When Coach Art (Pappy) Lewis took his burly West Virginia football team on an 80-mile trip to Pittsburgh last weekend, the chips were down. The game with the Pitt Panthers was one that Lewis and his undefeated Mountaineers needed if they were going to realize their heady dreams of an invitation to a New Year's bowl game and a Christmas holiday in the sunny south.
As Pappy arrived in Pittsburgh with his team on Friday, his thick shoulders were hunched under his dark-blue overcoat, and his eyes had a distant look. Someone inquired into his health and suggested an aspirin. "Aspirin?" Lewis grunted. "I eat 'em like peanuts."
Nervously, he shuffled along the sidelines Friday afternoon and watched his boys run through a light workout. Even without their pads they were monumental. A Pittsburgh writer wondered about their physical condition. "We've been all right so far," answered Lewis. Then suddenly he frowned, looked around wildly, took four quick steps to a nearby goal post and knocked soundly on wood.
He was taking no chances of affronting his muse. He was wearing the same frayed brown suit he wore three years ago at his first Pitt victory. In his wallet was a tarnished half dollar that carried its own spell. Back at the noisy Hotel William Penn Friday night, he sought out the same good friend he had seen two years ago before beating Pitt 17-7 and had a single highball. Then, accompanied by his son Johnny, a 12-year-old version of his old man, Lewis headed resolutely for a restaurant that served lobster. He had eaten a lobster before each of his two wins over Pitt.
November 21, 1955
SHAKES AND LUCK
And wherever he went, he shook hands. Some 15,000 West Virginians were up for the game, and they all seemed to know Lewis, who is an easy man to spot. He is 6 foot 3, weighs around 250 and looks exactly like what he is: an old pro tackle who spent his formative years around the farms and coal mines down along the Ohio River. All night long people grabbed his hand and said lamely, "Art, you don't remember me, but I met you last year down in Bluefield (or Charleston—or Parkersburg) and I just wanted to wish you luck." Lewis would grin back and search his memory. More often than not he came up with a name.
At 11:55 Saturday morning Lewis shepherded his squad into a bus in front of the William Penn and set out for Pitt Stadium, which was slowly being filled rim full by 58,000 people. His team and he were as ready as they could get. In Lewis' pockets were supplies of gum, cigarettes and salted nuts—"I like something to chew on. Aspirins don't taste so good at game time."
In the locker room before the game, Lewis nursed a Coke and walked quietly about reminding his boys of their plays. The players dressed silently and then sat on scarred green benches and stared at their hands.
Finally Tackle Sam Huff spoke up. "Let's take a minute, gang," he said. Lewis and the team knelt and prayed silently for a minute. Overhead, you could hear people walking up to their seats. Finally, Lewis stood up and the room became alive again with the nervous squeak of cleats on the cement floor. Lewis walked before them speaking slowly and emphatically. "One team beat us last year," he said, "and that was Pitt. If we've got anything to play for, this is the game. We've taken you as far as we can. The coaches can't do anything more for you." Then he nodded. With a great roar, his team headed for the door.
Lewis has heavy, dark features that light up like a grinning jack-o'-lantern when he's happy. But when things go wrong, his face settles solidly and he looks like a thwarted Mephistopheles. Right from the starting whistle Saturday, Lewis looked like the devil. He sat on a small folding wooden chair in front of the bench and suffered.
The second time it got the ball Pitt exploded and marched to the Mountaineers' eight-yard line. Seconds later, Halfback Pete Neft drifted to his left and passed to End Joe Walton in the end zone. "One hundred times a day for seven days all they've heard is watch Walton," said Ed Shockey, the backfield coach. Lewis nodded, rocked silently in his chair and lit another cigarette. When West Virginia Quarterback Freddy Wyant missed a pair of passes in the first quarter, Lewis twisted his hands and said: "Grind it out, they've got to grind it out."
Later, after the Mountaineers had lost 18 yards in three consecutive plays, Lewis jumped to his feet. He pointed at Mickey Trimarki, the sophomore quarterback who runs his second unit. "Give me your team, Mick," he barked. "Get in there." Coming off the field, the first-team players were livid with rage at their mistakes. Lewis stood silently and let them file past.
At half time, in the locker room, Lewis moved quietly among his players. "You tackles can't get blocked in on those speed plays," he said. "Let's use the ride series more. And don't stay so loose on the option that you can't go inside the end." The players talked back and forth trying to figure out what was wrong. "We've got to score just one," cried Guard Gene Lathey. "Every time we get one we go for three or four more." Fullback Joe Marconi asked the team to take another minute, and then Lewis spoke again briefly. His voice was quieter this time. "Get out there and settle down," he said. "Just knock heads, that's all, and get that ball and go."
But West Virginia went nowhere. In the first minutes of the third quarter, Pitt recovered two fumbles deep within West Virginia territory and drove to two touchdowns in 85 seconds that put Lewis behind 19-0 and sewed up the ball game then and there. After the second touchdown Lewis swore softly on the bench and yanked his entire first string. This time his boys were quiet as they came off.
As the fourth quarter drew on, Lewis retreated deeper into himself. He even forgot to smoke cigarettes. "Back, get back," he muttered once as Pitt faded to pass. His players started to realize fully that they were beaten. A tackle coming off the field patted Lewis on the shoulder. "Sorry, Coach," he said. A halfback suddenly broke down and cried openly on the bench. Across the field a section of the Pitt stands chanted: "Sugar Bowl, Sugar Bowl, hah-hah-hah!"
Midway through the last quarter with less than two minutes to go and Pitt leading 26-0, Lewis turned to a halfback. "Just walk straight on in when we go," he said. "Don't pay any attention to anyone." A small Negro boy sidled up to a reserve West Virginia lineman and asked if he might have his chin strap. The lineman quietly unsnapped the strap and gave it to the boy. Officials started to take up the wires around Lewis' chair.
The Pitt stands chanted off the final seconds. "Five, four, three, two, one." By himself, Lewis slowly walked out on the field to look for Pitt Coach Johnny Michelosen. The two found each other at midfield and solemnly shook hands. Then the loudspeaker announced that pass interference had been called on the last play, and that West Virginia still had one more play. Lewis was herded with the crowd into the end zone and stonily watched Joe Marconi smash over from the five for his team's single touchdown. The goal posts had long since come down, so no extra point could be tried. Pitt forfeited the conversion to make final score 26-7.
Lewis walked away from this comic-opera finish. Friends grabbed his hand on the way to the locker room. "Too damn bad, buddy," one murmured. A mother of one of the players plucked at her son's sleeve as he followed Lewis. "Don't feel too bad, son," she said anxiously. "Don't feel too bad."
In the silent locker room Lewis slowly paced the floor. Before he said anything the team prayed again, this time for two minutes. Finally Lewis stood up. "Now listen to me," he said softly. "We've been licked before and kicked hard, and we've gotten up and won. Let's get ready to eat somebody next week."