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West Virginians bursting with pride as football team shines

Forgive the innocent traveler if he drives through Morgantown, W.Va., and misses the point. The Days Inn sign doesn't give a clue. The local Bonanza restaurant proclaims cryptically: FIESTA BOUND

WVU 11 0

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It may be hard to tell from the outside, but this is a big moment for West Virginia. Its premier college football team - the undefeated Mountaineers of West Virginia University - is playing for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., next Monday. And West Virginians are bursting with pride.

``There's no doubt that this is the biggest event for West Virginia that I can remember in my lifetime,'' says John Butler of Buckhannon, W.Va. ``West Virginia [has] financial problems and economic problems. But we have one good thing and that's the West Virginia Mountaineers.''

``It's nice to see people happy,'' adds Becky Gilmore, gazing into the bookstore she manages, which is filled with WVU sweat shirts and paraphernalia. ``People buy them whether they are marked down or the price is up.... Fiesta Bowl hats we can't keep in stock.''

The Mountaineers' 11-0record is the best in the team's 98-year history. The team is ranked third in the nation. But it is still considered the underdog in the Fiesta Bowl, because it will face No. 1-ranked Notre Dame. Some observers, such as the coach of No. 2-ranked Miami, say that WVU has had too easy a schedule to deserve the top spot should it beat Notre Dame.

But none of this fazes West Virginia fans.

``Everybody I talk to thinks they can win,'' says John Lambert, owner of Variety Discount in downtown Morgantown, where the university is located.

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``There's a direct correlation between the economy and the football team,'' he adds. ``If they win, the economy of West Virginia will be up for three months.''

Everyone in the state seems to echo this sentiment.

``We are having a lot of parties, trying to keep the spirits [up],'' says David Corcoran, editor of the local paper in Welch, W.Va., where a local mine company just closed down. ``If we could beat Notre Dame and get national visibility, that would be a great thing.''

Over his Christmas holiday in the South, WVU provost Frank Franz often wore his WVU sweat shirt. ``People would say: `I now know where Morgantown is,''' he says. ``It's a great opportunity for people to become a little more familiar with the state.''

The university has produced a 60-second TV spot to capitalize on the attention and let people know about the university and West Virginia.

And loyalty? One local bar in Morgantown is charging $100 just to get in and watch the game, Mr. Lambert says.