Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

April 18, 2014

Graham returns to Caravan for 44th consecutive year

BLUEFIELD — Way back in 1970, then-West Virginia football coach Bobby Bowden traveled to Bluefield for a gathering of alumni at what was once known as the Bluefield Country Club.

Joe Graham was there.

When Dana Holgorsen, Bob Huggins, Oliver Luck, Mike Carey and others arrive at the Chuck Mathena Center for the 44th Annual West Virginia Coaches Caravan on May 20, Joe Graham will be there.

“It has been a lot of fun and very enjoyable for me,” said the 88-year-old Graham. “I hope I continue to work with them. I can’t get around as much as I used to, but I have sure enjoyed it.”

In fact, Graham has never missed a Caravan stop, and doesn’t plan to stop now.

“Joe was one of the first and he is the only one that I know of that started 44 years ago and is still kicking,” said Caravan dinner chairman Jim Ferguson. “Frazier Miller came along and Richard Ammar, they have been there for many, many years, and Bob Raines, but Joe is the only one left from that original group.

“I think that is kind of special and kind of unique.”

Way back in 1970, Lysander Dudley, who was then the director of the West Virginia University Foundation, called some alumni in Bluefield with a proposal to bring a coach down and have a meet-and-greet session for a nominal fee ($10) to serve as a fundraiser for the school’s athletic department.

“It was very successful,” Graham said. “We had standing room only and it kind of took off from there.”

It has never stopped.

“It is the longest consecutive fundraising event for the West Virginia University Athletic Department and the MAC scholarship fund,” Ferguson said. “It is still looked at today as one of the most successful ones out of the ones that they do.

“They only do six Caravan stops and southern West Virginian (is one of them).”

Bowden, who spent six years at West Virginia before leaving for Florida State and legend status in 1976, certainly left an impression on Graham.

“I liked Bobby Bowden a lot,” Graham said. “He was a good man, he was down to earth.”

Memories abound. The night before that initial Caravan meeting back in 1970, an alumni meeting was held at the West Virginia Hotel in downtown Bluefield.

“There was a Varsity Club down in the basement and they were having drinks,” Ferguson said. “Bobby Bowden, being the devout Baptist that he was, would not go down there. They would come up and meet with him and they would go back down and he stayed outside the bar.

 “He didn’t look down on anybody, he was very cordial, but he just didn’t go down there and drink,” added Graham. “Most of us would lay the drink down before we went out to see Bobby.”

The next day Graham and others visited Angelo Monaco, who owned Fisher-Trenton Pharmacy in Bluefield, Virginia, and convinced him to be the first chairperson for what has become a yearly tradition.

In fact, Graham can recall so many of the original group, including Raines, Allan Coppinger Jr., Stoner Parsons, Orville Wyatt and Raymond Shortt, among others.

“We are very proud of this caravan to still be going after 44 years,” Ferguson said.

Graham has every step of the way, but, ironically, isn’t a graduate of West Virginia, and isn’t even a native of the state.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Kitty, while living in Delaware, but was a traveling sales representative for Dupont, which serviced the Bluefield Supply Company.

“We just liked the area and the people down here and I asked the company if I could stay,” Graham said.

He never left, moving to Bluefield in 1954. Kitty, who was also an avid West Virginia sports fan, died in 2010 after 62 years of marriage. Graham haven’t been back to Morgantown for a football game since then, but is still no less of a fan of the Mountaineers.

“I haven’t been there since she passed,” said Graham, who keeps Ferguson updated on recruiting for the Mountaineers. “I still keep up them on TV, I keep up with it, I really do.”

Graham saw his first West Virginia football game in 1956, traveling with some co-workers to Pittsburgh in Morgantown. It left a lastly impression.

“I will never forget it, that was the first time I saw a game and Pitt beat us 14-13,” Graham said. “I learned to hate them then so that is what happened and we just took off from there.

“I used to take my vacations in the fall so I could follow the Mountaineers.”

Graham and his wife held season tickets for an amazing 38 years, from 1970 to 2008 when Kitty became ill.

“I would say in that time I probably missed a handful of games,” Graham said. “I really enjoying going and watching them. Kitty loved them too.”

The happy couple stayed busy traveling the country, either going to road games or bowl games, following their beloved Mountaineers.

With one exception.

“My son laughs at me,” said Graham, who has sons living in Delaware and Beckley. “He says ‘Dad, you have been all over the country following the Mountaineers, but you won’t go to Pittsburgh, and it is only 79 miles up the road from Morgantown. I have never been to a game up there.”

Those trips took them all over the country and even to a bowl game in Hawaii. Graham was able to see West Virginia upset Florida in the Peach Bowl and the Mountaineers stop Texas Christian in the Blue Bonnet Bowl.

He was there when West Virginia went into Oklahoma and left with a win. He was there when West Virginia lost to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, which was a de facto national championship game. He was there when West Virginia lost to Pittsburgh, losing a chance another shot at that elusive national title.

“That was our best chance,” said Graham, with a smile. “I don’t know if I will live long enough to see one, we will keep wishing there.”

He was there when West Virginia went into Penn State and left with a win, leaving Joe Paterno hopping mad, and the Mountaineers hopping with joy.

Some of his favorite players have been Oliver Luck, Jeff Hostetler, Pat White and Major Harris, just to name a few.

“I liked the Maj, I was up there when we beat Penn State about 50 years ago,” Graham said. “He ran the wrong play, he ran the wrong way  and ran through the whole Penn State team. “

“We hadn’t beat them in so long...(Paterno) ran out on the field before the game ended.”

Want to hear more? Pay Graham a visit on May 20 when the Caravan stops in Princeton. He will be there, at an event he could never have envisioned since being in existence more than four decades later.

“No, I didn’t, but I always hoped it would keep going from year to year when they would come up,” Graham said. “Jim has been doing a good job since he has taken over as chairman for us and we just keep rolling.”

Don’t expect that to change.

“I hope I get to see a few more of them,” Ferguson said. “I have been involved since about ‘85. It is just a proud tradition and I want to keep it going because of people like Joe and Frazier and Bob Raines.

“I want to keep the legacy there.”

Others expected to attend  the May 20 function is Michael Garcia, the newest Mountaineer mascot, who will be in town for two days visiting local schools and speaking at a Rotary Club meeting.

Ferguson expects it to be a good time for all, and encourages those haven’t been in the past to give it a chance.

“Look what you are missing, the fellowship with Mountaineers is wonderful,” Ferguson said. “It is just like a huge tailgate, the only difference is the coaches are there with us.”

A social hour begins at 5:30 p.m., followed by the dinner and coach presentations at 6:30. The cost is $50, which includes a meal prepared by Chef Rick from Fincastle on the Mountain.

All funds benefit the WVU Athletic Department and the MAC scholarship fund. An estimated 300 tickets are being sold, with about half still available. A sell-out is expected.

For more information or for tickets, contact Ferguson at (304) 920-4333 or the Mountaineer Athletic Club at 800-433-2872.

—Contact Brian Woodson

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