singing “Country Roads” after a Mountaineers win (click here for our Instagram page to see the video). From young to old, diehard fan to casual, and everyone in between, it seemed all 60,000 fans were in perfect unison.
Following the game, we made our way over to the Suncrest Town Centre to enjoy, you guessed it, more wings, at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Our waiter, Steve, was a nice enough guy. Somehow, and I don’t recall how, thanks to the nearly 12 hours of partying beforehand, the conversation with Steve turned to our President-elect. Steve told us his story about recently relocating to Morgantown from the Danville, VA area. He said the job prospects are very limited in Danville, with the options including the Goodyear plant or a job at one of the dozens of fast food joints. But, as Steve noted, the Goodyear plant has had a slew of issues lately with workers dying and fines being levied against the plant, leading some to speculate the plant’s tenure in the area won’t last much longer.
Steve added his intentions were to look into getting reeducated in something of interest to him and work on the side. Once again, the WVU economy at work in Morgantown.
Coincidentally, WVU cornerback, and possible 1st-round draft pick, Rasul Douglas was sitting behind us at Buffalo Wild Wings. Before leaving, I made sure to congratulate him on a great season, and hopefully set up an interview with HCS in the near future. He was as cordial as could be.
Our ambitions of going out on Saturday night rapidly dissipated as the wings began to settle in. A trip back to the hotel was made, where the waning minutes of the Big Ten and ACC Championship Games were watched before passing out to the sweet memories of a fantastic weekend in Morgantown.
Before leaving town on Sunday morning around 7:00, a final visit was paid to Sheetz, which I was told multiple times is Wawa on steroids. But after personal evaluation, Wawa shouldn’t be concerned. There were very nice employees in Sheetz, but next time you want a breakfast burrito the size of your pinky, I’ll send you in the right direction.
Since I used to work in Oklahoma and covered the conference, Morgantown was the 5th Big 12 city I’ve had the opportunity to visit in recent years. We pulled out of Morgantown and made our way across the Mason-Dixon Line to more overcast skies, ending a 3-day run in which the sun never once poked its head out from behind the clouds hovering over the Allegheny Mountains.
Our trip was in the rearview mirror, as was the Big 12 and college football regular season. As usual, it went way too fast. Quickly my thoughts turned towards 2017 and wanting desperately to see how the West Virginia home schedule shakes out, because I was confident this wasn’t my last trip to “Almost Heaven”.