West Virginia had been to the Sugar Bowl. A little later, the Mountaineers were undefeated when Art “Pappy” Lewis led them northward to play the University of Pittsburgh. A bid to another Sugar Bowl would fall in West Virginia’s lap if it could tame the Panthers of John Mickelosen.
The bid never came. Pittsburgh beat the Mountaineers by three touchdowns.
“Pappy” was winning most of them. He even made Penn State bow to his troops. Three straight times the Mountaineers defeated the Nittany Lions.
But a few years later, the 1958 season couldn’t be sweetened enough to be swallowed. There were more losses than wins. Pappy recoiled back into his small tiled office. He was disgusted with himself and that record. He and his three assistants spent a dispirited Christmas and late winter season.When “Pappy” was hired to coach the football fortunes of the Mountaineers, he said it was the job he always wanted.
He had been given his nickname while still in high school in Ohio. That was before becoming a 6-foot-3, 230-pound lineman at Ohio University. Lewis played so well he was an All-America in 1935. His abilities weren’t missed by the NFL where the New York Giants and then the Cleveland Rams had him for four seasons.
In 1938, Cleveland fired its coach long before the season was completed and “Pappy” was named the team’s coach for the last eight games.
When he left pro football after the 1939 season, “Pappy” was eventually hired by Washington & Lee College in Lexington to coach its football team. He had served in the U. S. Navy in World War II.
“Pappy” had a three-year record of 11-17 when leading the Generals. He coached at the small school in Virginia from 1946-48.
By the time he came to Morgantown to coach the Mountaineers, “Pappy” had the look of a bear walking on two legs. His weight was up to about 250. But he was a friendly bear, not using intimidation or loud, harsh words on his players.
His athletes told of a family-like atmosphere surrounding the team. Coach Lewis liked people. He could easily talk to mothers and fathers and the grandparents of athletes he was recruiting.
Once he had the players in school, he kept an eye on their classroom activities and let them know he was available if they needed help.
By the time he was coaching his 10th season in Morgantown, “Pappy” was generally seen as a father-figure to his players.
The losing had the coach skating on thin ice following the timid 1958 season.
Wast Virginia University had grown accustomed to bashing all of its Southern Conference opponents, whether it be football or basketball. “Pappy” had no problem with his Southern Conference brethren, but he was being dragged into the losing column by too many of his non-conference rivals.
The 1959 season was never proclaimed to be a win-or-else season for a man who by that time had become WVU’s all-time winningest football coach.
“Pappy” was well-liked and had a recent history of winning football games.
The state wanted him to succeed. The university wanted him to succeed. He would get the benefit of any creeping doubts.
Richmond and George Washington were still on the schedule. So was Virginia Tech and The Citadel.
But so were more full-bodied types like Southern California, Syracuse (that season’s national champions), Penn State, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and Boston College.
Reversing the problems of 1958 was not going to be done by routine methods.
West Virginia’s roster showed little in the way of quality offensive linemen. The quarterback was Rhodes Scholar Danny Williams, a classroom marvel but as a passer he would finish the season with 28 completions in 99 attempts for 310 yards and one touchdown. He threw 10 interceptions.
The starting running backs were Ray Peterson (116 carries for 505 yards), Bob Benke (58 carries for 194 yards), and Dave Rider. Reserve John Marra would have 47 rushing attempts and 219 yards in the 10-game season.
One of the offensive ends was Bob Timmerman (six catches for 89 yards). Dave Hess was the other end.
The offensive interior had linemen Joe Wirth, Pete Tolley, Carl Dannenberg, Glenn Bowman, and team captain Bill Lopasky.
In 1959, West Virginia’s offense was not productive.
When the season was completed with a 20-14 loss to The Citadel on Nov. 21 in Morgantown, the Mountaineers had scored only 74 points . . . or 7.4 points a game.
Not only was “Pappy” on a losing path, but his team was seen as dull and unexciting and unable to score or create offensive pleasure for those outside the team and inside the stadium.
The season opener was an uncomfortable 27-7 loss at Maryland.
Richmond fell, 10-7. The home crowd shuffled out of Mountaineer Field without being entertained. At Griffith Stadium in Washington, D. C., fans from the Eastern Panhandle saw a 10-8 WVU win over George Washington.
The fourth game came on Oct. 9 and was show-time failure because Boston College blanked the Mountaineers, 7-0, in Morgantown.
Spirits were lifted — if only for a week’s time — when Pittsburgh fell, 23-15, in Morgantown.
The mid-season record had moved to 3-2. And Pittsburgh had retreated north with a loss between its legs.
But that would be the 1959 season’s high-water mark.
The last five games would be lost. And in those five straight losses, West Virginia would score only 24 points.
Syracuse and halfback Ernie Davis slammed the Mountaineers, 44-0, at Archbold Stadium in upstate New York. Television and the ABC network came for a regional broadcast of the WVU vs. Penn State game in Morgantown. Penn State was a 28-10 winner.
Three games remained.
A charter flight to Los Angeles began a weekend where Southern California cracked the Mountaineers, 38-0, at the Coliseum. No points. Not much offense.
“Pappy” had to have the last two games. Or his standing would be seriously jeopardized. He didn’t get them. Not even one of them.
Virginia Tech had a 14-0 shutout win at Mountaineer Field. Virginia Tech was a Southern Conference team at the time. West Virginia was not supposed to lose to a Southern Conference team. And it was not supposed to be shut out by anybody.
“Pappy’s” fate may have already been settled when The Citadel, another Southern Conference team, came to Mountaineer Field on Nov. 21.
The quiet crowd sat through a 20-14 WVU loss to the Bulldogs. The season had crumbled into small piles of losses. The record was 3-7. Five consecutive losses — three by shutout scores — came at the end.
It wasn’t long before Art “Pappy” Lewis resigned.
The tall bear-of-a-man had been popular with his players. And popular when on the recruiting trail. But two straight losing seasons made him vulnerable. And scoring 7.4 points a game made for dull and sometimes hapless Saturdays.
Even in 1959, the public and the students wanted to be entertained.