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Country road less traveled

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

West Virginia's greatest export isn't coal. It's talent.

If you grow up in West Virginia and develop skills and dreams in certain walks of life, often there isn't a way to embrace them without leaving. It's a state of remarkable beauty and deep values but cultural and economic realities force so many talented people to head off elsewhere – from the symphony to the stock market. Not everyone, but many.

It's like that in a lot of small places and West Virginia is made up exclusively of small places.

Rich Rodriguez grew up in one of them, Grant Town, a 600-person, no stoplight town not far from Morgantown, where he played football and is currently coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers.

Sunday he was preparing his team for its regular-season finale against Pitt, where a victory would assure a trip to the BCS championship game.

But about 50 weeks ago, he faced a decision so many West Virginians struggle with. The University of Alabama had offered him not just its head coaching position, but all of its rich tradition, its grand possibilities and, of course, its pile of money.

At Alabama, conventional wisdom said, you could climb to the top of your profession. The school claims 12 national titles. West Virginia claims none, a program that's often good, but rarely great.

"We like to think we have some (tradition) but we don't have national championship tradition," Rodriguez admitted.

Rodriguez had watched his former coach and mentor, Don Nehlen, stay in Morgantown for 21 seasons and never quite get the program to the ultimate heights (although it had a shot at the national title in 1988), mainly because of the recruiting limitations of a state with just 1.8 million residents.

"When you fly over other states, you see houses," Nehlen always said. "When you fly over West Virginia, all you see are trees."

So a year ago, there was that inevitable West Virginia fork in the road for Rodriguez. He was a bright, ambitious 43-year-old who had done great work at home – at two smaller state schools and then WVU – but now had to choose. Would it be the untold potential of Alabama, or the familiar, if possibly limited, life at home?

"By God," he told his team on Dec. 9, 2006, "I'm staying at West Virginia."

Staying in West "By God" Virginia was never a smarter choice.

"I just thought, 'you know, we can accomplish anything right here,'" Rodriguez said last spring in his office in Morgantown.

It was a move that stunned the coaching establishment; and much of Alabama too. But for Rodriguez this wasn't about curbing dreams, settling in an effort to balance family (his parents still live just a 40-minute drive away) or choosing comfort over ambition.

Rodriguez, instead, chose both. He admits he doesn't spend much time with his family or old friends since the job is too consuming. But at least theoretically he has the chance; all while driving hard for the top anyway.

"I believe in this school, in this program," he said last spring. "We can compete for a national title here."

He's proven that this season, the 10-1 Mountaineers are Big East champions and ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings. They are just 60 minutes against arch-rival Pitt from assuring a spot in the title game Jan. 7 in New Orleans.

"To me, this is a semifinal," Rodriguez said Sunday. "We talk about a 12-game playoff. We are in the semis. You don't get to the finals unless you win the semis."

That he is putting together a possible third consecutive 11-win season, is, of course, a testament to his coaching ability. But maybe more so, it shows how he has been able to overcome all those trees in his home state.

"Recruiting is going to be the lifeblood of any program," he said. "At a place such as West Virginia, we're a small state, a small population. So we have to draw our roster from a lot of different places."

His star quarterback, Pat White, hails from Alabama. His speedy freshman back, Noel Devine, is from Florida. His top receiver, Darius Reynaud comes from Louisiana. Just 22 players, lightly used walk-ons included, hail from West Virginia.

Granted Rodriguez annually raids near-by, talent-rich Western Pennsylvania (they even are in the mix for QB Terrelle Pryor, the nation's top recruit according to Rivals.com). But still, making it work this well without an easy recruiting base is almost impossible.

Then there is budget, the Mountaineers played six true road games this year. Most big time schools, such as 'Bama, play just four, paying lesser teams to play them at home.

But that's why everyone thought Rodriguez would leave. Instead, it's part of the reason he decided to stay.

"I know what this program means to the state," he said last spring. "I'm proud to be from West Virginia."

Even better, he didn't have to be from West Virginia to make everything happen. He found a way to chase the rainbow from his own backyard, rallying Mountaineers near and far at the very thought of it.

He's still there in West Virginia, by God, still at home and one game from almost heaven.

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