When Ramseyer was hired as the first football coach at Virginia-Wise, Dr. Jim Knight — who was then the chancellor of the school formerly called Clinch Valley College — took him and his family members to the site where Carl Smith Stadium would be built.
“Jim said, ‘This is where it’s going to be,’ ” recalled Ramseyer, a nominee for the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021. “My grandson looked up and asked me if this is where the football field was going to be and I told him yes. Then he said, ‘Boy, you sure are going to have to pull a lot of weeds.’ ”
The weed-pulling started.
Though it was years before the on-campus stadium was complete, the football program started soon after that viewing of the weeds on the hillside. The Cavaliers’ first season came in the fall of 1991, Ramseyer at the helm and his longtime friend and coaching partner, Bruce Wasem, at his side.
LIVING A DREAM
Ramseyer and Wasem coached together at Wilmington College in Ohio for decades. When Ramseyer took the post at UVA Wise, one of his first moves was to hire Wasem as defensive coordinator.
“He is an amazing person and a great coach and a great friend,” Ramseyer said. “We worked together for 38 years. He worked really hard at getting the best out of his players and instilling a pride in them to their best.”
Reunited in Virginia, the duo — assisted by quality assistant coaches from the region — went to work on building a competitive program.
It did not take long.
After going 2-6 and 3-7 in the first two years of the program, the Cavs produced back-to-back winning seasons, going 6-4 in 1993 and in 1994.
Then the magic happened.
In 1995, UVA Wise went 10-1 in the regular season after opening the year with eight straight wins. The Cavs earned their first trip to the NAIA postseason, but fell to Lambuth.
Not deterred by that loss, the Cavs came back even stronger in 1996 in what became a dream season.
“I literally still dream about it sometimes,” Ramseyer said of his team’s run 24 years ago. “It was a great year.”
Just six years into the program’s existence, UVA Wise posted an undefeated regular season, becoming the fastest NAIA football program to go from nonexistent to unbeaten.
Wasem never predicted a perfect run for the team, but he knew the Cavs were going to be tough in 1996.
“We only lost one game and made the playoffs (in 1995) and we were headed in the right direction,” he said. “We were expecting to have a good year.”
Kent Grant, a senior from Cincinnati and a star on Wasem’s defensive unit, was also expecting a good year.
“We took some lumps in our first two years,” recalled Grant, now the athletic director at Ridgeview. “There was about eight or 10 of us that were seniors in 1996 and we had already played a lot of football.
“In 1995 we went 10-1 and went to the playoffs. We were expecting that we were going to be pretty good, but we didn’t know if we could go undefeated or not. We had probably the toughest schedule in ’96 that we played, so we weren’t sure about that. But we knew we could be pretty good.”
Always the coach, Ramseyer refused to let his players think too much about what could be.
“We tried hard to not look ahead,” Ramseyer said. “We wanted to simply focus on becoming a better football team.”
TEAM OF DESTINY
Ramseyer cautioned his team before the season started to take one game at a time, advice that proved to be valuable to the Cavaliers.
UVA Wise rallied in the final minutes to earn four of its wins, including a season-opening 34-27 victory over Cumberland and a 17-14 win over NCAA Division III Ferrum in just the second game of the season.
Against both Wesley and Maryville, UVA Wise came back to win after trailing by two scores going into the fourth quarter.
Some called such wins dramatic. Ramseyer referred to them as doing what was supposed to be done.
“Those young men were able to overcome adversity,” he said. “It’s about how you react. When things are not going well, how do you react?
“We were fortunate to have a team full of young men who looked adversity in the eye and approached it the right way.”
INTO THE RECORD BOOKS
Players like Grant, Randy Belcher, Rod Stanley, Chris Austin, Will Gardner, Ralph Carter, Anthony Richards and Todd Massey were among those able to overcome such adversity.
Another was All-American Greg Thomas.
Thomas led the NAIA record-holders in 1996 with 1,438 yards rushing. He totaled 23 rushing touchdowns and two receiving TDs.
“He is one of the finest men you will ever meet,” Wasem said. “He’s a great man until this day.”
“He was not just a football player,” Ramseyer said. “Like so many, he came to college for the right reasons, not just to play football.”
ON WITH LIFE
The Cavs advanced to the postseason again in 1996 but again they dropped their opening-round game — this time a 27-20 heartbreaker to Westminster at Carl McConnell Stadium in Coeburn.
That loss could not overshadow the accomplishments the team achieved in such a short amount of time.
Ramseyer retired after the 2001 season with 280 career wins.
Wasem followed him as the team’s head coach until his retirement in 2010.
Both agree the 1996 season was one of the most memorable of their time on the sidelines.