Christmas is a day to relax, exchange gifts and give thanks. Seldom is it a time for West Virginia fans to gather around the television (or radio) and cheer on the Mountaineers.
In fact, going back a century the Mountaineer men’s basketball and football teams have competed just three times on Dec. 25. They haven’t done so since 1987, and based on the most recent results, the fans would likely want to keep it that way.
Here’s a look back at WVU’s soirees with Christmas Day:
1922: Football takes on Gonzaga in sunny San Diego
Sunday is the 100th anniversary of WVU’s first-ever appearance in a bowl game. On Dec. 25, 1922, the Mountaineers headed to City Stadium in San Diego, California to square off against Gonzaga in the San Diego East-West Christmas Classic.
Clarence Spears’ Mountaineers entered the game as clear favorites over the Bulldogs as WVU looked to complete an undefeated season. There was plenty of animosity on the part of the Mountaineers, who were snubbed of a Rose Bowl bid in favor of three-loss Penn State, robbing them of a national title shot.
Through three quarters, WVU seemed to take their anger out on Gonzaga. Nick Nardacci scored the first touchdown of the game in the opening quarter from 17 yards out and later added a passing touchdown in the third period. In the second quarter, Russ Meredith picked off Houston Stockton and returned in 75 yards for the score.
Heading into the final quarter, WVU led by three touchdowns. Gonzaga wasn’t down yet and nearly mounted a comeback, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth. West Virginia held on to win 21-13, finishing the season with 10 wins and a tie.
West Virginia’s next bowl game didn’t come until 1938. Gonzaga never again played in a bowl and its program was discontinued in 1941.
1948: Men’s hoops falls to Bradley
West Virginia’s only Christmas date on the hardwood came long before the days of Bob Huggins.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War and under the leadership of Lee Patton, the WVU men’s basketball team traveled out to Illinois to face Bradley University. The Mountaineers were confident in their chances in Peoria, as this was the third time in as many seasons that WVU had faced Bradley, winning both of their first two meetings, including a 69-60 win at Madison Square Garden.
The third edition didn’t go as well for the Mountaineers. Fred Schaus led the game with 22 points, shooting 9-of-20 from the field, but his teammates weren’t as fortunate in the box score, as just two more Mountaineers made more than half their shots. As a team, WVU shot 30 percent — decades before the addition of the three-point shot to Division I hoops.
On the other end, Bradley made 44 percent of its shots and added 18 points from the free throw line. Bradley was victorious 80-66.
1987: The Mountaineers meet Mike Gundy and the Cowboys
12 bowls after that fateful day in San Diego, Don Nehlen led the Mountaineers out of the tunnel in El Paso, Texas for his fifth bowl game as WVU’s head coach. On the other end was Pat Jones and the 11th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys, led by a lethal backfield that included quarterback Mike Gundy and future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas.
WVU was a definite underdog heading into this one, but they were far from long shots. The Mountaineers had a rough start to the season, losing three of their first four games, including a painful 6-3 Backyard Brawl in week four. They rallied, winning five of their next seven, with their final two losses coming on the road by less than a possession to ranked foes Penn State and Syracuse.
Oklahoma State, on the other sideline, had rocketed up the rankings, finishing third in the Big Eight and falling to only second-ranked Nebraska and top-ranked Oklahoma.
The Cowboys and the Mountaineers fought in a shootout on Dec. 25, 1987, in the Sun Bowl. After trading touchdowns in the first quarter, WVU scored 17 straight points to take a 10-point lead into halftime.
OSU responded as Thurman Thomas scored his third touchdown of the day to open the third quarter. WVU kept the Cowboys at bay (temporarily) when Charlie Baumann made his third field goal of the day, putting WVU ahead by six.
Gundy put the Cowboys in front for the first time since the first quarter with a three-yard connection to JR Dilliard in the closing minutes of the third quarter, going ahead by a point. With five minutes left, Thomas scored his fourth score of the game to give the Cowboys a eight-point lead.
With just over a minute left, it looked like the Mountaineers would send it to overtime. Craig Taylor scored from six yards out, capping off a 10-play, 58-yard drive. Nehlen called on freshman quarterback Major Harris to complete the rally with the two-point conversion, but he was unable to complete the pass. Oklahoma State won 35-33.
Despite the loss, a star was born for the Old Gold and Blue in the freshman quarterback. He threw the ball just seven times, completing two attempts and logging an interception. Harris showed the national audience that he could make plays with his feet, though, rushing for 103 yards as the second-leading rusher in the game.