Drowsy seasons finally gone when Catlett returned to West Virginia
The Golden Era of West Virginia University basketball was long gone. Even the successful seasons coached by George King were but a fading memory.
Losing seasons were heaped on top of one another as Sonny Moran and former Mountaineer standout player Joedy Gardner experienced only quickly submerged times where wins were coupled together.
Dismal and drab winters in Morgantown seemed even more dreary as the winds, lake effect snows and many hours of darkness pervaded the existence of those who longed for the nights when Fred Schaus, Jerry West, the kids from the state’s small towns and high schools and the noisy crowds shoehorned into the Fieldhouse by the river to celebrate raucous wins over the likes of Pitt, Penn State, Virginia Tech and Villanova.
The previous 1977-78 season had been Gardner’s last and when it ended with a 12-16 record people were left with only the memories of all the Southern Conference championships, the 1957-58 season that had only one loss and the 1958-59 season that ended only when the Mountaineers lost by a point to California in the NCAA national championship game.
Gardner had been a player on some of West Virginia’s shiniest Golden Era teams.
Back came Gale Catlett to try his hand at reestablishing West Virginia University basketball as a beacon on the hill.
Catlett came from coaching at Cincinnati where his overall record showed far more wins than losses.
He inherited a significant number of Gardner’s players. There were Lowes Moore, Junius Lewis, Jor Fryz, Dennis Hosey and Dana Perno.
Catlett was 38 years old at the time.
The measure of increased enthusiasm in Morgantown and the state bobbed up on every barometer, thermometer or “fanometer.”
After two expected wins to begin the season, The Mountaineers faced Ohio State at the Coliseum on the first Saturday in December, 1978. The Buckeyes won, 69-64 . . . but when Pitt fell, 93-92, in Morgantown the record went up to 10-4.
Catlett’s first team earned wins over Penn State, Virginia Tech and two over downstate rival Marshall.
Nationally recognized teams like Villanova, Cincinnati and Syracuse defeated the Mountaineers
. . . and so did Pitt in its ancient Manley Fieldhouse.
West Virginia finished the resurgent season with a 16-12 mark, and two years later would have a 23-10 record that had the Mountaineers in the Final Four of the National Invitational Tournament.
Some of that team’s players achieved after-basketball triumphs that were noteworthy: Junius Lewis became the pastor at two churches in Fairmont in recent times. He leads the Central United Methodist and the Trinity United Methodist churches; Lowes Moore is the director of the Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of Mt. Vernon, New York; Joe Fryz, who captained the 1979-80 team, owns the Commercial Real Estate Company in Pittsburgh and Dennis Hosey works at First Energy in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, a short distance from his home in Industry, Pennsylvania.
Catlett left coaching in 2002 at age 62. He has a farm near Hedgesville, where he graduated from the high school there in 1958.
Catlett, John Beilein and now Bob Huggins have fully restored West Virginia University basketball to a higher level of national consciousness . . . and left the winds, lake effect snow and long, restless nights to dance by themselves on a frozen Cheat Lake.