Schaus had West Virginians talking about his Mountaineers
The times were much different than today.
Coal was the undisputed king. Poverty was the undisputed ogre. On many days the hollows and snow-filled valleys were inaccessible to anything but local traffic. Any news came from radio stations and newspapers that peppered those interested in sports with accounts of the West Virginia Mountaineers and their crowd-pleasing brand of hurry-up basketball.
Jack Fleming and his radio renditions were unabashed promoters of everything West Virginia. The state’s writers, most of them doing their work for at least 20 years, were only a short step behind Fleming in their touting of the Mountaineers.
There was no cable television. No ESPN, Root, Fox Sports, Comcast or MASN.
The coach was Fred Schaus, a popular figure who had played for the Mountaineers and scored over 1,000 points in his career. Schaus had even been the student body president for one year.
When Schaus guided the Mountaineer fortunes, West Virginia was in the old Southern Conference, a loose federation of schools that ebbed and flowed in number . . . but had basketball teams that could rarely beat the Mountaineers. At one point, Schaus’ teams won over 45 straight Southern Conference games.
There were few blood rivalries with teams in the Southern Conference. Those feuds were saved for Pittsburgh, Penn State, Duke and Villanova.
The on-going popularity of Schaus and his boys was partially fueled by his rosters full of players from West Virginia high schools. And more of the caring about the fortunes of the Mountaineers came to them because of their lickety-split style of fastbreak offense and fullcourt pressure defense. The oft frenzied pace was appreciated for its free-flowing style and bulldog-like defense that clawed at opponents’ leads when the Mountaineers were stalled.
Leads against West Virgina’s take-no-prisoners hustle were never safe.
Schaus insisted on a team-first mentality. And the state’s people knew that. Even if the players didn’t quite bleed the Mountaineer colors of Old Gold and Blue like much of the adoring public did, everybody knew Schaus’ team would leave no sweat and floor burns undelivered in its attempt to overcome a long lead held by Richmond, Davidson, or George Washington.
Nearly all the players were from small, insulated high schools whose teams were just as prized to them as were the Mountaineers.
Bucky Bolyard was from Aurora in Preston County and Ronnie Retton hailed from Fairview in Marion County. Both guards played like junkyard dogs, protecting their territory and giving the pressure defense its fangs. Jerry West came from Chelyan where his popularity was crystalized one week at his high school, East Bank. East Bank won a state championship, and the next week temporarily changed its name to “West Bank” because of its stellar player. The name change lasted just one week.
Mullens was the hamlet home of Willie Akers and Don Vincent was from Shinnston. Bob Clousson came from Clarksburg and Bobby Joe Smith from Charleston.
All of the above players were vital cogs on the 1958-59 team that reached the NCAA national championship game, where with West in foul trouble it lost to California by a 71-70 score.
Now days consolidation has swallowed so many tiny high schools in the state there are only about one-third the number of schools around as there were when Schaus bundled the talent and carried it off to Morgantown and his raucous Fieldhouse.
In Schaus’ tenure he also coached Hot Rod Hundley (Charleston) and Clayce Kishbaugh (Clarksburg area) in his first season back on campus. Later the high energy likes of Butch Goode (Pineville), Paul Popovich (Flemington), Nick Visnic (Wheeling), Don Eddy (Fairmont) and Howard Schertzinger (Morgantown) played roles on successful Southern Conference championship teams.
From border states, Schaus landed the likes of Lloyd Sharrar (Meadville, Pa.), Joedy Gardner (Ellwood City, Pa.), Lee Patrone (Bellaire, Ohio), Jim Ritchie (Drexel Hill, Pa.) and Joe Posch (Riverside, NJ).
Recognizing the on-going theme of “Love the Mountaineers” echoing from all corners of the state, Schaus scheduled “home” games away from Morgantown in cities like Logan, Fayetteville, Parkersburg and Williamson.
Miners and those unable to crawl along the slender ribbons of hardscrabble highways that made up the state’s road system could find a night to see Schaus’ team closer to home if they had saved their vacation time and saved their money because “the Mountaineers were coming to town.”
Fleming seemed to be the eyes and ears of those thousands who could never get to Morgantown and be among the 6,500 fans shoe-horned into the bleachers in the Fieldhouse. He would rave about the talents of West, Hundley and Patrone . . . and reach for more adjectives when trying to describe the scrambling hustle of Bolyard, Retton and Ritchie.
They would have needed to be in the Fieldhouse to realize that Schertzinger, Eddy and Visnic were not All-Americas the way Fleming told while demonstrating his loyalty on his broadcasts.
People were mostly confined to their hollows and mountainsides. Their knowledge of the Mountaineers usually could be gleaned only from Fleming or writers like Stubby Currence, Mickey Furfari, Bill Legg and Shorty Hardman.
The mines were humming. The workers suffered from underground hazards where black lung and roof collapses were always a concern. The never-ending hills and never-straight roads made travel laborious at best.
But the state had Fred Schaus basketball with Mountain State players trying their best to do his bidding.
The West Virginia Mountaineers helped bring the people together for one rooting cause. And on game nights, Jack Fleming brought the words of another come-from-behind win against Virginia Tech.