WVU basketball and coal were Mountain State royalty
Information wasn’t easy to find. Watching first-hand the Mountaineers practicing their constricting pressure defense on Southern Conference opponents was even more difficult for anybody living more than 100 miles from the enclave that was Morgantown during the 1958-59 basketball season.
Nearly every morsel of information about Fred Schaus and his pride-of-the-state team came from radio broadcasts where announcer Jack Fleming ruled or from wire service reports in an area newspaper.
The Fieldhouse where the blue and gold often panicked lesser opponents held only about 6,000 people. Getting to the games along side the murky Monongahela River on West Virginia’s antiquated and winter-time dangerous roads was at times torturous and always time-consuming.
The southern part of the state and its coal miners had little or no choice about attending games. Finding Fleming on the radio when Davidson or Pittsburgh was “hosted” by the Mountaineers in the din of the Fieldhouse amounted to their best chance of finding out the scores and just how the team was doing.
The Southern Conference was like a fiefdom for the Mountaineers and Coach Schaus. The likes of Virginia Military Institute, Furman, The Citadel, Virginia Tech, George Washington, William & Mary, Richmond and Davidson rarely had any success against the Mountaineers.
The 1958-59 season saw West Virginia go 11-0 in its conference games. Second-place Virginia Tech was 10-2.
Travel was laborious for any conference school. The far-flung league had teams in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Morgantown.
Every corner of the state had some access to the games via Fleming and his radio renditions that often ranged from long praises, harangues concerning the officiating and what the Mountaineer pressure defense was doing to Furman or The Citadel and their ball handlers.
This was a team that generally resembled the 1957-58 team in its style of play but was missing Don Vincent, Joedy Gardner and Lloyd Sharrar from the No. 1-ranked team in the country that had lost only one regular season game.
Now-legendary Jerry West was the Hope Diamond of the 1958-59 team. He was just a junior but led the team in scoring by a wide margin and in rebounding by another wide margin. West roamed the court like the foreman on a 10,000 acre ranch in Texas. He could be seen in most games as a forward, guard and even center so often did he lead WVU’s withering fast break and suffocating zone press defense.
Another junior was Willie Akers, now mostly a role player for Schaus after scoring 30 points a game at Mullens High in the coal fields. Bob Smith was from Charleston and gave Schaus another player in the 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-6 range. Smith and West were 6-foot-3 and Akers was 6-foot-5.
As the season moved along, the Mountaineers and Schaus shed starters often enough to have a lightning quick lineup featuring Bucky Bolyard, Ronnie Retton, Jim Ritchie, West and Smith or a bigger one with 6-foot-6 Bob Clousson, Akers, Smith, West and 6-foot-3 Lee Patrone.
Just before winning another Southern Conference tournament championship and its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Schaus had settled on a starting unit that had West, Clousson, Bolyard, Akers and Smith. All of those players were products of in-state high schools and hailed from tiny Aurora, Chelyan, Mullens, Clarksburg and Charleston.
Schaus’ teams had lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Most of those games were played at Madison Square Garden in New York. Even the No. 1-ranked team from the year before couldn’t win without Vincent, who had broken his leg in the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament.
Back in New York again, the 1959 team drowned Dartmouth, 82-68, in its first game. Schaus used 12 players against the Indians with West scoring 25 points and Ritchie and Smith also earned double figures as the Mountaineers had 54 rebounds to Dartmouth’s 28.
Next came a game with the pace of a category 5 hurricane where St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia joined West Virginia in a racehorse pace that finally saw the Mountaineers prevail, 95-92, after trailing by six points at the half and scoring 51 points in the second half.
West had 36 points with Akers counting 13 points, Patrone 13, Ritchie eight and Smith seven. The 56 rebounds West Virginia claimed easily outdid the 44 the average-sized Hawks had.
In the East Regional finals in Charlotte, it was Fleming hoarsely describing an equally furious, 86-82, win over Boston University. The Terriers had beaten Navy, which had eliminated North Carolina in its first game.
Making 30 of 42 free throws helped WVU as West heaped his 33 points on the Terriers and Ritchie and Smith both scored a dozen more. Akers dropped in 11 points and Clousson scored eight more.
The game had been tied at 45 at the conclusion of the lickety-split first half.
West Virginia was in the Final Four.
The crowning glory of that NCAA season was held in Louisville’s majestic-for-its-time Freedom Hall.
It just so happened that Louisville had beaten Kentucky along its victorious trip to a regional title . . . and would face West Virginia on its home court.
With West scoring 38 points, the Mountaineers shattered Louisville’s hopes of holding a coronation on its home grounds. Schaus got Butch Goode, Nick Visnic, Joe Posch and Howie Schertzinger into the game as the Mountaineers downed the Cardinals, 94-79.
Bolyard had 13 points, Clousson 12, Smith 12, Retton six and Akers five in the taming of the de facto home team.
The semifinals were played on a Friday night, and California, which only had to win two games to reach the Final Four from the West Region, had stopped Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson in the other game.
On Saturday night, with no day in between, it was West Virginia and its band of pressure-defense, ball-hawking brigands facing the ultra-conservative Golden Bears of California and Coach Pete Newell.
California moved to a 39-33 lead by halftime as West was saddled with three fouls and sat out some of the first half.
When the game ended with Cal missing a free throw with two seconds remaining and its 71-70 lead in tact, the Mountaineers had West with four fouls as well as Bolyard and Clousson with four.
West’s 28 points left him with 160 points in the five-game tournament and the recipient of the Most Valuable Player award.
Akers added 10 points, Clousson another 10, Bolyard six, Patrone five, Smith five, Ritchie four and Retton two.
The Mountaineers had converted 20 of 27 free throws . . . but fell a point short despite their patented late-game charge on the wings of their pressure defense.
Fleming had given those in the hollows and company-owned coal shacks their information on what had taken place miles away in western Kentucky. Mountaineers basketball and its architect Fred Schaus had concluded a season with a 29-5 record that had been reverently followed by the multitudes of adoring fans throughout the transportation-starved state.
There has been only one other Final Four appearance by any West Virginia team. And Jack Fleming was gone before it happened . . . or he could have roused his listeners with his patented, “Let’s roll out the carpet and bring on the Mountaineers” and “The hills are alive with the sounds of West Virginia University basketball.”
That team had 17 different faces throughout the long season, all but three (Posch from Riverside, New Jersey, Patrone from Bellaire, Ohio and Ritchie from suburban Philadelphia) from in-state high schools. And Schaus was a WVU graduate, star basketball player and even student body president.
West Virginia University basketball was Mountain State royalty, and the population followed its every move up and down the court and across their radio dials from Wheeling to Bluefield and Martinsburg to Kenova.