Last WVU season in the Field House was eventful but a losing one
The Southern Conference had been so good to West Virginia basketball that leaving it to become an independent marked a steep decline in the Mountaineers fortunes. The school’s administrators and coaches couldn’t have foreseen the troubled times ahead or they would have taken some other route.
In only its second season away from the cushy winning streaks against the V.M.I’s, Furman’s, Citadel’s, Washington and Lee’s and William & Mary’s of the world, West Virginia was playing in its final year in its sound-happy and noisy Field House that all but hugged the Monongahela River.
It was Sonny Moran’s first year as the team’s coach. He had been hired when Raymond K. “Bucky” Waters fled for the job at Duke after going only 12-14 with his fourth Mountaineer team. Waters’ last team experienced the colder climate and string of losses playing an independent schedule had brought.
Moran would feel the sting of the same sort of schedule Waters had lost with in 1968-69.
The Field House was the same opponent-strangling place it had been when Mark Workman, Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West and Rod Thorn were helped to Golden Era wins by the hungry-for-victory, Mountaineer-loving crowds that at times seemed to shake the foundation of the brick structure built in 1928.
But the Field House and its exposed heat vents, lurking rafters and steamy conditions couldn’t help Moran and his first team of mostly ordinary players.
Was the season-opener against Kentucky in Lexington going to be an omen of what was to come as Moran was introduced to a schedule that needed West, Lloyd Sharrar and the players from the 1956-1960 years if winning ways were to return?
Wil Robinson was a prolific scorer, but there was no Fred Schaus-imposed fullcourt pressure or smoking pace to games coached by Moran.
West Virginia was not inspiring. Long gone were the games with frenetic paces and bouts with much-loathed opponents from the Southern Conference. Moran’s players lacked the charisma of the always-hustling, always pesky guards that were often in the 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-10 range and covered the floor like a bunch of well-intentioned gnats.
Moran and his newly instructed players trooped off to Lexington to face the always-stern Kentucky Wildcats. The coach’s first game ended with Kentucky soaring to over 100 points and delivering a 106-87 loss to West Virginia’s pride.
A number of old Southern Conference opponents were still on the schedule. Only the results against them were not the same as when WVU once had a 52-game winning streak versus conference schools.
George Washington was beaten twice. William & Mary and Richmond were tamed in the Field House. But William & Mary defeated the Mountaineers in Williamsburg and Davidson beat West Virginia twice. The crowning insult came when Furman — a team that never beat a Schaus-coached team — humbled the Mountaineers, 87-80, in the Field House, extending a losing streak to three games.
By mid-season the record had more losses than wins.
By March 3, 1970, the record couldn’t be covered over with platitudes or excuses. There was no conference tournament to wax wonderful in because as an independent there was no tournament to save the losing season.
On that early March night, it was Pittsburgh that drifted down from only 75 miles away to help Moran and company close the Field House forever to college basketball games.
The Panthers appeared sluggish and unable to show much rancor toward their “Backyard Brawl” rivals. With 4:44 remaining in the first half, West Virginia with Robinson, Bob Hummell, Larry Woods, Dick Symons, Mike Heitz, Skip Kintz, Curtis Price and Bob Lowe delivering the points, held a figment-of-the-imagination 38-19 lead.
But Kent Scott scored 23 of his game-high 32 points in the second half . . . and the Field House was hushed and quiet before it was shuttered after the Panthers’ 92-87 win.
The loss to Pittsburgh left the season’s smudged record at 11-15 overall.
Moran would coach a total of five years in Morgantown. His best showings were a pair of 13-12 records, but he was terminated with a 57-68 overall mark. When the personable coach was finished, West Virginia was still an independent . . . and the glorious winters of Schaus and his successor, George King, were fading in memory.
Moran and his last four teams opened the Coliseum, a 14,000-seat arena, for the 1970-71 season.
The Field House had its physical education classes and athletic offices for coaches and such, but it didn’t have any more white-hot comeback victories that frenzied the crowds and welded together those many thousands that couldn’t get to Morgantown over snow-choked roads.
It would take years and years before the Coliseum would see teams that lit the fuse of explosive noise and student body involvement like the Golden Era had in the Field House.