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Bedlam at WVU remains a campus sore spot

Sunday, November 02, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- This football-mad town's beloved West Virginia University Mountaineers once beat hated Penn State three times in three years.

But a funny thing happened.

West Virginia University students toss furniture onto a bonfire on Grant Avenue in the Sunnyside section of Morgantown, W.Va., after WVU's 28-7 win over No. 3 Virginia Tech on Oct. 22. (Bob Gay, The Dominion Post via AP)

No one celebrated by torching their furniture in the streets. No one stormed the field to clash with police trying to save the goal posts.

And no one had to hold any post-mayhem meetings to figure out why so many students acted like lunatics and embarrassed a state that has long suffered from a hillbilly image.

But then, that was the mid-1950s.

"In those days, you didn't do anything too violent," recalled Bennett Millstone, a Morgantown travel agent and WVU alum who has lived in town for almost all of his 66 years.

"You may have torn down the goal posts, but they were wooden goal posts. There were people out in the street having a good time. There may have been some drinking. The drinking age was 18 back then. But everyone was just enjoying themselves. They were just celebrating. You didn't have anything like you have today."

What you have today is the increasingly common phenomenon of near-rioting after West Virginia beats a good team, and sometimes even when it doesn't.

Students set fires in Morgantown earlier this year when the Mountaineers played Miami in the Orange Bowl -- and lost.

But that was nothing compared with what happened Oct. 22, when the team upset No. 3 Virginia Tech, 28-7, in what some call the greatest win in West Virginia history.

Students poured onto the turf at Mountaineer Field and tried to rip down the goal posts. After a 40-minute battle, police using liberal amounts of pepper spray and brute force managed to clear the field.

In the student neighborhood of Sunnyside, a hilly community of tightly packed rattletrap houses next to the main campus, students did what they have done for more than 25 years: They set their couches and chairs on fire. The fire department said more than 100 fires were set, mostly on Grant Avenue.

The students seemed to regard it all as good fun, even after some of them got pepper-sprayed after hurling coins, cans and bottles at police.

"I've never seen anything like this," said one giddy freshman on a home video made by another student as fires burned in Sunnyside. "This is just bedlam!"

The end result of the bedlam, both in town and at Mountaineer Field, is that about 40 students are now facing discipline by the school, which for some could mean expulsion. Some are also facing criminal charges filed by city police for disorderly conduct, public intoxication and setting fires.

The explanations for why this happened, and why it keeps happening, range from the university's stance on protecting its goal posts at all costs to just plain foolishness on the part of intoxicated students.

"The whole thing was a disaster and all we proved is that WVU is full of idiot students and a bad administration," wrote senior journalism major Sara Bott in a column in The Daily Athenaeum, the campus newspaper where she is the editorial page editor. "Now the nation has confirmation of what they already thought. Way to go everyone."

It certainly didn't help that fans, students or not, were particularly well-lubricated by the time the nationally televised Wednesday night game started.

"I live right by the stadium," Bott said. "There was a tailgater in my back yard at 10 a.m. The game was at 7 p.m. This was a grown man [not a student]. He was yelling, 'Let's go Mountaineers!' that early."

Bob Roberts, the head of campus security, said some people seemed to think creating chaos after a football game is expected.

"My personal opinion is that they see this going on at other places and that it's OK," he said. "The mob mentality is something that's been around since people were attacking castles."

But many students, not surprisingly, put the blame squarely on the school, which they feel has gone too far in controlling student behavior by mandating that they be good sports.

In e-mails sent campus-wide, the administration has asked students not to boo the opposition, not to be rude and to stay in the stands after the game and sing John Denver's "Country Roads" instead of storming the field.

But students want those goal posts, and they say tearing them down is a tradition.

"We beat the No. 3 team in the country," said senior economics major Adam Gursky, who was among hundreds who suffered from clouds of pepper spray at the stadium. "It was the biggest win in WVU history. They need to let people have a little fun. I think they should let them tear down one goal post and leave the other. They have to find a happy medium."

After images of pepper spraying and raging fires were broadcast nationwide, some out-of-state alumni wrote letters to the Athenaeum, saying the university is being too restrictive.

"Plenty of times in the past those goal posts have been removed," wrote Barbara Viola Ford, of Pittsboro, N.C., who graduated in 1984. "I would venture to bet that there would have been less 'trouble' with students had there been less of, what I would deem, an overzealous police presence."

But the school isn't likely to budge.

Vice President of Student Affairs Ken Gray, who warned students the day of the Virginia Tech game that they might get pepper-sprayed if they attacked the goal posts, has said he's afraid someone will get badly hurt in one of those melees. It's already happened this year at the University of Toledo, where a student was paralyzed while trying to rip down the goal posts after the team beat Pitt.

"The fans' safety is our first priority and, therefore, we have a no-tolerance policy," Gray told student leaders last week at the Mountainlair, the bustling student union in the heart of the campus. "Modern goal posts weigh 608 pounds and are very dangerous to dismantle."

Football Coach Rich Rodriguez also met with students Thursday at the Mountainlair, saying he's trying to build the program into a national power modeled on Nebraska's and that celebrating properly is part of that plan.

Rodriguez, who played for WVU under former Coach Don Nehlen, used to live in Sunnyside and knows all about the fires and postgame madness.

"You can celebrate, just don't break the law," he told students. "Setting fires is against the law. Urinating in public is against the law. Underage drinking is against the law. The news shouldn't be fires burning in Morgantown. The news should be about the team."

Athletic Director Ed Pastilong said the school was working to find a solution for future big games, one of which could be a battle Nov. 15 against rival Pitt.

Some possibilities being bandied about are having a bonfire on campus before the game, as the school did in the 1950s and 1960s, and installing goal posts that retract into the field after the game, as the University of Iowa has done.

"I'm comfortable that constructive celebrations will be put together," he said. "Our druthers would be for people to stay off the field."

The fires in Sunnyside are another matter, though. The neighborhood is a long way from the stadium, and the tradition of torching things seems to have little to do with what's actually happening at the field.

Sometimes, nothing is happening at all there because the team is on the road. Last year, WVU beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., but students still tore down the goal posts at Mountaineer Field and hauled out the couches in Sunnyside for burning.

Matt Miller, a sophomore from Charleston, W.Va., who was at that game, remembers talking on his cell phone to his roommates back home.

"They told me they were going to burn my couch and some chairs," he said. "I told them not to."

They didn't, but a lot of other students burned theirs.

It's something that's been going on since at least 1975, when WVU beat Tony Dorsett-led Pitt, 17-14, on a last-second field goal. At that time, Mountaineer Field was on the main campus, adjacent to the Sunnyside neighborhood.

This year, there were more fires than ever, despite the fact that city workers swept through Sunnyside before the game and hauled away as many couches as they could.

Chris Ross and Ben Shewbridge, buddies who live with other roommates in a run-down house about a block from Grant, had theirs taken away. They said they didn't burn anything or cause any trouble, but a friend of theirs is still in jail after being arrested in Sunnyside.

Like most students in the neighborhood, Ross and Shewbridge think some of the "hillbilly" police went too far in quelling the riot, and they say some of the wild behavior is the result of a decision a few years back to ban the block parties students once held on Grant.

But they aren't exactly sympathetic with the students, either.

"Some of this ... just gets out of hand," said Ross, 23, a Greene County native whose friend waded into the crowd with a camcorder. "Until there's a paddy wagon on Grant, it's not going to stop."

Some observers who have been around Morgantown for years and watched the big football games come and go say they don't much fault the school or the police from cracking down on bad behavior.

Rich Gutmann, a Morgantown defense attorney who represents a 19-year-old arrested after the Miami game, said many students simply didn't think about consequences.

"It's like a 1-year-old that you tell, 'Don't put your finger in the electrical outlet,' then they do it and get shocked and you say, 'I told you not to do that,'" said Gutmann, who attended WVU in the mid-1980s. "This is just like that except these are 19- and 20-year-olds."

Gutmann said he'd talked with some of the students involved in the Virginia Tech aftermath but didn't get a good handle on why they did what they did.

"I said, 'What the hell is the matter with you?' They said, 'I don't know. It seemed like the thing to do.'"

Whatever happens to them now, he said, some of them could end up paying again for their actions when they're in the real world trying to get jobs.

"These kids get arrested, and years later, they call me up and want it taken off their record," he said. "I say, 'I can't do that.' They say, 'What good are you?' I say, 'The question is not what good am I, it's how stupid were you?'"


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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