Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Remembering Yorick for the Holidays

The wind, unseasonably warm for early April, was howling out of the southwest.  Yorick sat in the yard watching as I put my mountain bike on the back of the Jeep. There was time, only two short years ago, when the sight of my bike would have excited him. He loved going biking -  always the perfect trail dog – but now he just watched.

IMPA and Degenerative Myelopathy had robbed Yorick of the use of his rear legs and limited his mobility, and after consultation with his orthopedist, we ordered a cart from Eddie’s Wheels.

The past year Yorick’s disease had slowly progressed despite our best efforts. Physical therapy, acupuncture,  Chinese medicine – whatever offered hope we tried. We took him to see traditional specialists at Ohio State Veterinary Hospital, Naturopaths in Pennsylvania and physical therapy in central Virginia.

Yorick was doing well. We knew that cart was in his future but we were doing all we could to keep his rear legs working.  At first we held the disease at bay, we hated it into submission and Yorick’s spirit was such that his force of will kept him mobile.

Despite our efforts the disease slowly gained ground, but we adapted. A harness with conveniently placed handles gave Yorick the extra help he needed. Can’t jump on the bed anymore? Gander at the bed, bark once or twice and wait for your human to help you up.

And so it went. The disease would progress and we would adapt and the cycle would repeat again and again.

Yorick was a stout soul and despite his illness he enjoyed life. He won admirers everywhere he went. Each and every doctor that saw him was impressed by his  strength and intelligence. They marveled at his bright eyes, curiosity and how he seemed to be appraising them as they evaluated his condition.

Now Yorick sat in the April sunshine. His hair, long and somewhat disheveled, flowed in the wind like a lion’s mane; and he was majestic.

Yorick lifted his head and put his nose into the wind. His nostrils flared, collecting scents carried on the breeze. I wondered what he smelled. A cat, something good to eat, maybe a deer carcass to roll in…

Something about his demeanor made me pause, there was a melancholy there I had not seen before. I moved over to my friend and sat next to him in the grass. He looked at me and for a brief moment and his eyes locked with mine. He held my gaze a moment longer and then placed his head in my lap and gently drifted off to sleep.

Six days later my friend of 13 years and 8 months had passed on.

The Grief of Yorick’s passing hit both my wife and myself extremely hard. We loved him without question and his absence is profound and tangible. 

My wife  and I tried to eulogize Yorick but we could not. The grief was too real, the pain much too raw. Attempts were met with failure as we became lost in the ocean of memories and drowned in the realization that our boy was gone.

August 2nd was Yorick’s 14th birthday.  We miss him dearly and grieve for him yet, but it seems so very much fitting to his indomitable spirit that we mark the occasion of his birth rather than eulogize him on his death. 

Where to start? Yorick was a Dog with a capital D. His intelligence was legendary as was his ability to get into trouble. Present Yorick with a  problem – say a treat hidden in a Tupperware container – and you could actually see him think of solutions.

Solutions came to him sometimes in inappropriate ways. He reasoned methods of stealing food from the kitchen  no matter how high it had been placed.

We thought the loaf of bread stashed on top of the refrigerator to be safe from the leaping ability of Yorick and his brother Eddie. It should have been – except that Yorick figured out how to push a chair out from under the breakfast bar and use that same chair to hop onto the counter. The counter then provided easy access to the loaf of bread cowering on top of the icebox.

We learned quickly that nothing was safe. I watched Yorick stand on his hind legs, use a paw to knock the lid off a pot and hook the same paw over the lip of the pot and drag it off the stove and onto the floor.

It was a classic game of point and counter-point. Yorick was devise a way to defeat our attempts to safeguard our food and we would adapt.

It took us some time but we actually managed to outsmart our Dog – then came that black day when Yorick learned how to open the refrigerator.

One day we came home to find the icebox door standing wide open. The kitchen looked like a bomb had went off with food remnants and containers scattered everywhere.

My wife was certain I had left the fridge open no matter how much I protested my innocence.

A few hours after the cleanup was completed we heard a nose coming from the kitchen and then Yorick came waltzing into the living room carrying a ball of mozzarella cheese.

My wife and I looked at each other in astonishment and we began to suspect that another culprit was responsible for the chaos in the kitchen.

We took the cheese from Yorick (just as he began to rip up the packaging) and replaced it back in the icebox and sat down in the living room to see what would happen.

Yorick got up and marched into the kitchen. We followed and spied on him from the doorway.

He stood to one side of the refrigerator and used a paw to bat at the icebox door until it opened just a crack. The crack was all he needed. He stuck his nose into the opening and used his head to fling the door open.

Then something even more amazing happened. Yorick paused to appraise the contents of the icebox. His nose was working overtime and his gaze went from shelf to shelf.

This time he choose a can of dog food. It must have been the most appealing (aromatic) item because he deftly plucked the can from a shelf on the door.

What he did next is a great illustration of Yorick’s confidence and spirit. He brought the can to my wife and dropped it at her feet as if to say “okay… I’m hungry, open that thing up so I can eat.”

Reasoning wasn’t Yorick’s only strength. His memory was excellent.

One of Yorick’s favorite games was hide-n-seek. We would take turns hiding and when we were ready Yorick would begin to frenetically search the house. The amazing aspect of Yorick’s search pattern was that he remembered our previous hiding spots. Like some flop-eared Sherlock Holmes he would methodically check each known hiding spot. Stymie him and he would resort to his nose to find you and when he eventually discovered your hiding spot he would leap on you with joy. 

Yorick’s ingenuity always amazed us. On many occasions a thirsty Yorick, when traveling in the car,  would deftly pluck the straw from the fast-food drink and then nibble the lid off before drinking my soda.

That was Yorick. And I’m not ashamed to say that I loved my dog with a passion reserved for children.

I will never forget him and I will always love that scoundrel.

This is my first holiday season without him in nearly 14 years and the Christmas lights just don’t seem as bright or the holiday spirit so joyous.

I miss you Yorick. Merry Christmas buddy. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reflections of the 2011 Season on Brawl Day…

 It’s been an odd and frustrating year for the Mountaineers; a season once full of promise and expectations of Big East dominance have fallen flat and left WVU fans scratching their heads and wondering what the hell happened.

When the season started the Mountaineers were the consensus pick to run away with the Big East championship and now, 10 games deep into what was supposed to be an easy schedule, the Mountaineers sit at 7-3 and preseason hopes of a BCS berth depend on winning their remaining two games at home against Pittsburgh and on the road at South Florida.

Win out and hope for at least a 3-way tie atop the muddled Big East and WVU wins the BCS berth because it will be the highest ranked BCS team.

WVU’s BCS hopes are just another crazy indicator of  what has been one hellishly unpredictable season. 

We should have known the season was going to a wild and crazy ride; we had enough warnings and portents of the craziness to come in the offseason antics that saw the resignation of Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen’s ascension to Head Coach.

And what better harbinger of the wacky 2011 season than the opening game with Marshall—thunder and lightening, numerous delays, special teams problems and obstinate negotiations with hostile forces were  all omens of what was to come.

We should have known to expect the unexpected.  Games played in monsoons and snowstorms, conference affiliation madness; special teams mishaps, dynamic play and uninspired errors and official incompetence all have made 2011 the season to remember for all the wrong reasons.

We’ve seen records fall and a conference fall apart and WVU’s improbable move to the Big 12 conference is just the cherry on top of the sundae.

West Virginia in the Big 12 – how’s that for crazy? How about dueling lawsuits or that WVU would lose to a team that lost to Marshall.

Nothing would surprise me this season.

But if you’re like me and care more about the play on the field than the off-the-field drama you want to know why the Mountaineers are 7-3 instead of 9-1. 

Let’s pause for a moment and think about my previous statement—the irony of discussing  a 7-3 season as if it were a failure isn’t lost on me. Yet amidst a season with high expectations WVU has legitimately lost only one game, failed to show up for a game and gave one game away.

Only the LSU loss was legitimate. The Mountaineers were in the game, and had the momentum, until the end of the 3rd quarter when the Tigers used a kickoff return for a touchdown to end any hope of a Mountaineer upset.  LSU was just flat out better than WVU—no surprise there as the Tiger’s have shown they’re the nation’s best time week in and week out.

Syracuse simply embarrassed WVU in what could be the worst on-the-field performance by the Mountaineers in my lifetime.  The failure was complete –offense, defense, special teams and coaching all underperformed and underwhelmed.  West Virginia’s performance in the Syracuse game baffled me. The Orange dominated WVU then promptly lost three in a row and looked pathetic doing so. 

The Louisville game made me angry. A lackadaisical performance by the offense was overshadowed by special teams problems that gift-wrapped at least 17 points to the Cards. It was a game the Mountaineers should have won but decided to give away.
Yet all three Mountaineer loses have commonalities we can look at to better understand why WVU is 7-3 instead of 9-1.

In each loss we’ve seen the same problems time and time again:

  • Horrible special teams play;
  • Inconsistent offensive play;
  • Defensive mistakes;
  • Lack of leadership;

On the offensive side of the ball it’s abundantly clear to me is that the Mountaineer’s have gifted skill players but not much else.

The offensive line is at best average. They’re often dominated at the line of scrimmage and seem to have drive killing penalties at the most inopportune times. Sure WVU’s line play has improved, but I’m beginning to doubt the talent is there to improve beyond what we’ve seen this year.

Line play has also been hindered by young, inexperienced running backs.  True freshman Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie have the talent  and  no clue what to do with it. Ryan Clarke and Shawne Alston add more experience,  but Clarke isn’t trusted to carry the ball and is limited to blocking.  Alston has contributed but he doesn’t have the break-away speed Holgorsen requires to be an every down back.

West Virginia’s receiving corps is talented. Tavon Austin is a game-breaker and Stedman Bailey is becoming a star with his crisp routes and great hands. There have been disappointments and plenty of dropped passes to damper the enthusiasm. Ivan McCartney was supposed to have a breakout year yet he seems to have trouble getting separation.
Geno Smith has been the best QB in the East and assaulted the Mountaineer record book all year, but he too has struggled at times with reads and composer. Opposing teams have learned you rattle the young quarterback. Hit him a few times and he starts to hurry throws and miss reads.

Maybe all the above can be attributed to the first year in a new system. Hopefully the inconsistency we’ve seen all year is nothing more than growing pains, but I can’t help but think the offensive line lacks the talent to give Geno and the receivers the time they need to execute Holgorsen’s offense.

On the defensive side of the ball youth, inexperience and a lack of depth have conspired to make the Mountaineer defense nothing more than slightly better than average.

The defensive line lacks the big bodies it needs to stop the run. WVU’s linebackers are woefully thin too and appear to lack the speed to cover backs and tight ends properly.

And it’s WVU’s trouble with stopping the run that reverberates throughout the defense.  Linebackers and safeties are needed in run support and that puts our young and inexperienced corners on an island.

WVU’s key to defensive success has always been stopping the run and that just hasn’t come easily this year.

Special teams, inconsistent play from the offense, defensive shortcomings and inexperience and a new system have all been problems for the Mountaineers this year but when its all said I done I think the primary reason why WVU has lost two games they should have won and struggled in their victories is simply a lack of leadership.

A young team is naturally inconsistent. A young team without vocal on-the-field leaders is guaranteed to be inconsistent. If you want to blame something for the stretches of lackadaisical play by the Mountaineers you can point your finger at that fact.

Teams without leaders play up or down depending on the level of their competition and we’ve seen plenty of that by the Mountaineers.

Teams without leaders are hard-pressed to recover from bad luck or bad officiating. We’ve seen that from the Mountaineers too.

Holgorsen is receiving “on-the-job training” about being a major college football head coach. He’s beginning to realize what it takes to motivate his lads to play hard every down but true leadership has to come from the players.

We’ve all read the stories about Geno’s rants at halftime at Rutgers. We’ve also seen his defeated body language against Syracuse and heard his tirade about Big East officials (while true); Geno needs to learn that first you lead by example and then with your words.

 I’m afraid the Mountaineers will continue to struggle with inconsistent play until they find the on-the-field leaders they need.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Petunia's Revenge Part 3

Yancey Stubbs sat in his favorite chair sipping on a coke and reading Harper’s Magazine. Normally Yancey didn’t hold much with magazines as he considered them dim cousins to books. Harper’s was different. Instead of light and fluffy prose suited for toilet reading, Harper’s was serious and thoughtful. He liked that, serious thought required him to concentrate and concentration was calisthenics for the mind and  kept him sharp.

Stubbs had subscribed to Harper’s beginning at the age of 12. He payed for the subscription himself by harvesting discarded pop bottles for the 10-cent return fee. His quest for bottles consumed his life that summer. Every bottle, whether found on the side of the road or liberated from a back porch, was needed.

It wasn’t easy—the worst was resisting the lure to dip into his growing savings for $1 model airplanes and Fantastic Four comics sold at the drug store.

Yancey stayed true to his crusade despite all the temptations available to a 12-year old with a few dollars. The model airplanes, the comic books, the candy, the matinee movies, they had no power over him. He was Percival and a subscription to Harper’s Magazine his holy grail.

Only once did Yancey raid his growing Harper’s fund.  His best friend,  the unfortunately named Jupiter Nelson, fell out of a tree and broke both his legs. Yancey used nearly a third of his savings to order a leather-bound edition of The Complete Works of H.G. Wells from the Montgomery Ward catalog as a gift to his bedridden friend.

His small act of kindness was worth the effort. Jupiter happily devoured the book and loaned it to Yancey who did the same. The book had a profound effect on the two boys and they enjoyed many discussions about the ethics of Dr. Moraeu and the struggle of humanity to defy the inane animal instincts.

The day finally came when Yancey had enough money to pay for his subscription.  He purchased a money order from the post office and sent his subscription card in the mail.

Three weeks later his first issue arrived. Yancey took the magazine and climbed his favorite tree, nestled himself in a comfortable branch, and read it from cover to cover.

Much of what he read was outside the understanding of a 12-year old, even one as smart as Yancey, but he enjoyed reading it just the same, it gave him sense of satisfaction and it made him feel wiser--as if the magazine opened up a window to worlds otherwise inaccessible from his family’s West Virginia farm.

Yancey was deep into a very interesting article, “The Pharmacology of Zombies”, when the phone rang.

He answered on the first ring and was astonished to hear Mathias Conway’s voice on the other end.

Mathias was excited and in his excitement his words tumbled out and became jumbled. He was talking so fast that Yancey couldn’t make sense of what he was saying.

The words continued to flood out of the receiver. Yancey closed his eyes and wished Mathias would put Caesar on the phone. He let Mathias talk until he ran out of steam and was quiet.

Yancey opened his eyes, took a deep calming breath and said:

“Settle down Mathias and tell me what’s wrong.”

This time Mathias spoke clearly into the phone and kept it to the point.

What Yancey heard made him drop the phone.

Yancey buckled his overalls, laced up his boots, and rushed out of his house in such a hurry he forget to shut his front doo and he ran all the way to Mathias's convenience store.

The Incredibly True (Probably) Story of WVU’s Courtship of (and by) the SEC

The rumors were everywhere – on message boards, radio talk shows, in newspapers, and even tweeted about on Twitter. WVU  was headed to the SEC.

 The consensus in West Virginia was the deal was nearly done. SEC officials were in Morgantown and the financial paperwork prepared  for the SEC was accepted. WVU, the crown jewel of Big East football, would defy the odds and win the day.

It would have been a great story—the “little program that could” defies modern corporate TV’s greed to win over the mighty SEC and earn a spot in the fabled conference—except it wasn’t true.

Mountaineer officials are not talking. They refuse to discuss the SEC, at least not on record. They story they tell in private is a glimpse into the fascinating dog-eat-dog world of conference realignment featuring moves and counter-moves of deception and positioning that would make Niccolò Machiavelli blush.

I’ve been able to piece what I believe is an accurate account of WVU’s efforts to get out of the Big East and into a more prestigious BCS conference, but for the sake of this post I’ll restrict the story to WVU and the SEC.

Despite the rumors and leaks to the contrary WVU was never close to being in the SEC. Not as 14, 15 or even 16. 

Many Mountaineer fans will take issue with that statement and claim WVU was so close to being a member of the SEC that you could actually see Birmingham from Morgantown—yet the facts tell another story. One that is surprisingly straightforward for the convoluted conference realignment fiasco.

WVU was destined to play second-fiddle to Missouri in terms of SEC expansion.

Commissioner Mike Slive was authorized to approach both Missouri and WVU to round out the conference at 14 after Texas A&M was accepted into the SEC.

Missouri was the SEC’s first choice and they said yes.

And that was as close as West Virginia came to membership in the SEC – waiting on deck in case Missouri said no.

Why Missouri?

Missouri was chosen for several reasons. First and foremost the Tigers had the television market to make expansion palatable to the SEC.

The SEC is a conference that values tradition and is slow to embrace change. SEC presidents had to be convinced by their television partners to expand and would only do so if the economics of expansion justified the change.

The 6 million households in Missouri, when combined with the huge designated market area (DMA) of Texas A&M, made SEC expansion extremely profitable and therefore worthwhile.

Mountaineer fans can take some comfort (or angst) from knowing that Missouri wasn’t the SEC’s first choice. Six other schools were on the SEC’s expansion list before Missouri.

Virginia Tech and Oklahoma were preferred but both said no. Other top candidates for SEC expansion—FSU, Clemson, and Georgia Tech—were in the footprint of existing SEC schools and North Carolina State had political ties (and other issues) that would keep them bound to the ACC.

Missouri’s candidacy for SEC membership was a product of elimination.

In the SEC’s expansion plan West Virginia was 8th on the list.

Mountaineer fans shouldn’t take this as an insult to WVU. The SEC’s expansion agenda was driven by television and television alone. The SEC respected WVU’s football program and thought the Mountaineers would make a great fit. Television was the deciding factor, not strength of program.

The SEC approached Missouri and the Tigers quickly said yes and West Virginia was no longer under consideration.

So what about the continued SEC rumors?

And what about those rumors of SEC officials in Morgantown?

The SEC rumors continued unabated despite all credible reports to the contrary. Why did the rumors persevere? Were they deliberate?


Some believe the continuing SEC chatter was part of a deliberate disinformation campaign to try and force the ACC to grab WVU before the SEC did.

The stakes were certainly high enough for WVU to try and manipulate the ACC. The potential ramifications of West Virginia remaining in the Big East required Oliver Luck to act decisively to protect WVU’s interests.

No one at WVU will outright deny that disinformation was used and the only conclusion I can make is that a majority of the SEC rumors were encouraged by WVU.

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the F-Bomb

 Rocker Joan Jett might not give a damn about her bad reputation but WVU does.

West Virginia’s fans are well known for their rowdy behavior and couch burning, but do we deserve our bad reputation?

If you read Internet message boards and didn’t know better you would be convinced that Morgantown is like Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

In this mythical Morgantown, fans from opposing teams are forced to run the gauntlet of the Blue Lot, risking verbal assault and drunken slurs as they fight their way to the visitor’s section inside Mountaineer Field.

Once seated these bastions of civility from far away places like Pittsburgh and Louisville find themselves surrounded by beer-swilling, musket waving, Mountaineer fans who stare them down with murderous eyes.

Their fear grows and every curse or insult hurled their way does nothing but convince them they will be lucky to get out of town alive.

We’re known for being the rowdiest, loudest, most fired-up bunch of fanatics in the Big East.  Our raucous nature gives the old Gold-n-Blue a true home field advantage and makes Mountaineer Field a place where others fear to play.

We earned that reputation way back when the Big East was a viable football conference and Pitt was still a relevant football program. We earned it when Penn State was on the schedule and Virginia Tech made our blood boil. Our shenanigans even caused  a “gangster” program like Miami to fear coming to Morgantown.

Warranted or not, our reputation for bad fan behavior harms WVU.

Over-the-top fan behavior was one of the arguments Louisville used  to convince the Big 12 they were a better choice than West Virginia and Frank Beamer cites fan behavior as the primary reason why Virginia Tech will not schedule WVU.

I’ve always tried to be part of the solution. I’ve done my best to be a good Mountaineer fan and went out of my way to be nice to the visiting team in victory or defeat.

I’ve urged others join me in being the “12th man” at Mountaineer Field, I’ve pleaded with my fellow Mountaineers to cheer on our lads in old gold-n-blue with vim and vigor all the while showing respect and civility to our visitors.

I’ve defended our honor on message boards and testified to all who would listen how we, as Mountaineer fans, have cleaned up our act.

And on Saturday afternoon, with less than a minute left on the game-clock, I failed.

I let loose the dreaded F-Bomb.

To be honest it was more like an F-Cruise missile aimed straight at the Cardinal mascot as he celebrated another Louisville touchdown.

I have no excuse. My frustration at the Mountaineers gift-wrapping at least 17 points to Louisville is no excuse. My frustration at seeing  two 12 yard punts, a missed FG, and a blocked FG attempt returned for a touchdown can’t excuse my cursing.

All I can do is ask for forgiveness. It happened so quickly. The Cardinals had scored a late touchdown to move their lead back up to 10 points with under 2-minutes remaining. The Cardinal mascot, in celebration of the score, ran into the endzone and seemed to somehow preen. He paused, looked straight at me, and as impossible as it sounds, there was an unmistakable smirk on his beak.

Before I knew what I was doing the F-Bomb rumbled up from somewhere deep inside me and with a volume born of primal hatred I loosed my hate-arrow straight for the Cardinal’s heart.

And just like a Tyler Bittencourt FG attempt it was wide-left. The Cardinal, seeing how my hate-arrow missed the target, smirked at me again and ran to safety behind the Louisville cheerleaders.

I just about to go after that red chicken with the smarmy smirk on his beak and pluck his cowardly feathers one-by-one, my wife pulled me down into my seat and let me have it with a world-class guilt bomb.

Her bomb hit its mark. I was ashamed, but not as much as my wife. She was mortified at my outburst and pointed out children were around us.

I know what I had done was wrong but I attempted to save face and tried a defense as weak as a Mountaineer punt.  “If that’s the first time those kids have heard that word they better grow-the-hell-up and stop being such babies.” I said.

The cold stare from my wife let me know I was quickly burning the couch I would have to sleep on that night.

She was right though -- I was perpetuating the stereotype I had tried so hard to dispel. Despite that damn smirk on that damn bird I had failed. Just like the Mountaineers I had handed the cardinal a victory. 

I’m sorry Mountaineer Nation. I let you down on Saturday. I promise to be better in the future.


 WVU’s special teams are beyond bad.

The Mountaineers continue to kills themselves with mistakes. Fumbles, dropped passes, and missed assignments can’t be blamed on inexperience any longer. I’m beginning to question the character and desire of a lot of the Mountaineer players. They play like they don’t want to win.

I keep telling myself this is a young team on both sides of the ball. The Mountaineers lack leaders on the field and play down to the level of their competition.

Leadership can’t be coached. It has to be authentic. Someone needs to step up, especially on defense, and become a leader.

The Mountaineer defense can’t find a way to stop short throws to the backs or contain the TE. The problem is the defensive line shortcomings and the need for the linebackers to commit to stopping the run.

The young linebacking corp doesn’t have the speed or experience to handle the backs or tight-ends on pass routes.