For me it started while I was in high school. I remember traveling north from Charleston on a snowy November night. I was heading to Martinsburg to watch a high school football playoff game, and the inclement weather was going to prevent me from making it all the way to the Eastern Panhandle that night. My dad and I decided we'd stop in Morgantown for the night, and while we were there, we might as well swing by the Coliseum to watch the first game of your storied careers. There were less than 4,500 people there that night, but looking back I'm glad I was there.
Joe Herber was in the starting lineup that night, just as he has been every game since. I remember being impressed with the way the little point guard with the long name on his back handled the rock against pressure. Sure, he didn't score many points, but he didn't turn it over. I remember the first time the tall, skinny kid from Martinsburg stepped out to hit a three. Little did I know on that night that the Hornets he hit his pair of threes over were the first to be "Pittnsogled." I saw the coach's son playing meaningful minutes that night…strange, I thought, for a walk-on to be playing so many minutes, but with the departure of two other guards earlier that week, the coach had no choice.
Speaking of that coach…there was always something about him that I liked. From the time the position came open I, like everyone else, was thinking about the Huggy Bear. But if he couldn't come I wanted "The Guy from Richmond." I didn't know much about him. The only time I'd met him was when he came to my high school to sign our State Player of the Year to a scholarship at U of R. But he was a nice guy, and when I read up on him a little more I discovered that he was a winner at every level.
I was among the throng that stormed the court the night you beat Florida. I remember Herber having to change his jersey because of blood, only to shake off his wounds moments later and hit the biggest shot of the year for WVU. I remember high-fiving Pittsnogle that night as he yelled out "We just beat the number seven team in the nation!"
For the rest of that year I watched from far away. I skipped English class to watch the Big East Tournament game against Providence. While it was a blowout, the team had exceeded my initial expectations by leaps and bounds.
The next fall, I arrived on campus in Morgantown as an eager freshman. That year I accepted a job here at BlueGoldNews.com from my longtime friend Kevin Kinder, and also began writing for the Blue and Gold News weekly paper. My first assignment as a staff writer was the day before the Marshall game. That was also just days after an individual was excused from the team.
With my new job I also attended practice on a regular basis. I remember watching the four sophomores work with the varsity against the scout team. The latter was made up primarily of walk-ons, redshirts, and freshmen. One guy stood out to me though. At first glance, he didn't look like much of a player. For all I knew, he was the team manager. But when the ball was in play, he became a bundle of energy. Despite his lanky 6'4" frame, he was all over the boards. I recall one practice in particular where he soared above the other nine players to slam home a put-back with one hand. After several instances like that, I started telling my friends: "Mountaineer fans are going to love Mike Gansey."
That year ended with a loss in the NIT, but I sensed as the season progressed the team grew closer together. Maybe I was just being optimistic, but something felt right.
I returned from summer break a week early because you guys were getting ready to head overseas. After watching a week's worth of practices and conducting interviews with you and your teammates at the time, it felt like something good was about to happen. You found success on that trip to Europe, but more importantly you found chemistry and a certain "it" factor that is a characteristic of great teams.
As last season progressed, you took Mountaineer basketball to unparalleled heights. Through it all you remained humble, and more importantly you remained together as a team.
This season you were greeted with high expectations. To some fans, nothing less than a National Championship would be acceptable. For the third consecutive season, I've been privileged to follow you close-up. The media room has been much more crowded this year. It seems like the days of five or six reporters showing up for interviews the day before the game are long in the past, but in all reality it hasn't been quite that long. With all of the extra attention, it'd be understandable if you got the big head. But you haven't.
So as your careers in Blue and Gold wind down towards the end, I wanted to take a moment of privilege to thank each of you for everything you've done.
To Patrick Beilein: thank you for showing that success is earned, not given. It would have been easy to suit up for your old man and feel content with your place. But over the course of four years you've improved every area of your game. You came in as a shooter, but you'll leave as a complete player.
To J.D. Collins: thank you for being a true floor general. It's easy for a point guard to take a lot of shots, but that has never been your role. You've showed the willingness to sacrifice individual statistics and glory for the betterment of the team.
To Mike Gansey: thanks for making the most of your time in Morgantown. You showed up in the summer of 2003 with a hard-hat and little fanfare. You'll leave us with memories of Madison Square Garden, Wake Forest, and going all out in every game.
To Joe Herber: thanks for showing up. You've done that more than any player in Mountaineer history, and have filled more roles than a dozen Hollywood actors. As a three-time academic All-American, you've also been a role model for future Mountaineers. And despite your admitted shyness around the cameras and microphones, you never turned down an interview.
To Kevin Pittsnogle: thanks for proving me, and countless others, dead wrong. The first time I saw you play was in the 2001 boy's state high school tournament, your junior year. I left the Charleston Civic Center that night wondering if you'd ever contribute to WVU basketball. Five years, hundreds of interviews, 1,600 collegiate points, and a new verb later, I left the Coliseum after Monday night's game knowing that there has never been, and never will be, another player in Mountaineer basketball history like you.
To all of you: thanks for treating me with respect. It's easy to blow off the media. We bug you. We sometimes ask the same questions day in and day out. But through it all, you've never thumbed your nose at me. You've never stormed off in an interview, and never berated me for asking a dumb question, even though I know I've done it before.
But just as important to me is the fact that the respect you show me on the job carries over to everyday life. Whether it was hanging out and talking in the lobby of the Marriott in Los Angeles, walking past me at a crosswalk, or making it a point to say hello to me out in public, you've always treated to me with that same respect.
Years from now I'll fire up highlight DVDs from the past four seasons. I'll sit my son on my knee and tell him "That's the right way to play basketball." But after the highlights are finished, I'll tell him the stories of my college days. I won't share with him stories from late nights at "Bent Willey's," or "De Lazy Lizard" (at least not until he's old enough.) What I will share is how lucky I was for three years to cover the greatest team to ever set foot in the Coliseum.
I don't know how to close this letter. Maybe that's because I don't want to think about the end. I don't want to think about the final buzzer – whenever that may be – and watching you guys leave the court one final time. So instead I'll say, "Thanks for the memories," both as a reporter, and as a Mountaineer.
Blue and Gold News