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The Battle for John Denver: Texas Tech vs. West Virginia

Each school has a unique connection to the American folk star...

This is a story about two young men whose paths crossed then diverged, and whose legacies will be entrenched in our culture, both locally and nationally, for many years to come.

Henry was born in Roswell, New Mexico in 1943, the son of an Air Force officer and his “Oklahoma Sweetheart”. Due to his dad’s job, Henry moved often as a child – Arizona, Alabama, and Texas – and struggled to make friends. The second young man, Kent, was born in 1942 in Dimmitt, Texas.

Henry and Kent both attended Texas Tech in the early 1960’s. As Kent tells it today, the two lived in the same dormitory (I can’t remember if it was Gordon or Bledsoe) and both became members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Kent was focused on his grades, earning top marks before his acceptance into law school at the University of Texas. Henry was more interested in music and impressing young ladies on campus.

“I told that boy to throw that guitar away,” you might hear Kent say today. As a pledge, Henry would play music and sing for Delta Tau Delta members and their dates, as he slowly earned a following on campus in Lubbock.

Ultimately Kent’s concerns about Henry came to fruition. Henry didn’t have the grades to continue on at Texas Tech. Luckily for Henry, he didn’t take Kent’s advice to throw his guitar away. He kept playing and kept making music.

Henry Deutschendorf Jr., also known by his stage name, “John Denver”, became arguably the most successful musician in the country by the mid 1970’s. He sang folk country songs about all the states he had been to and/or loved so much, which just so happen to be Big 12 country today.

“Almost heaven, West Virginia…”, “Gold was just a windy Kansas wheat field”, “From Colorado, West Texas bound… West Texas cowboys all over town”, “I am the son of a grassland farmer, Western Oklahoma 1943” are just a few. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was adopted by West Virginia University as the school’s battle cry. 60,000 Mountaineer fans sing it in unison after every home victory. More on that song in a bit…

After his brilliant career, Denver passed away 19 years ago yesterday in a plane crash.

Not to be outdone by the fame of his former fraternity brother, Kent wound up pretty famous himself. After law school, he took an interest in politics. He ran for and won a Texas Senate seat representing West Texas. In 1978 he ran for a U.S. Congressional seat, beating out some guy named George W. Bush. While in Congress during the Ronald Reagan administration, Kent authored the largest tax cut in American history.

Following his legal and political career, Kent Hance returned to his alma mater, becoming the Chancellor of the Texas Tech University System in 2006. He was instrumental in the growth of Texas Tech that has made it the university it is today, leading the charge on new facilities, enrollment growth, expanded research activity, and securing additional funding, including an endowment that now exceeds $1 billion.

The anthem written by a Texas Tech alumnus about the state of West Virginia is alive and well today. That song means a lot to Mountaineers. A LOT. Check out this video of Marquette basketball coach Buzz Williams dancing on the West Virginia logo after a basketball game. The student section didn’t like it very much.

Similarly, former Texas Tech quarterback tweeted in celebration after a 2013 victory over the Mountaineers, altering the words of the iconic song to give a shout out to Texas Tech, Lubbock, and West Texas.

West Virginians don’t have a short memory. They taunted Webb a year later on Twitter after the Mountaineers notched a victory over the Red Raiders on a last second field goal.

Since joining the Big 12 in 2012, the game between Texas Tech and West Virginia is a battle for John Denver and his music. Each university claims him as their own, one because of his enrollment and the other because of a famous song he wrote.

Texas Tech is the western most school in the conference, and West Virginia is the eastern most. The battle for John Denver is a fight for the flyover states in between; the same states “Henry” became an American icon for singing about.

It’s been an exciting game every year it’s been played. Which fan base will be in “almost Heaven” when the clock hits 0:00 on Saturday afternoon – West Texas or West Virginia?