MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - John Beilein’s first gift as West Virginia University’s men’s basketball coach came in the form of 6-foot-11-inch shooting center Kevin Pittsnogle from Martinsburg High in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Beilein had just taken the reins of a Mountaineer program in 2002 that had lost 20 of 28 games, including an embarrassing 92-65 defeat at Pitt when freshman guard Jonathan Hargett notoriously tried to bounce the ball off the backboard and dunk it - against the entire Panther team in a half-court setting!
That was certainly one of the low moments in the program’s proud history, and while Mountaineer fans were wondering what Beilein was going to do with Hargett and some of the players he was inheriting, his No. 1 focus was making sure incoming recruit Pittsnogle was going to follow through on his commitment to attend West Virginia University.
When Beilein was at Richmond, he had seen what Pittsnogle could do while playing AAU games during the summer and he knew better than anyone how perfectly this shooting center fit in the version of the Princeton offense that he was running.
So, to Beilein, getting Pittsnogle on board for his first season at WVU was much more important than keeping around a bunch of five-star AAU basketball wizards who could do everything with a ball except pass it.
“(Beilein) told me he tried to recruit me when he was at Richmond but I don’t remember hearing anything from him so I’m not sure what happened, but when he got the job at WVU he came down and actually sat and talked to me about his offense,” Pittsnogle recalled earlier today. “Once he explained everything as far as how he ran everything, it just made more sense (to stick with his commitment to WVU) and it seemed like an even better fit what I was going into so it worked out perfectly for me.”
Indeed, it worked out so well for Pittsnogle that he was recently named as one of the inductees into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
The Beilein-Pittsnogle pairing helped put Mountaineer basketball back on the map in the mid-2000s. Since 2005, West Virginia has been one of the game’s marquee programs, the Mountaineers reaching one Final Four, two Elite Eights and six Sweet 16s while making 10 total NCAA Tournament appearances over the last 12 years.
And it all started with Kevin Pittsnogle.
Mountaineer fans got their first glimpse of what was to come during Pittsnogle’s freshman season in 2003 when West Virginia upset eighth-ranked Florida at the Charleston Civic Center in a game set up to be Gator guard Brett Nelson’s triumphant homecoming.
“The only reason they played us was because they wanted to get him to play a game during his senior season in West Virginia,” Pittsnogle said. “We didn’t have a great year, but we had some staple wins to kind of project forward each year.”
West Virginia got a little better during Pittsnogle’s sophomore season, in 2004, advancing to the NIT where it won two games before losing at Rutgers.
Then, when Beilein added St. Bonaventure transfer Mike Gansey to the lineup for the 2004-05 season, he acquired the second critical component necessary to make his unique system work.
Gansey, who stood 6-feet-4 inches but barely weighed 180 pounds, was the guy Beilein used to make those daring drives to the rim while Pittsnogle prowled the perimeter waiting to knock down open threes.
Bring the bigs out to cover Pittsnogle and run the risk of having Gansey blow by everyone else to the rim, or, keep the bigs in the paint and watch Gansey pitch the ball to Pittsnogle for another lightning-quick three - that was the dilemma opposing teams faced when trying to stop West Virginia’s offense.
It was unusual, confusing and beautiful all at the same time.
“We have never played anybody like him,” Kelvin Sampson once said of Pittsnogle, who averaged 19.3 points and shot 40.1 percent from three during his senior campaign.
The Mountaineers caught fire late in the 2005 season when everyone finally figured out what they hell they were doing. According to Pittsnogle, there were no older players in the program to teach the younger guys Beilein’s unorthodox system so they had to learn on their own.
“We had to learn everything from the basics,” Pittsnogle admitted.
A young Kevin Pittsnogle, minus the tattoos, as a freshman in 2003. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo.
Pittsnogle, by then heavily tattooed with a mop-top haircut and broken goatee, took the college basketball world by storm in March, 2005 when his deft outside shooting led the Mountaineers to the finals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, and then to impressive NCAA Tournament victories over Creighton, Wake Forest and Texas Tech.
Following the Texas Tech win in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his last name was turned into a verb when ESPN announcer Scott Van Pelt, describing the highlights from the Texas Tech victory proclaimed, “(Texas Tech) just got Pittsnogled!”
West Virginia’s tournament run ended two days later when Louisville stormed back from 20 points down in the first half to defeat the Mountaineers in overtime, 93-85.
WVU had a chance to win the game in regulation, but Brandon Jenkins deflected J.D. Collins’ 10-foot jumper just before the buzzer. It was one of the few shots West Virginia missed that afternoon - some of the makes coming from as far away as 30 feet from Pittsnogle and Patrick Beilein.
However, there were many Mountaineer fans from Weirton to Welch, Martinsburg to Matewan, and all points in between who wished it was Pittsnogle taking that final shot in regulation.
Pittsnogle admitted it’s not a play he constantly re-runs in his mind.
“I don’t dwell on what-ifs when it comes to stuff like that because, obviously, it’s not something you can change,” he said. “I had all of the faith in the world in my coaches and my teammates. Every guy on the team could make a shot when we needed it. I proved against Texas (in 2006 NCAA Tournament) that I could make shots when I had the opportunity so it wasn’t something I felt like I left behind wishing I could have had a chance.”
Despite coming up one game short of the Final Four, it was a month of college basketball like no other for win-starved Mountaineer fans too young to remember the glory days of Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West and Rod Thorn in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
All three All-American players were homegrown, just like Pittsnogle.
“Just to even be associated with those names sounds crazy to me,” Pittsnogle admitted. “They’ve done so much in their lives and they’ve accomplished so much - and they’re much older than I am - so it’s kind of cool to hear that. Hopefully, I have been able to set an example for some of the younger kids in the state to go out and achieve the same type of goals.”
Today, there is probably a kid somewhere in West Virginia shooting jump shots the same way Kevin Pittsnogle once did at WVU in the mid-2000s - just as West Virginia kids once tried to pass the ball the way Hot Rod Hundley did, or shoot it the way Jerry West, Rod Thorn and Fritz Williams once did.
Without question, West Virginians love their star players, but their love runs much deeper when the stars come from their own - Leland Byrd from Matewan, Mark Workman and Rod Hundley from Charleston, Jerry West from Cheleyan, Rod Thorn from Princeton, Ron Williams from Weirton and even Bob Huggins from Morgantown.
And, now of course, All-American Kevin Pittsnogle from Martinsburg, whose 1,708 career points scored are the sixth-most in school history.
That his pro career fizzled out after only two years playing in the Continental Basketball Association, the NBA Developmental League, the NBA summer league leagues, France and Puerto Rico with nine different teams makes no difference to West Virginians.
To them, Pittsnogle just happened to love Martinsburg more than he did pro basketball.
Those two wild and wonderful WVU basketball teams Pittsnogle played on in 2005-06 - when the Mountaineers returned to the NCAA Tournament, the national rankings and the thoughts and minds of basketball fans everywhere - will never be forgotten.
Nor will Kevin Pittsnogle.
“It’s pretty cool (what he was able to accomplish at West Virginia) but it’s not something I dwell on or focus on too much,” he admitted. “That’s not the way I am, but it’s nice to look back on and the group of guys I was with had a good bond and we were able to create something that has kind of led into what it is now.
“To know that we were the foundation of that is awesome to think about, instead of just being another class that came through that really didn’t amount to much,” he added.
Today, Pittsnogle is back in his hometown teaching special education at Martinsburg High.
“I just finished up my online master’s degree from WVU,” he said proudly.
Pittsnogle is not really that involved in sports today other than helping out with his kids when they play their games at the local rec center. His oldest son, Kwynsie, was born when Kevin was still playing at WVU and is now 11.
“He’s a big basketball fan,” Pittsnogle said proudly. “He’s excited to hear about the stuff I did in college, so that’s kind of cool.”
It is cool, and there are many more stories waiting to be told, that’s for sure.