Jack Fleming, home-state talent made WVU a fan favorite
The coach was Fred Schaus, a WVU graduate.
The radio announcer and energetic public relations voice was Jack Fleming, also a WVU graduate.
A large contingent of the players came from all over the state of West Virginia – smaller schools and city schools alike.
Long winning streaks. Southern Conference championships. An underdog mentality groomed by Fleming and the rest of the country’s usual Appalachia-have-not mindset. A scrambling, comeback style of play that told the reading and listening audiences that no game was lost until Fleming said it was. A picture of the team that Fleming cleverly painted and that few doubted, because getting to Morgantown for games was difficult and finding seats in the Fieldhouse, with only 6,000 pews available, was just as tough.
Oftentimes it was us against them. And “them” didn’t have good things to say about “us.” Our boys against the nasty outsiders.
West Virginians from Mullens, Marion County, Charleston, the southern coalfields and tiny villages in rural areas, where the living was hard and the opportunities didn’t come but once every third or fourth leap year. WVU basketball was wildly popular. Schaus coached the Mountaineers for six years. West Virginia was the Southern Conference champion for all of them.
The Mountaineers regularly tamed the likes of Washington & Lee, Richmond, Furman, Virginia Tech, William & Mary and Virginia Military Institute. In non-conference games, Fleming described battle royales against Duke, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Penn State and Kentucky.
Seasons with 20 or more wins came to Morgantown like the rust-colored, falling leaves did at Cooper’s Rock.
And who was doing all that winning?
During the Golden Era, when Schaus presided over everything gold and blue, it was the kids from Mullens, Aurora, Clarksburg, Pineville, Charleston, New Martinsville, Fairview, Flemington, Shinnston, Wheeling, Chelyan and Oceana.
The cramped Fieldhouse was filled with students, there to test their leather lungs and see what mischief they could cause Davidson or George Washington or Duke. The few open pews remaining had longtime Mountaineers fans who could get there from Fairmont, Preston County or Clarksburg.
The opposition was bathed in noise, and sometimes impolite chants or choruses about their chances against the home team.
The Fieldhouse could get loud. Very loud. Especially if Pittsburgh had come along the Monongahela River to what the people wanted to be a watery grave.
The Mountaineers ran and ran. Fast break after fast break, if they could. Steal after steal from the oft-used full-court press.
And then there was Jerry West for three seasons, including one trip to the NCAA national championship game when West was a junior, as were Bucky Bolyard and Ronnie Retton. Jerry West could ignite a Fieldhouse crowd even more than rolling out the carpet to introduce the players could bring down the decibels.
Hot Rod Hundley played for Schaus. Hundley’s casual-appearing ways might raise the coach’s temperature a bit, but the stands were loaded with those wanting more than just a 20-point win over Carnegie Mellon. And Schaus liked the stands to be filled.
And then Schaus left for the Los Angeles Lakers the same year Jerry West did. And in a few years, West Virginia left the sanctuary that was the Southern Conference.
Jack Fleming stayed aboard, but the state’s population dwindled. Schools were swallowed by consolidation; Aurora, Fairview, Flemington, Pineville, Oceana, Mullens and East Bank – from which Jerry West graduated – were no more.
Fewer high schools. Fewer players to choose from. More and more colleges chasing the scattered few players left.
The Golden Era was soon gone, but not forgotten. The Fieldhouse and its close confines were replaced in 1970 by the Coliseum, a place that held 14,000 people, but none of the embellished memories perpetuated by Fleming.
Schaus and Fleming were Mountaineers through thick and thin. And there wasn’t much “thin.”
The players were from places that had steel-strong ties to WVU. And the players could do little wrong – not if Villanova or Pittsburgh were in town trying to tarnish the Mountaineers’ record.