- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The state went into temporary mourning Dec. 7, the day reports surfaced that coach Rich Rodriguez had traded in his job at West Virginia for a mountain of money from Alabama.

The native son who had transformed a modest program into a national power seemed poised to move on after six seasons at his alma mater. An offer like that — reportedly $13 million — seemed hard to pass up.

Exactly what triggered the greatest reverse in Mountaineers’ history remains unclear.

The next day, Rodriguez called those reports of his impending departure “totally incorrect” and announced he was staying at West Virginia. The 43-year-old known as “Coach Rod” received a lucrative extension through 2014 that will pay him $1.75 million a season, and the football-frenzied folks of Appalachia celebrated the sudden turnabout.

“I was looking for reasons to stay,” Rodriguez said this week as his team prepared for tomorrow night’s visit to Maryland. “And there were a lot of reasons to stay.”

Two of those reasons are apparent: West Virginia features a pair of legitimate Heisman hopefuls in quarterback Patrick White, the reigning Big East offensive player of the year, and tailback Steve Slaton, a returning All-American. The Mountaineers, who won a share of their third consecutive Big East title last year, entered the season with their highest ranking ever at No. 3.

“We have more experience overall,” said Slaton, who ran for 1,744 yards last season. “We have the talent and desire to get to the national championship.”

West Virginia (2-0) slipped to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll this week behind Oklahoma despite a 48-23 win at in-state rival Marshall. But after last year, the Mountaineers understand it’s not just how they start — it’s how they finish.

The Mountaineers went 11-2 in 2006, a relatively disappointing final record considering they started 7-0 and were ranked No. 3 in the country before their BCS hopes disintegrated with a 44-34 loss at Louisville. West Virginia also lost at home to South Florida in the regular-season finale but bounced back for a 38-35 win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

“I feel it is right there for the taking,” junior linebacker Reed Williams said. “Last year we let a few things slip through our grasps. We can’t let it happen this year.”

Players insisted they learned from the disappointing finish.

“Our team motto is ‘No Excuses. No regrets,’ ” fullback Owen Schmitt said.

Rodriguez’s motto might be something like “Forget the conventional” — at least for the way he built the Mountaineers. While many top programs stock heavily from their locale, Rodriguez and his staff were forced to import top talent to the sparsely populated state.

White was an Alabama high school star who committed to LSU, then changed his mind because he felt he had a better chance of playing quarterback at West Virginia. The recruiting battle continued, however; White was picked in the fourth round of the baseball draft by the Los Angeles Angels but decided his heart was in football.

He is one of countless players who took an indirect country road to Morgantown. Slaton, from Levittown, Pa., committed to Maryland, but the Terrapins later withdrew the scholarship. Schmitt, a bruising 260-pounder from Fairfax, began his career at Division III Wisconsin-River Falls before becoming a major contributor at a top-10 program.

“We probably have more unique stories than anybody in the country because of our situation here,” said Rodriguez, who also faces some problems recruiting against big-name schools because West Virginia plays in the lower profile Big East. “We’re a small state with not a lot of high schools, not a lot of football players. So we can get a handful of guys from the state, but inevitably we have to go into somebody else’s backyard for our roster.”

Perhaps, then, it is fitting Rodriguez’s rise also took a roundabout route. He grew up in Grant Town, W.Va. — about a half-hour from Morgantown — and walked on to coach Don Nehlen’s team in 1981. He was an assistant coach at D-III Salem (N.C.) College for two years before becoming the coach in 1988, the school’s final season before it dropped the sport. After a one-year stint as a volunteer assistant at West Virginia in 1989, he spent seven seasons as the coach at Glenville (W.Va.) State.

It was at that NAIA program he started to develop his offensive philosophy, starting with a no-huddle, spread offense.

“We wanted to run a two-minute drill all game hoping somebody would get tired,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully it would be them, and then we’d get a touchdown. Back then, if we scored seven points it was cause for celebration.”

He brought his offense to Tulane in 1997, helping the Green Wave compile a 19-4 record over two seasons as the offensive coordinator. But when Tommy Bowden moved on to Clemson after an undefeated season in 1998, Rodriguez was passed over for the job. He the spent two seasons as Clemson’s offensive coordinator before his alma mater gave him his first shot as a Division I coach.

“I loved it down there [in New Orleans],” he said. “The people were very nice, but it all worked out pretty well in the end.”

Did it ever.

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