By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
In order for a tradition like the West Virginia Coaches Caravan to continue for what will be 44 years on May 20, there has to be contributors behind the scenes making it happen.
That includes 88-year-old Joe Graham, who has been part of the 43 previous Caravan stops, and Jim Ferguson, who is currently the chairman of the event, and one of 15 committee members for the local function.
“The Committee is comprised of an adverse group of men who love the Mountaineers and enjoy camaraderie with one another,” Ferguson said.
It all started in 1970 when Lysander Dudley, the director of the West Virginia University Foundation, initiated the tradition by bringing future Florida State legend and then-WVU football coach Bobby Bowden for a meet-and-greet session with local fans at the old Bluefield Country Club.
Over the years the Caravan has continued, moving to various venues, including the Brushfork Armory, the Douglass Center in Princeton, and now the Chuck Mathena Center.
“At one time you had a lot of people coming from McDowell County here and that was back when we were doing it at the Armory and that is when I got involved,” Ferguson said. “That is when they had the real big crowds.
“For the last nine or 10 years we have averaged crowds of 300 or more here in Bluefield and Princeton and that is capacity.”
According to Ferguson, the capacity remains the same for this year’s event.
“I don’t want to ever sell more than capacity even though we could probably do it,” Ferguson said. “Our caravan is special because there is a dinner included and we give a lot of door prizes out.
“In fact, this year, out of the 300 people that will buy tickets, we will be giving out 100 door prizes so one out of every three persons that buys a ticket will win a door prize.”
Tickets are still available for $50 a person, with all funds benefiting the WVU Athletic Department and the Mountaineer Athletic Club.
“We have sold half already without even talking much about it,” Ferguson said. “I estimate we will sell out again. We have sold out for the last nine or 10 years at 300 or above.”
Coming to Princeton on May 20 will be athletic director Oliver Luck, football coach Dana Holgorsen, men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins and women’s basketball coach Mike Carey.
Graham, a native of Delaware who became a WVU fan while traveling to and eventually moving to Bluefield, said the actual logistics of the event has remained much the same.
“The past couple of years it has just been presentations by the coaches and the coaches jabbing each other a little bit,” Ferguson said. “Carey and Huggins especially, they have a lot of fun with each other. It is a fun event and getting to meet and talk with them.
“I think it was last year or two years ago and we were backstage and we were all there together and joking around like guys do, that was kind of a special moment for me to be back there joking with all of them.
“There is a family atmosphere there between them and they can joke with each other and have fun with each other and it is fun to be part of that.”
A social hour will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner — prepared by Chef Rick from Fincastle on the Mountain — and coach presentations at 6:30.
“It is just like a big tailgate,” said Ferguson, who likes the Chuck Mathena Center as a venue for the event. “The parking is great, as far as logistics for the county, it is the most accessible to go to.
“It does have its limitations are far as food serving event which is 300 and that is what we are going to hold it at. To do dinner that is much as we can do there, even though the theater will hold a lot more, but that dinner area is packed.”
In addition, Michael Garcia will be in town for at least two days. Garcia is the newest Mountaineer mascot, who will also make appearances at local schools and speak at a Rotary Club meeting.
“It is always neat to have the Mountaineer Mascot down here because that is one of the most beloved traditions of West Virginia University,” Ferguson said. “I like pointing that out because we have a real mascot, it is a real person, it doesn’t have a cartoon head or animal head.
“This is the second year in a row we will have our Mountaineer Mascot and that is special. To have the new one here, that is special and having him go around and visit schools and speak at Rotary, that is as exciting to me as seeing the coaches.”
Ferguson, who, like Graham, didn’t attend WVU, has been avid West Virginia fan since age 12, and not just of the so-called major sports.
“Even though our football and our basketball has been down these past two years, I like to look at all of West Virginia University athletics and point out that our rifle team has 16 national championships,” said Ferguson, who is holding out hope that rifle coach Jon Hammond will attend the function.
While the WVU Coaches Caravan is now down to six stops, southern West Virginia and Mercer County remains one of them. It’s been a healthy relationship for both sides.
Not only do local fans get to learn more about West Virginia athletics from the coaches themselves, but it pays off for the school. Graham, who was treasurer for the function from 1970-85 said the Caravan raised nearly $314,000 during those 15 years, all of which went to the school.
The current 15 committee members, mostly from Bluefield and Princeton, include Ferguson, John Johnson, David Johnson, Joe Allen, Dewey Russell and Ed Gilger. Others include Adam Sarver, Bud Raines, Richard Ammar, Bill Looney, Frazier Miller, Bob Raines, Bus Brown, Tony Wagner, Kevin Marion and Ferguson’s son, Brad.
Graham is no longer part of the committee, but certainly won’t miss his 44th straight WVU Coaches Caravan.
“It has been a fun run,” Graham said.
“We just want to continue to build on that run,” added Ferguson.
All of the committee members are fans of the Mountaineers, and all have the same wish that Graham has had since even before attending his first West Virginia football game way back 1956.
“I love to see them winning,” said Graham, with a smile, “but win or lose I am still with them.”
Spoken like a true Mountaineer.
—Contact Brian Woodson