The most celebrated athlete to appear at Mountaineer Field this year was not a member of the West Virginia football team, but a 4 ft. 9 in. gymnast named Mary Lou Retton. The Olympic star, whose home is Fairmont, W.Va., was honored at halftime of the season opener.
Nationally, of course, Retton is far better known than even All-American placekicker Paul Woodside. But that doesn't bother West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen, who admits, ''Our players don't have much of a pedigree, but they're pretty good.''
Actually, the Mountaineers are more than pretty good judging from their 6-1 record and national ranking (No. 14 in the UPI poll; No. 18 in the AP poll).
Enthusiasm is running so high in the state that the school's 52,000-seat stadium was filled to overflowing for last Saturday's game against fourth-ranked Boston College, which West Virginia came from behind to win 21-20.
Among those in the crowd was Retton, a fan on this occasion, and not an honored celebrity of McDonald's, and Wheaties endorsement fame.
Granted, Mary Lou's family lives only 15 miles from Morgantown and sister, Sherri, is a gymnast on campus, but she likes the football too. The team, after all, has joined her in putting this blue-collar state back on the sports map. It's seldom been there since her dad and Jerry West played basketball for the Mountaineers in the late 1950s.
The school has historically struggled to gain national prominence, partly because it is isolated in sort of a geographical limbo. The World Almanac describes coast-less West Virginia, which borders Ohio on one side, as a ''South Atlantic state,'' yet the football team vies for the Lambert Trophy, a symbol of Eastern supremacy.
In some ways, this trophy serves as a surrogate championship for the East, which doesn't have a major football conference. West Virginia has never been the trophy's recipient. Last year, the Mountaineers felt they deserved it, but Boston College got the nod instead. The voting angered folks in Morgantown, who argued that West Virginia's victory over B.C. in Boston should have overshadowed the Mountaineers' loss to Penn State.
''What are they mad at us for?'' asked Jack Bicknell, Boston College's perplexed coach, before last Saturday's nationally televised game. ''All we did was accept the trophy, not vote for it.'' Even so, emotions ran high on a team that had attracted far less attention than B.C. with its exciting quarterback Doug Flutie. West Virginia trailed at the half 20-6, but harassed Flutie with blitzing tactics and pounded out two rushing TDs for the victory.
The fans, West Virginia's ''12th man,'' have witnessed the Mountaineers win 20 of their last 23 home games. To accomodate more of them, the school will soon install an additional 7,500 seats.
This expansion comes only four years after the current stadium was built, and is another indication of the success enjoyed under Nehlen. The school had suffered through four consecutive losing seasons when he arrived in 1980 from an assistant coaching stint at Michigan.
By 1981 West Virginia was 9-3 and playing in a bowl. The biggest victory in school history came in the 1982 opener, when the Mountaineers beat Oklahoma 41- 27 on the road. That team went 9-3 as well, as did last year's.
West Virginia was stung by Maryland several weeks ago, but is clearly on a path to its fourth bowl appearance in as many seasons. There will be no looking ahead this Saturday, though. The Mountaineers host Penn State, a rival they haven't defeated since 1955.