Edgar “Eddie” Barrett, who publicized some of West Virginia University’s greatest athletes as the school’s sports information director, has died.
Barrett was the school’s publicity director from 1951-67, with the exception of a two-year stint in the United States Air Force in the mid-1950s, and during that period he promoted the likes of Mark Workman, Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West, Rod Thorn and Ron “Fritz” Williams in basketball, and Sam Huff, Bruce Bosley, Joe Marconi, Chuck Howley and Fred Wyant in football.
The Fairmont native was introduced to the Mountaineers at an early age, his father the leader of the popular “Old Gold and Blue Orchestra” in the 1920s, and Barrett began covering WVU sports in the 1940s while still in high school working as a sports reporter for the Fairmont Times.
In 1951, Barrett was hired by athletic director Roy “Legs” Hawley to oversee the school’s publicity department while he was still a WVU student. Barrett’s elevation to sports information director at age 20 coincided with the “Golden Era” of Mountaineer sports in the 1950s under basketball coach Fred Schaus and football coach Art Lewis.
Lewis led WVU to its first major bowl appearance in the 1954 Sugar Bowl and several nationally ranked seasons in the 1950s with a roster littered with future professional football players. And Schaus steered West Virginia to six straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1955-60 behind two of the greatest players in school history: Hot Rod Hundley and Jerry West.
Barrett was well-known throughout the country for his promotional efforts, particularly in New York City where the Mountaineers frequently played basketball games at Madison Square Garden. It was Barrett who came up with the phrase “Country Slickers” to capture West Virginia’s David vs. Goliath status in the Big Apple.
“We used to get a lot of mileage out of that,” Barrett once recalled.
Barrett had great relationships with all of the heavy-hitting sportswriters of that era, including New York’s Jimmy Breslin and Dick Young.
“When I was 21 years old and we beat NYU in 1952 and they were undefeated, every sportswriter in the city gathered around me after the game,” Barrett recalled. “Dick Young told me that West Virginia and Kentucky have the two best reputations in college basketball. And it was true.”
“Eddie knew everybody,” said Gary McPherson, who played against WVU while at Washington & Lee before later joining the Mountaineer basketball staff as an assistant coach.
The one nut Barrett couldn’t crack, however, was Sports Illustrated. He tried in vain to get the magazine to profile Jerry West but Jeremiah Tax, SI’s college basketball writer then, refused to come to Morgantown because it was too difficult to get to in the late 1950s.
“(West) did not make the cover of Sports Illustrated until the mid-1960s when he was in the pros,” Barrett once recalled. “I remember in the 1959 NCAA championship game Jerry Tax was openly for California and Pete Newell. He idolized Pete Newell. I was down there with him at press row and I thought that was just awful.”
In addition to his outstanding work with the major Northeastern media outlets, Barrett also developed many great relationships with the Southern newspapers that covered the Mountaineers when West Virginia was a member of the Southern Conference.
“The Southern Conference writers – Charlotte Observer, Charlotte News, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Norfolk Pilot – they were our main outlets to the nation,” Barrett explained.
Barrett held his own in enemy territory, too. That of course being Pittsburgh.
“I would advance the Pitt game by going to the Pittsburgh newspapers a day ahead,” Barrett said. “We were always well received. There were good feelings and good relationships there. I made sure our coaches knew the difference between the Pitt Panthers and the Pittsburgh media. Those are two entirely different things.”
But it was his relationships with the local writers of that era – Shorty Hardman, Dick Hudson and Skip Johnson in Charleston and Tony Constantine and Mickey Furfari in Morgantown - where Barrett formed the closest ties.
“Skip Johnson from the Charleston Gazette was an easy-going fellow and the nicest guy there ever was,” Barrett said in 2006. “Dick Hudson was also a nice guy. Dick was an insider. He knew what was going on and I didn’t have to say ‘you can’t print this’ because he knew.
“Mickey was the only rabid one,” Barrett joked.
Barrett and Furfari enjoyed a long-enduring friendship that permitted Barrett to tease Mickey from time to time. A few years ago, Barrett recalled one such instance.
“At the (1959 national championship game) there was overflow press from the sidelines back up five or six rows and Mickey got left out when the ballots were being distributed for the all-tournament team,” Barrett remembered. “Mickey said, ‘What’s the matter, don’t we count?’ Afterward, I played a practical joke on Mickey. I said, ‘What did you say because they are livid!’”
Barrett was also partially responsible for coming up with (or at least promoting) Mickey’s nickname “The Friendly Scribe.”
As the story goes, in 1965 Mickey was riding back to Morgantown from Richmond with Barrett, assistant athletic director Lowry Stoops and School of Physical Education Dean Ray Duncan after a lopsided loss to Virginia in a Tobacco Bowl game. Furfari insisted that he pick up the dinner tab when the group had finally stopped to get something to eat. “Gentlemen, that’s the least I can do for letting me ride with you,” Furfari said.
“My, you are indeed the friendly scribe!” Stoops exclaimed. Thanks to Barrett, the nickname stuck.
“Eddie did such a great job for years without hardly any help,” Furfari recalled. “But that was a different era than today.”
Barrett was working during a time when getting coaches to agree to do anything to promote their programs was nearly impossible. Fred Schaus was protective of his star player Jerry West, especially during the early years of West’s career.
“That was part of the silent generation,” Barrett once said. “Jerry West was available at certain times, like after the pregame meal or something like that, but Schaus kept a pretty heavy lid on (publicity).”
Barrett remembered once getting chewed out by Schaus when he found out that his sports information director had arranged for a photographer to take pictures of West during pregame warm-ups before a big game.
“He jumped all over me,” Barrett laughed. “He said, ‘Don’t you realize that’s bad luck! You don’t take a picture before the game!’ He was superstitious, but he was a good public relations man (as a coach).”
However, the one athlete Schaus couldn’t rein in was Rod Hundley, who marched to the beat of a different drummer. It was Barrett’s mentor Bill Evans of the Fairmont Times who came up with the nickname “Hot Rod” for Hundley; and Barrett and Rene Henry (serving as Barrett’s replacement for the two years Barrett was in the service) gladly promoted Hundley’s zany antics whenever they got the opportunity to do so.
And it made a huge difference at the box office, old Mountaineer Field House was always packed for WVU basketball games well into the 1960s before the program began to decline.
Barrett continued working at WVU until 1967 when he was offered the athletic director’s job at Marshall at the age of 36. Barrett later worked for Pepsi-Cola before getting into the insurance business with Connecticut Mutual, Washington National, Northwestern National, Northern Life and ING ReliaStar.
Barrett won numerous awards during his long career, including being honored by the WVU Foundation in 2007 with its Outstanding Philanthropy Award, and in 2009, being recognized by WVU as the Most Loyal West Virginian for his generosity to the University and the state of West Virginia. Barrett was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
He was a member of the Mountain Honorary, Beta Theta Pi fraternity, Jerry West Society and served as president of the 2005 WVU Alumni Association Emeritus Club before his death.
Barrett is survived by his wife, Betty, five children – Kevin, Richard, Ed, John and Ann – and 11 grandchildren.
He was 81.