Lee Patton was a highly successful coach at WVU
SHEPHERDSTOWN — One of the most tragic days in the long history of West Virginia University sports came on Valentine’s Day in 1950. The basketball team was traveling along the two-lane roads between Morgantown and State College, Pa. for a game against Penn State scheduled for Feb. 15, when the vehicle Coach Lee Patton was riding in had a wreck. Coach Patton was badly injured, but did survive.
Hospitalized, the 45-year old coach would not be with the team for the remainder of that 1949-50 season, and would succumb to his injuries on March 8 of that year.
Known to the athletic family at WVU as “Worry Bird,” Patton had begun his coaching career in 1946 and had unbridled success right from the beginning of his sideline days at the old Field House.
His teams literally dominated play in the Field House, running off a 57-game home court winning streak that was finally snapped by arch rival Pittsburgh in the final game of the 1948-49 season.
His Mountaineers produced the school’s first 20-win season in his first year in Morgantown, going 24-3 overall.
Following glowing records in both 1946 and 1947, the Mountaineers were invited to the most prestigious tournament the country boasted at that time — the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Two of the players Patton coached were among the best the school ever had. Leland “Lefty” Byrd and Fred Schaus were later honored with inductions into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame and are still acclaimed as two of the best athletes ever to wear the school’s blue and old gold colors.
Patton was a native of Texas and a graduate of Arizona State College and became well-known in the state because of his overwhelming success while coaching both basketball and football at Princeton High School. While at Princeton, he had basketball teams that visited the state tournament six times. His 1943 Princeton football team turned in an undefeated season.
So recognized for his winning ways and .778 winning percentage (91-26 record) at WVU, Patton was enshrined in the WVU Sports Hall of Fame.
Even though the vehicular wreck was still on everybody’s mind, the scheduled game on Feb. 15, 1950 was still played, with the badly shaken Mountaineers being routed by the Nittany Lions, 82-56.
Robert “Red” Brown accepted the basketball coaching responsibilities for the remainder of the 1949-50 season, and continued to coach until the close of the 1953-54 season. Brown then convinced Schaus, who was playing in the National Basketball Association at the time, to leave professional basketball and return to Morgantown to coach the Mountaineers. Schaus stayed for six seasons, recording a 146-37 mark, before going back to the NBA to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, where former Mountaineers Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley were teammates.