MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Author Frank Fear’s association with West Virginia University lasted only a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but he has written a book about his time at WVU that will live on forever.
“Band of Brothers, Then and Now,” is a nostalgic chronicling of a five-season period of Mountaineer football from 1966-70 – Jim Carlen’s four seasons from 1966-69 and Bobby Bowden’s first campaign in 1970.
Fear, born in Central New York and raised in Western New York, became a WVU student in the fall of 1969 with his future wife, Kathy. To this day, he isn’t totally certain how he got to Morgantown, West Virginia.
“It was an amazing thing,” he recalled recently. “I talked to some of the players who didn’t expect to end up at WVU but did. There was just something along the way that pointed them, me and my wife, who also ended up being a WVU alum, to go there.
“I didn’t know anybody from West Virginia, and I didn’t know anybody who had ever been to WVU, and I don’t know what it was,” he continued. “My wife and I took a trip down there and looked at each other and said, ‘This is the place.'”
Fear was a sociology student at WVU when Carlen captivated the state in 1969 by leading West Virginia to a 10-1 record and a victory over ACC champion South Carolina in the Peach Bowl. It was the first Mountaineer team in 14 years to finish ranked in both major polls.
The next season, Bowden’s first as head coach after Carlen abruptly departed for Texas Tech, saw WVU start the year nationally ranked. It was a transformative era socially in the country with the Vietnam War raging and the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements also preoccupying the minds of college students.
Athletically, WVU was moving from the old Southern Conference to Eastern independence in football and basketball, and Fear came to appreciate how Carlen and Bowden adroitly steered Mountaineer football through this time in West Virginia University history.
In 1972, Fear left West Virginia to pursue a doctoral degree in sociology at Iowa State and later worked at Michigan State for 35 years, advancing to vice-dean in the College of Agriculture. His background was in education, but he said he did a little sports writing in high school and when he briefly attended St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.
When he retired from Michigan State, Fear resumed sports blogging and writing, and one of the essays he wrote was about Mountaineer fullback Jim Braxton, whom Fear continued to follow when Braxton played for the Buffalo Bills.
In the meantime, there were a handful of WVU players, led by Mickey Plumley, Bob Zitelli and Dickie Roberts, who wanted to share their experiences playing for West Virginia University in the late 1960s. Zitelli saw Fear’s essay on Braxton, reached out to him, and a friendship formed.
“We talked and wondered if there was something more here than just a couple of articles, and one thing led to another and so I started interviewing different players. This was around 2002, and it just kept evolving,” Fear noted.
What emerged out of those discussions was surprising, Fear admitted.
“I really thought it was going to be the stories these guys were going to tell about football,” he said. “My wife and I were at that awful Pitt-West Virginia game up in Pittsburgh in 1970, and they talked about that game. They also talked about the two near-misses against Penn State, but that didn’t make a book for me. What amazed me was the issue of leadership, character and I would say, organizational acumen.
“I didn’t know Jim Carlen, and I wasn’t involved with the football office until Bobby Bowden became coach, and I didn’t know any of the players,” Fear said. “But when the players started talking to me about Carlen, that he was a CEO-type; no nonsense, had never been a head coach before … the way he took that program that was down then, certainly not the record they had in the 1950s, but he took the state by storm. He knew what to say, knew how to lead but wasn’t an overnight success, just like (Art) Pappy Lewis wasn’t an overnight success.”
Fear’s book touches on the interesting coaching styles of Carlen and Bowden, which were vastly different. Bowden was approachable to the players where Carlen really wasn’t. Carlen wanted to keep his distance from them because he wanted to establish discipline.
West Virginia had experienced discipline issues at the end of Gene Corum’s coaching tenure in 1965, and Carlen wound up cycling through many of those players by the end of his first season in 1966. Carlen, who died in 2012, thought it took Bowden some time to establish that aspect of his coaching personality.
“What I knew about Bobby was I knew he knew the throwin’ game, and I knew he was kind of a fool-’em coach; he ran trick plays and stuff,” Carlen recalled in 2009. “My whole system was run the veer and the wishbone and run the ball all the time. I had just never been around the throwin’ game, and he was such a pleasant fellow.
“But (Bowden’s wife) Ann doesn’t take any guff. She is as tough as a boot and she doesn’t back off a step,” Carlen added. “Bobby is pleasant, funny and humorous, but he sometimes let people run over him.”
Eventually, Bowden got a handle on that by the time he left West Virginia following his team’s upset victory over NC State in the 1975 Peach Bowl. His years at Florida State solidified his status among the greatest coaches in college football history.
For his part, Bowden thought Carlen was the person who began to tilt the emphasis of West Virginia University athletics away from basketball and more toward football.
“It was kind of like North Carolina and Duke with their basketball,” Bowden said in 2014, seven years before his death. “One thing about it, when coach Carlen went up there, he kind of changed that. He got them a little bit more involved in football.”
Carlen recalled a meeting he once had with athletic director Red Brown shortly before he convinced Brown to leave the Southern Conference in 1968.
“When I would go and talk to Mr. Brown, he would say, ‘You can’t do that’ and I would say, ‘Mr. Brown, I know you are a basketball man and everything, but this is a different world here now. These fans need something to grab hold of and Marshall is not going to be it, and you’ve got to help me out a little bit here now,'” Carlen said.
“I wanted to get out of the Southern Conference because we’re better than that. I wanted to play Kentucky and Tennessee; I wanted to go to play where our people could drive and see us, and I wanted to play in bowl games,” he added.
Fear’s 226-page book illustrates in detail this important era in Mountaineer football history through the players’ eyes.
“There are no championships to talk about,” Fear points out. “In terms of records, it doesn’t compare with what happened under Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez. There were no big bowl wins over Georgia or Oklahoma, and you can’t shine a light on this era and say, ‘Wow, look at all of these All-Americans.’ But these were guys who inspired me with their stories.
“The theme is this – everybody talks about the influences coaches have on their lives and it’s true, both positive and negative,” he continued. “Carlen and Bowden didn’t have the same influences on their players, but the influences those two coaches had stuck with them, and they talked about that over and over and over. It was almost as if Carlen and Bowden were looking over their shoulders as they lived their lives, and they wanted to make them proud.”
As Bowden once said about that period in Mountaineer football history, “Those were the changin’ times at West Virginia University.”
Indeed, they were.
“Band of Brothers, Then and Now,” is available in many local bookstores throughout West Virginia and can also be purchased online through Palmetto Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million,Bookshop.org and other online outlets in three versions: hardback ($29.99), paperback ($21.99) and Kindle eBook ($9.99).