Wait. That’s not it, either.
How many tall tales and legends have you heard about the origins of the Flying WV, one of the most recognized university and sports logos in the world?
What’s the true story?
Everyone involved—from the coach, an artist, an equipment manager, and a sports information director—has a different variation of the story.
But don’t worry. Through hardnosed, investigative (ahem) journalism, the real story will be pieced together right here.
The truth shall set you free, like a Mountaineer.
SOMETIMES IT TAKES BAD TO MAKE GOOD
Look no further than the late-1970s if you’re seeking a forgettable era of Mountaineer football.
After wrapping up six years with a winning record as Mountaineer head coach, Bobby Bowden left the helm in 1975 for a warmer climate at Florida State. There, he’d go on to establish a legendary 34-year career leading the Seminoles to two national championships.
With Bowden gone, so were the WVU victories. Following Bowden’s departure, the Mountaineers slogged through four consecutive losing seasons (1976-79).
The Mountaineers could not even lose with style, so to speak, in those darkened days.
The distinct gold-and-blue color scheme and Flying WV logo we’ve come to adore did not exist at that point. Instead, football players bore a bronzesque gold helmet emblazoned with a blue outline of the state of West Virginia and the letters “WVU” inside an oval.
The gold of the helmet did not reflect the gold utilized in our colors today. Think of a darker, Notre Dame-like gold, only uglier. The helmets also came in a white version.
By 1980, it was time for an extreme makeover: Mountaineer edition.
Leading this new revolution would be Don Nehlen, a former Bowling Green quarterback who later coached at his alma mater and served a two year stint as quarterbacks coach at the University of Michigan.
He was now charged with rebuilding the WVU football program.
When he arrived in Morgantown in December 1979, he dove headfirst into the game film.
But there was one glaring problem. He couldn’t tell which team was WVU.
“I had trouble figuring out which team West Virginia was,” Nehlen said. “The uniform was white. The helmet was white, and had the state of West Virginia on it. You really couldn’t tell that unless you held one in your hand.
“I thought the colors were supposed to be blue and gold. I wanted a distinct helmet. I wanted everybody to know that when West Virginia University hit the field, they’d know who we were.”
Nehlen shared his vision with the equipment manager, Mike Kerin. The coach was seeing dark blue and gold. After all, Nehlen had just come from Michigan, whose colors and logos bear a slight resemblance to WVU’s.
He told Kerin, “I want a dark, blue helmet, and I want a WV on both sides.”
Nehlen claims he and Kerin sat down and drew designs for the new logo.
But no one else—Kerin included—recalls that ever happening. Kerin asserts that he and Nehlen never drew any sketches.
They were no van Gogh and Monet.
“I can’t draw a stick man,” Kerin readily admits. “I’ve had to diffuse some of the tales from over the years.
People come up to me and say, ‘You developed the logo.’ No, I didn’t. I didn’t design it.” The concept around a football logo designated to stand out and unite did emanate from Nehlen, Kerin said.
This is how he remembers it: While they discussed the idea, putting it to paper would pose a greater challenge.
Kerin wound up at a sporting goods trade show in Chicago seeking ways to bring the new logo—whatever it would be—to life. There he met with a decal company and asked for ideas.
The company furnished a few designs. They were all duds.
Back in Morgantown, Kerin shared the company’s sketches with Mike Parsons, then sports information director and now deputy director of athletics at WVU. None of the designs struck a fancy with any of the football officials.
From Parsons’ end, he was scrambling to put together the 1980 football media guide. Before his office could print one, they needed the new logo.
“We couldn’t use pictures from the ‘79 season on the cover of our publications because the uniforms were going to be different,” Parsons said. “The media guide came out in the summertime. I thought, ‘How do I handle the cover of the media guide? How can I depict the future?’”
Parsons, by the way, could not confirm Nehlen’s version of the story, either.
The design had to come from someone or something, right?
LEAVE IT TO A STRANGER TO COME TO TOWN AND SOLVE THE PROBLEM
While Nehlen, Kerin and Parsons can’t agree on the particulars behind the design of the logo, they acknowledged the involvement of one man, and he hails from Kansas City.
John Boyd Martin grew up in the small Midwest town of Ottawa, Kansas, and had no real ties to WVU—other than the fact that his brother, Dick Martin, served as WVU’s athletic director at the time.
A renowned portrait artist, graphic designer and illustrator, Martin had designed publication covers for multiple World Series, MLB All-Star games, and an NBA All-Star game. He’d done work for several professional sports teams including the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, and New York Mets.
Recruiting the artful talent of Martin was a no-brainer.
Nehlen said that once he and Kerin drew a rough sketch of the Flying WV logo, they sent it to Martin to “clean it up.”
Again, conflicting stories arise.
According to Kerin and Parsons, they sent Martin those “godawful” sketches drawn by the sports decal company.
“He (Martin) tells us, ‘Those look like crap,’” Kerin said.
They asked Martin to produce his own sketches for the new logo. After a few days of scribbling with a pencil, Martin nailed it.
What we now know and love as the Flying WV was born on a sheet of wax paper.
Martin’s main inspiration? Mountains. Yes. West Virginia has mountains.WVU’s mascot is a mountaineer. Such an obvious fit.
“The first thing I did was play around with the initials,” Martin said. “When you put a W and a V together, you had mountains. They may call it the Flying WV but to me, it depicts mountains.”
As a graphic designer, Martin knew that successful corporations have “honest, simple” logos. Case in point: the Nike swoosh, the McDonald’s arches, and the Apple apple.
The WVU logo would be simple. It would be a W and a V. Anything beyond that would’ve been overkill.
“You could’ve incorporated the ‘U’ in some way, but, to me, that would complicate it, especially for a helmet design,” Martin said. “You could’ve added the face of a mountaineer. But that would just complicate it, also. A ‘WV’ is more adaptable and direct.”
Mountaineer football officials knew they had a winner once they saw Martin’s design.
“Everyone agreed it was distinctive and would be our new helmet decal,” Kerin said. “We sent it back to Martin and told him we liked that one. Then he sent back a camera-ready negative and a bill for $200.”
The emblem soon made its first appearance on the cover of the 1980 media guide. It was game time.
FLYING WV: PREPARE FOR TAKEOFF
The date of September 6, 1980, marked many firsts for the WVU football program, and the University as a whole.
As WVU prepared to host the Cincinnati Bearcats in a season opener, it would be Coach Nehlen’s first game leading the Mountaineers.
Not only did the game introduce a new coach, but a new stadium.
Beforehand, the original 38,000-seat Mountaineer Field had been situated onWVU’s Downtown campus, around the current Life Sciences Building. Because of downtown expansion, officials decided to build a new, bigger stadium near the College of Law and Ruby Memorial Hospital. The “new” Mountaineer Field would cost $22 million and accommodate 50,000 fans.
That fall day also introduced the Flying WV and the football team’s new helmets and uniforms to the masses.
The game remains one of the most memorable in Mountaineer history—not due to the game itself (WVU romped Cincinnati 41-27)—but because of the pageantry surrounding it.
To a thunderous applause, John Denver treated fans to a performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Nehlen’s Mountaineer coaching debut foreshadowed the upcoming years of his reign, which he believed played a part in the Flying WV’s allure.
“Had we lost like crazy, maybe the logo wouldn’t have caught on so much,” Nehlen said.
Within a couple of years, the emblem appeared on hats, mugs, shirts, posters, among other items.
“That ‘WV’ became the link between the football team and our fan base,” Nehlen said. “They all wanted it. Now it’s on every daggone thing imaginable.”
Sports Illustrated named it a top logo in college sports in one 1980s issue. In 2001, the magazine ranked the WVU football helmet sixth on a top 10 list of helmets.
No one fathomed that Martin’s design would ultimately turn up in nationally televised events, on the heads of Hollywood celebrities and the backs of cars from coast to coast.
In 1980, brand recognition and corporate identity were not at the top of the University’s list. Martin didn’t see huge dollar signs in his design, either.
“As far as identity, it has become truly one of the greatest identifiable logos in the country,” Martin said. “I didn’t realize something like that would take off.”
Martin visited Morgantown a few years after designing the logo and was floored by what he saw.
“The logo was everywhere,” he said. “They took this thing and went crazy. Not only was it in the middle of the football field, but it was on newspaper bins. I went into a store and it was on everything. I even saw it in the grass in front of someone’s house on their lawn.”
Martin has encountered his design outside of West Virginia. Every time he sees someone donning the logo, he jokes that they “have great taste.”
“I’m quite honored by it all,” Martin said. “It’s an awesome feeling knowing you were able to make that kind of contribution to an institution of that magnitude. Every time I watch a WVU game, I reflect back on something very special.”
In its first year, 1980, the logo appeared only with the Mountaineer football team. Acknowledging the rising popularity of the Flying WV, other athletic teams began to adopt it in the following years.
Academics and administrators at the University, however, expressed lukewarm feelings toward the new emblem. Some complained the logo was missing the ‘U’ in ‘WVU,’ therefore, they argued that it did not fully represent the University.
But that stance would not last. WVU adopted it as the University’s official logo in 1985. A WVU Alumni Magazine article that year read, “The Flying WV captured the fancy of West Virginians with amazing speed after it was introduced in 1980.”
The story credited four consecutive bowl appearances to the emblem becoming a household fixture.
“If we turned out to be a lousy football team, I don’t think the logo would be on any cars,” Nehlen said.
No one predicted that a $200 investment for a helmet logo would ultimately turn into an internationally recognized symbol.
The Flying WV was first used on products in commerce in the same year of its birth. In 1980, products bearing the logo included electric lamps, decals, and T-shirts, said Marsha Malone, director of Trademark Licensing at WVU.
Today, the emblem is not only on just those products. It’s on grave markers, toasters, fishing rods, golf carts, and waffle makers. There were even talks of making a Mountaineer Cola in the mid-1980s.
Some diehard Mountaineer fans have it tattooed on their skin.
Big-name celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Brad Paisley and Randy Moss have been spotted in WVU gear.
The logo’s presence may be widespread, but the heart and soul of the emblem remains embedded at WVU.
WVU is one of the top royalty producing colleges in the country thanks to the sale of officially licensed WVU gear—much of which includes the Flying WV.
Trademark royalties are used to assist with funding WVU athletic scholarships, cover the costs associated with administering the trademark licensing program, and to help fund other University marketing initiatives, Malone said.
“The Flying WV contributes directly, in a financial way, to the wellbeing of the University through its use on licensed products,” Malone added. “Of course, it also contributes in many other ways. It’s a symbol of a state’s pride in its school and a school’s pride in its students and graduates.
“Seeing the Flying WV is like coming home.”
WVU authorizes a large variety of products available in the marketplace. Through its licensing agent, the Collegiate Licensing Company, WVU has more than 500 licensees authorized to produce merchandise bearing WVU trademarks. Prominent companies include Nike, Perry Ellis, Tommy Hilfiger, Upper Deck, and Victoria’s Secret.
All of this for $200.
That’s the evolution of the logo, and as far as its innovators are concerned, it shall evolve no more.
“There have been three coaches since me (Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart, and Dana Holgorsen) and they’ve kept the logo and helmet,” Nehlen said. “I told Rich when he took over, ‘Don’t mess with that helmet. That’s the thing that sets us apart.’”