When Coach Art (Pappy) Lewis took his burly West Virginia football team on an 80-mile trip to Pittsburgh last weekend, the chips were down. The game with the Pitt Panthers was one that Lewis and his undefeated Mountaineers needed if they were going to realize their heady dreams of an invitation to a New Year's bowl game and a Christmas holiday in the sunny south.
As Pappy arrived in Pittsburgh with his team on Friday, his thick shoulders were hunched under his dark-blue overcoat, and his eyes had a distant look. Someone inquired into his health and suggested an aspirin. "Aspirin?" Lewis grunted. "I eat 'em like peanuts."
Nervously, he shuffled along the sidelines Friday afternoon and watched his boys run through a light workout. Even without their pads they were monumental. A Pittsburgh writer wondered about their physical condition. "We've been all right so far," answered Lewis. Then suddenly he frowned, looked around wildly, took four quick steps to a nearby goal post and knocked soundly on wood.
He was taking no chances of affronting his muse. He was wearing the same frayed brown suit he wore three years ago at his first Pitt victory. In his wallet was a tarnished half dollar that carried its own spell. Back at the noisy Hotel William Penn Friday night, he sought out the same good friend he had seen two years ago before beating Pitt 17-7 and had a single highball. Then, accompanied by his son Johnny, a 12-year-old version of his old man, Lewis headed resolutely for a restaurant that served lobster. He had eaten a lobster before each of his two wins over Pitt.
SHAKES AND LUCK
And wherever he went, he shook hands. Some 15,000 West Virginians were up for the game, and they all seemed to know Lewis, who is an easy man to spot. He is 6 foot 3, weighs around 250 and looks exactly like what he is: an old pro tackle who spent his formative years around the farms and coal mines down along the Ohio River. All night long people grabbed his hand and said lamely, "Art, you don't remember me, but I met you last year down in Bluefield (or Charleston—or Parkersburg) and I just wanted to wish you luck." Lewis would grin back and search his memory. More often than not he came up with a name.
At 11:55 Saturday morning Lewis shepherded his squad into a bus in front of the William Penn and set out for Pitt Stadium, which was slowly being filled rim full by 58,000 people. His team and he were as ready as they could get. In Lewis' pockets were supplies of gum, cigarettes and salted nuts—"I like something to chew on. Aspirins don't taste so good at game time."
In the locker room before the game, Lewis nursed a Coke and walked quietly about reminding his boys of their plays. The players dressed silently and then sat on scarred green benches and stared at their hands.
Finally Tackle Sam Huff spoke up. "Let's take a minute, gang," he said. Lewis and the team knelt and prayed silently for a minute. Overhead, you could hear people walking up to their seats. Finally, Lewis stood up and the room became alive again with the nervous squeak of cleats on the cement floor. Lewis walked before them speaking slowly and emphatically. "One team beat us last year," he said, "and that was Pitt. If we've got anything to play for, this is the game. We've taken you as far as we can. The coaches can't do anything more for you." Then he nodded. With a great roar, his team headed for the door.
Lewis has heavy, dark features that light up like a grinning jack-o'-lantern when he's happy. But when things go wrong, his face settles solidly and he looks like a thwarted Mephistopheles. Right from the starting whistle Saturday, Lewis looked like the devil. He sat on a small folding wooden chair in front of the bench and suffered.