I have a confession to make: within 15 minutes of arriving in Morgantown I was about ready to turn around and head home. Now, obviously we couldn’t, and weren’t going to. But something initially didn’t stick. Usually we arrive in these college towns for a big-game weekend and the combination of charm, youth and football electricity grabs hold of you. It makes you wish you were 20 years younger and didn’t have responsibilities or a TV show to shoot. But upon arriving at West Virginia University, something felt off.
We did ourselves no favor by driving from New York to Morgantown, so I’m sure a suitcase full of crisp unmarked $100 bills in the arms of a supermodel would have been blah to us after eight hours in the car. The town seemed small. It felt a little middle-of-nowhere-ish. There didn’t seem to be a buzz or hum about the school. The roads are narrow, and winding, and hilly… like, look away for three seconds and “Welcome to a ditch” kinda winding and hilly. And we just… I dunno… weren’t feeling it. No matter how much we’d heard about the good people, the spirit of the fans and their reputation for partying… Meh… we were done before we got started.
And then we met the locals. And the love affair began.
Through some research and Googling, I’d been in touch with a number of fans in advance, all of whom were helpful, informative and very welcoming. We were told the best place to hit up Friday night to meet some good fans and get a taste of what West Virginia fandom is all about is a bar called Mario’s Fishbowl. Two superstar Mountaineer fans by name of Andy and Dave Joliet (who run a great website called WVU Tailgating) were going to be there. So if nothing else, we could have a cold beer with some nice locals after a day of driving.
Well, upon walking into this delightful dive, we were cheered like conquering heroes who’d come home. I couldn’t believe it! Were they excited we were there with the show? Sure. But this is what they do for everyone who walks through the door of this character and soul-filled watering hole every Friday before a game. They cheer people that walk through the door like they just scored a touchdown. And with that our grumpy city souls began a 24-hour warming and melting process wherein we fell head over Appalachian Mountain heels with the town and especially the fans.
Andy and Dave were hanging with 10 friends, warming up for a big game and early kickoff on Saturday, with “fishbowls” (20-ounce glass chalices) of beer. We chatted with them and a bunch of others, all of whom love their town and team, and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. The Fishbowl is such a great dive, with handwritten notes from fans and visitors over the last 50-plus years. It’s the local establishment every fan regularly dreams of visiting and calling their own. And the thing is, anyone can. And the ones who do frequent it? Their spirit and affection are totally contagious. They should bottle “Mountaineer Pride” and sell it as an antidepressant. After some high fives, fishbowls and general merriment, we called it a night, excited again for the Mountaineer Magic to do its thing.
Saturday was an early one: 5:30am wake-up call for a shoot that began at 7am, 12pm kickoff. Early kickoffs are a bit of a bummer, because a good tailgate is just getting going around the three or four-hour mark. That’s the sweet spot. And that’s just when you have to pack it in and wrap it up if you’re going to make it into the stadium by kickoff for a 12pm game. That said, the Mountaineer fans made all five hours of their pregame festivities count (and from what we heard, they really made it count after the game, too). Might have something to do with all that moonshine.
Oh yeah — West Virginia folk don’t fake the flavor when it comes to the shine. We got to saying “The sun might be out but that doesn’t mean the moon won’t shine in West Virginia.” It’s a long-standing tradition, making your own high-octane home brew, and these party people aren’t about to let that tradition go gently into that good night. Or morning. And while the distilling process may have changed a bit and the moonshines of today aren’t quite as turbo-charged as the originals, they still pack a punch. And flavor. I mean, who isn’t loving life when they’re sipping apple pie a la mode moonshine at 8:30 in the morning with a bunch of strangers, then chasing it with pepperoni rolls and sausage gravy biscuits? No wonder why everyone is so happy there — it’s a diet that consists 100% of comfort food and high spirits!
Right up till kickoff, we met, partied and shot the surprisingly cool breeze with some more great folks, each of whom was more than eager to tell you a story, pour you a drink, fix you a plate and treat you like family. Like Mountaineer super fan The Eer Man (“Go Eers!” is a popular chant), who will gladly ask his lovely wife, Jeanie, aka “Hurricane Jeanie,” to pour you one of her signature Hurricanes, which will grow hair on your chest, and then burn it off. They camp out by Milan Puskar Stadium in The Blue Lot, as packed and plump a party lot as we’ve ever encountered. When visiting make sure to hit that and the Gold Lot, much smaller but equally outstanding.
Be on the lookout in the Blue Lot for The Beast, a cool souped-up vintage mobility van turned Saturday party wagon, and a fellow by name of Robert, who’s flower-powered VW WV bus makes it onto the road for only the 6-7 home games WVU plays a year. His burritos and brews are pretty great, too. Also don’t miss long-time tailgater Larry Meador (who runs Tailgate WVU). He camps out by C6 in the Blue Lot and knows everything you’ll ever need to know about WVU football. Plus his homemade ‘shine is pretty fine, too. And then there’s Egg Force One tailgate, and these super-cool sisters made peach cobbler moonshine and tater tot casserole to wash it down.
That’s the thing, it’s just one cool group of people having the best Saturday after another there. And if you just wandered over, they’d have a drink and plate in your hands before you could ask, like you were the guest of honor. And on this day I was one of those guests, and it was one of the best Saturdays I can remember. Barely remember. That moonshine, I’m telling you…
One of the knocks on West Virginia is that supposedly, given the geography and economy, there’s not much to do. Well, in our 19 hours there we hung out with good people, talked football, ate well, had good drinks, laughed, sang, shared stories and felt as comfortable as we can remember. So, if that’s “not having much to do,” then I’d love to go do nothing there again soon. And often. It’s a gorgeous, unique and self-contained spot that is content to be unto itself. West Virginia isn’t populous or affluent. It’s blue collar and hardworking with ambition enough to do the things they love right. And boy do they ever. Oh, and the football team is pretty good, too, especially on this day. If only we could have stuck around and partaken of the post-game mayhem after their big win against Baylor… might not have been any seats to witness it from, seeing as most of them burned in the streets.
Next up is a visit to good old Rocky Top at the University of Tennessee. They have a reputation of being great football fans and top tailgaters, too. After a warm slice of West Virginia the Volunteers will have a lot to live up to.