EDITOR'S NOTE: First in a series of articles on the history of the city of Wheeling hosting the West Virginia high school football championship games.
CHARLESTON - A little over 25 years ago, the landscape of high school football changed dramatically in West Virginia when the championship games moved from Charleston to Wheeling.
Depending on which side you agree with, the move was the most notorious since the Colts left Baltimore in the middle of the night in 1984, or one of the most progressive decisions the Secondary School Activities Commission has made in its 100-plus years of service.
Prior to the Super Six switching to Wheeling Island Stadium in 1994, Charleston had become accustomed to hosting all of West Virginia's high-profile prep sports championships - football, basketball and baseball. As the state's capital, it likes to boast of its central location, more hotels and restaurants and the state's largest high school football facility, 18,000-seat University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field, which has long been fitted with artificial turf.
Charleston hosted 14 of the first 15 renditions of the Super Six from 1979-93, an event that for the first time brought all three title games to one location (Morgantown was the site in 1988 when Laidley Field underwent repairs). So it sent virtual shock waves throughout the state on March 17, 1994, when the SSAC Board of Appeals voted 5-3 to give a two-year Super Six contract to Wheeling, armed with 10,000-seat Island Stadium and a grass field.
Wheeling, situated in the Northern Panhandle, was remotely located in comparison to some of the state's largest cities - a drive of 2 hours 45 minutes from Charleston, 3:30 from Huntington and 3:45 from Beckley and Martinsburg. But quite suddenly, it had become the center of attention for West Virginia prep football fans.
"We're happy," said the late Sum Mumley, the Wheeling Super Six committee co-chairman along with Eric Carder, in 1994. "We'll do everything under the sun to make sure you guys are happy. I think this is the greatest moment to us and for high school football in West Virginia."
Wheeling officials had worked 500 hours on their Super Six presentation, even producing a video touting the advantages of their city. One key difference in the proposals involved the SSAC's costs. Wheeling officials said they would charge 6 percent of the total gate for the three title games; Charleston officials originally said they would charge 8 percent, but later reduced that to 5 percent.
One other item included in newspaper reports from that day was that waning attendance at the Super Six was a key concern for the eight-member coaches advisory committee that recommended approval of the Wheeling offer.
"The presentation these people made to us got us enthusiastic," said Mike Hayden, then the athletic director at Parkersburg High and a member of the coaches committee, and later the SSAC executive director. "This is not a criticism of the football committee at Laidley Field. It's a matter of numbers and enthusiasm."
Jim Hamric, at the time the football coach at Roane County, noted that "it's just as far from Wheeling to Charleston as Charleston is from Wheeling. This only affects six teams, not the whole state."
Charleston Mayor Kent Hall also attended the board meeting that day when the decision was announced.
"We're glad for Wheeling, but we're really disappointed for Charleston," he said. "We'll be making a presentation to the board here again in two years."
The reaction from Charleston media was swift and scathing. One columnist reported that Wheeling officials gave SSAC members briefcases and were wining and dining those folks at various functions prior to the presentations.
"Wheeling didn't have the location," he said. "And it didn't have artificial turf to neutralize wet weather. But it had money. So Wheeling officials went and bought themselves a football playoff."
The early years
The bitterness in some areas of the state, most notably the southern part, never really went away when Wheeling first began hosting the Super Six games. But the reaction from visiting teams, media and many fans was nearly universal in hailing the Friendly City for its innovative ways of showing hospitality.
Players and coaches were feted at banquets, received gifts of athletic gear and weight training equipment and the entire weekend was turned into an event around the city rather than just having teams show up at the field, play the game and leave town. Media were surprised that their necessities - a place to work, game programs and statistics, access to players and coaches, means of transmitting reports and even meals - were all met many times over. In fact, media amenities put many other SSAC championship sites to shame.
Securing dozens of corporate sponsorships from around the Ohio Valley (towns on either side of the Ohio River) also helped make the Super Six even more of a financial success. Wheeling officials never seemed to lose sight of their vision, and continued to raise the bar for hosting championship events even though a steady stream of chairmen and co-chairmen came and went - following Mumley and Carder were Howard Corcoran, Bernie Dolan, Dick Cameron and, currently, Greg Stewart and Dwaine Rodgers.
In fact, due in part to Wheeling's huge successes, in 2007 the SSAC made a change in most championship-game contracts, going from two-year deals to three years with an option for a fourth where either side could pull out.
"I think it has been a model that they've tried to use throughout the state," said Dolan, who left the Wheeling Super Six committee in 2015 to become the SSAC's executive director. "I think Dave Laraba for soccer (in Beckley) and Bill Archer for wrestling (in Huntington) have continued to upgrade both the facilities and the event. So I think in all of our tournaments now you see that what you've got to do to make it special for the kids, for the fans. Certainly, it's put that as a focus on your hosting these events."
When criticism cropped up, Wheeling Super Six officials met it head-on. Following the 1999 games, it was publicized that all six competing teams were housed in hotels in either Ohio or Pennsylvania, which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. So starting in 2001, Wheeling officials promised to keep all the teams in West Virginia hotels.
Rodgers, who is also Wheeling Park's current athletic director, knew it was fairly insignificant in the big picture of hosting the games, but realized it was a touchy subject that meant something to many state residents.
"We were all kind of surprised it was a big deal," Rodgers said. "We just wanted to make sure we had housing for all these teams. We've got to be careful where we draw the line and say it has to be West Virginia, because here in the Ohio Valley, we consider them part of our community, too. We were just brought up that way."
Through the years, Wheeling has had to dodge more than its share of obstacles, many of them acts of God.
The 2003 games were played in a sea of mud after a wet snow fell during the Class AA game between Poca and Bluefield on Friday night. Critics pounced on the messy situation like an end zone fumble, saying the Super Six needed to be moved to a stadium with artificial turf. Wheeling officials scrambled to save their games.
"That was my job," said Dolan, then the athletic director at Wheeling Park. "If you were going to keep it, you had to do something. Greg and Howard were in charge and they said, 'Go find us artificial turf.' I went to the NAIAA athletic directors conference in Indianapolis, and every vendor was out there."
Wheeling Island Stadium was fitted with Pro Grass turf for the 2004 season, but the headaches were far from over. In September of 2004, less than a month after the turf had debuted, it was covered with 9 feet of Ohio River water when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan passed through town. When the water receded, 4 inches of mud remained on the entire field.
As many as 15 people took daily turns on cleanup efforts, which lasted up to 15 hours for 10 straight days. Maintenance workers and volunteers, including coaches, parents and retirees, removed the mud and repeatedly power-washed and sanitized the stadium grounds. Less than a month later, Wheeling Park and Wheeling Central were back playing games at Island Stadium.
But that wasn't the only flood threat for the Wheeling Super Six. A week before the 2010 games, Wheeling Island narrowly missed another flood that was forecast. Twice more in 2018, in February and September, flood waters covered the field, which was changed to AstroTurf in 2015 at a cost of $355,255.
Even though the turf was cleaned and disinfected at regular intervals, mud kept rising to the surface during games, especially when it rained. In fact, players in the last season's title games left the field with muddy uniforms that resembled Island Stadium's former days with a grass playing surface.
Another problem hit Island Stadium in April of 2017 when a large concrete panel at the top of the stadium's seating area crashed to the ground during repair work, crushing some fencing on the west side of the field but causing no injuries. Initial concerns prompted SSAC officials to contact UC Stadium as part of a contingency plan. As a result, Wheeling Park had to relocate some of its home football games, and the price tag for repairs was $407,000. But the facility was ready by the end of September and in full bloom for the 2017 Super Six.
Dolan, who has overseen Super Six efforts from both sides, lauds the Wheeling community and Ohio County schools for protecting its investment in hosting the title games.
"Obviously, they didn't do it for the Super Six," he said of the 2017 panel repairs, "but they did it for the stadium. There wasn't any hesitation once they noticed there was a problem. It shows the commitment of the Board of Education to make sure the facility is top-notch.
"I think the biggest thing is the commitment from the community - the (Ohio) County Commission, the county Board of Education, as well as the city of Wheeling. Basically, they're willing to take on any issue that comes along and work on it and fix it."
Aces up their sleeves
Wheeling officials have always remained one step ahead of other cities looking to host the Super Six. Certainly, they're at a disadvantage when it comes to items like stadium seating, parking, hotel rooms and geographic location, especially when compared to Charleston, the former home of the Super Six.
Ticket sales, which were thought to get a boost when the event moved to the football-mad Ohio Valley in 1994, have actually dipped. In 2015, a report surfaced that showed paid attendance in Charleston's 14 years as host was 4,748 per game compared to 3,332 per game for Wheeling's first 21 years.
Potentially divisive topics like that keep surfacing like Ohio River mud seeping up through Island Stadium's AstroTurf, but they always get washed back down during the next bidding process. In 1994, corporate sponsorship energized Wheeling's fledgling bid, and in 2004, artificial turf saved the city's Super Six contract.
When Charleston officials got serious with their 2006 bid after major renovations at UC Stadium, promising to match or exceed Wheeling's offer on many fronts, Wheeling came up with the idea of 11 $1,000 scholarships for players, an item said by many to be difference in a 6-2 vote by the board of directors to keep the games at Island Stadium.
Wheeling's gotten so good at organizing that in recent years, most other cities aren't even bothering to put together bids. In 2006, Charleston was the lone other bidder; in 2008 and 2016, Wheeling was the sole bidder; in 2012, Princeton was the only other town to make a presentation. The vote comes up again in January or February, and a combined Bluefield/Princeton bid appears to be the only other announced contender at this point.
Rodgers said being ahead of the curve is probably the biggest obstacle Wheeling Super Six officials face every time they defend their turf in the bidding process.
"We're always trying to come up with doing something different and better," Rodgers said, "constantly trying to add something for the kids and the teams and the communities that travel.
"I think the first thing that comes to mind is the 'Wheeling feeling.' This place just loves to support athletics. All of those things we're able to do for all the teams - feeding them, housing them - it's all because of our sponsors. The Highlands (shopping complex), the commission, the city - I don't want to leave anyone out, but those are the top ones. You know, this is not a money-making thing for us at all. People think Wheeling Park makes money off this, and it's kind of funny when I hear that."