Forty three years after upsetting West Virginia in the old Field House in 1969, Gary McPherson gets an opportunity to rub it in a little bit once again on Wednesday night when his old team VMI visits the Coliseum to play West Virginia.
Prior to the game, VMI Director of Athletics Donny White, McPherson’s former Keydet players John Kemper and Steve Powers, and West Virginia University men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins will recognize McPherson’s 40-plus-year athletic tenure at both institutions during a brief on-court presentation.
Right after that, Gary can return to his usual seat behind the basket and continue to tell anyone who will listen about the time David defeated Goliath one crisp January evening back in ’69.
Whether or not that was the beginning of the end for Coach Bucky Waters at West Virginia is a matter of opinion, but it was clearly the end of the beginning for the Duke protégé. Afterward, Waters looked like a man who had just seen Bigfoot, which, apparently, does exist
“This one really hurts,” groaned Waters to the reporters standing outside West Virginia's locker room.
VMI had some good teams playing in the old Southern Conference, Weenie Miller’s 1964 Keydet club upsetting its way to the tournament title that year and facing nationally ranked Princeton and All-American forward Bill Bradley in the NCAA regionals being its best, but more often than not, VMI was down among the league’s bottom feeders.
In fact, it was said that when Fred Schaus was coaching the Mountaineers in the mid-1950s, he once remarked that if he ever lost to VMI he would get out of the coaching profession. Reminded of his statement a few years later when an improving Keydet team gave the Mountaineers all they wanted in a game down in Bluefield (West Virginia refused to play VMI in Lexington back then), Schaus replied, “Oh yes, but that was before they were giving out scholarships!”
By the mid-1960s, when McPherson was VMI’s head coach, not much had really changed. The Keydets had many restrictions and budgetary limitations that made it virtually impossible to compete with the West Virginias and the Davidsons of that era.
“People didn’t realize the requirements we had at VMI,” McPherson explained. “When I first went there we had like a 6-6 height limit and I couldn’t recruit anybody taller than that. Also, at that time everyone who went to VMI was automatically signed up for two years of military service. Now, I believe they have an option of whether they want to go into the military or not.”
McPherson continued rattling off his list of impediments.
“I had one assistant coach, and sometimes he was with us and other times he was on the road scouting our next opponent,” he recalled. “Today, they have about 35 people on the bench.”
When McPherson brought his struggling 1-9 VMI basketball team to Morgantown that year, West Virginia was also looking to get back on track after a blowout loss at sixth-ranked Davidson. However, just three days prior to the Davidson defeat, the Mountaineers had barely gotten past McPherson’s Keydets in a controversial game down in Beckley.
VMI’s Peyton Brooks was called for an intentional foul during a mad scramble for a loose ball late in the game that gave West Virginia two critical free throws and possession of the basketball in a tight, 68-65 Mountaineer victory.
“(Nationally known referee) Red Mihalik was on the game,” McPherson recalled. “The ball was on the floor and my kid went after it as did (West Virginia’s) Bob Hummell.
“They were both fighting for it and all of a sudden the whistle blows and I’m looking for Red Mihalik to call a jump ball. Instead he calls a technical foul on my guy,” said McPherson. “That put West Virginia on the line and they also got the ball and that’s how they won the game.”
The second time around, though, the Fighting McPherson’s finished the deal in Morgantown, 87-84, stunning the 6,100 Mountaineer rooters shoe-horned inside the old Field House.
“No one beat West Virginia in the Field House back then,” said McPherson. “They lost like 29 games in there since the thing was built and we came up here and beat them by three.”
Today, it is still considered among the great victories in VMI basketball history.
“That was a heck of a game for us,” said McPherson. “Beating West Virginia in Morgantown was a big thing because West Virginia ruled the Southern Conference. For a while, Davidson was really tough with Lefty (Driesell), but West Virginia was always the team to beat back then.”
McPherson, a Cass, W.Va., native, was so pleased with the win against his home-state school that he nearly blew the team’s travel budget for the rest of the season when he took the entire travel party down to the Flame Steakhouse for a big post-game dinner.
“I also went to Chico’s for a big sundae afterward,” he laughed. “When I got back to the Hotel Morgan, I had a bunch of telephone messages waiting for me at the front desk.”
That game turned out considerably better for McPherson than the others in Morgantown, although VMI was usually a thorn in West Virginia’s side for one reason or another.
McPherson, by his own admission a “pretty hyper coach” when he first started, once getting seven technical fouls called on him during a two-game tournament out in Salt Lake City (he said he couldn’t help himself because the refs were so bad that they actually forgot which direction the teams were going after the opening tip), had his rough moments in Morgantown, too. He remembered once losing his temper and flinging his sport coat into the crowd in disgust after one blown call.
“I didn’t think anything of it, so I get my coat and I’m going back into the locker room at halftime and this guy comes up to me out of the stands and he says, ‘Coach, you might want this.’ It was my wallet and it had all of our travel money in it,” McPherson laughed. “I always kept my wallet in the front pocket of my jacket and it must have come out when I threw the thing.
“But he gave it all back to me.”
Knowing Gary, West Virginia’s long-time fundraiser for the Mountaineer Athletic Club, he likely counted it all right there on the spot just to make sure.
Congratulations Coach Mac and enjoy your evening watching some good basketball Wednesday night. But leave the coaching to VMI’s Duggar Baucom.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.