Frank Giardina, Marshall’s associate athletic director for external affairs and a long-time Charleston area sports authority, gave me a homework assignment over the weekend.
Frank was Monday afternoon’s fill-in talk show host on the ESPN radio affiliate in Charleston, and he wanted me to come on for a few minutes to give a West Virginia perspective on a topic he wanted to discuss.
His assignment: Come up with some of the potential great West Virginia-Marshall basketball games of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s had the two schools been playing regularly.
Before I get into that some background information is in order.
West Virginia and Marshall played three consecutive seasons during the Depression years of 1929, 1930 and 1931 before taking 57 years off, finally resuming the basketball series again in 1978.
The original arrangement was for Marshall to play the Mountaineers in Morgantown, and a year later there was the possibility of an additional game (also in Morgantown) when Marshall was a participant in the now-defunct West Virginia Classic basketball tournament. Marshall wound up winning and did make two appearances at the Coliseum during the 1979 season.
At this point, the late Stu Aberdeen, Marshall’s head coach at the time, was looking for a little better arrangement so he gave West Virginia coach Gale Catlett a phone call.
Catlett recalled that conversation when I talked to him for the book Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball.
“He said, ‘Coach, this is not fair to play up there with your officials on your home court all of the time. I’ve got a job, too,’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you want I’ll do, Stu, I’ll talk to the people here, but we’ll play you in Morgantown one year with our officials and in Charleston the next year with your officials … then back to Morgantown and back to Charleston,’” said Catlett.
When the Henderson Center became available in 1981, more phone calls ensued.
“They got their new place and they called and asked us to play home and home,” Catlett said. “I said, ‘I’m not playing you home and home. I’ll tell you what I’ll do - I’ll play you one year in Morgantown, one year in Charleston and one year in Huntington with neutral officials.’ Then I had to sell this to my people.”
What eventually came out of these initial discussions was the decision to play annually in Charleston in 1992. Now played in mid-January when the State Legislature is in session, the game, today known as the Capital Classic, has since become a profitable and hugely successful venture for both schools.
“(WVU deputy director of athletics) Mike Parsons worked hard to get an agreement that was acceptable to both parties, and it has benefitted both schools financially,” said Catlett.
Now with that out of the way, here are seven WVU-Marshall basketball games that would have been fun to watch:1947
– Cam Henderson led Marshall to a 32-5 record and a national championship in its classification in 1947. Marshall defeated an Indiana State team coached by a guy named John Wooden before Henderson took an eight-man squad out to Kansas City for the NAIB national tournament, which Marshall won.
West Virginia was outstanding, too, compiling a 19-3 record that included just one regular season loss at Navy. The Mountaineers were the first team invited to the NIT and the second overall seed, advancing to the semifinals before losing to Utah, 64-62.
Patrick Premo, a St. Bonaventure professor and an avid college basketball fan, analyzed every season prior to the introduction of the college basketball poll and devised a ranking system for years the poll was not used. Premo concluded that West Virginia in 1947 was the 13th-best team in the country.
Would the small-college champs have been able to hang with the big boys? That would have been interesting to find out.1953
– Marshall was 20-4 and had one of the top scorers in the country in 5-foot-11 guard Walt Walowac, who averaged 29.1 points per game that season. West Virginia was 19-7 and finished fourth in a heavy Southern Conference that still included the North Carolina schools and Maryland. The Mountaineers, too, had an outstanding guard in senior Jim Sottile, who averaged 19.3 points per game that season.
A Walowac-Sottile shootout would have been a sure-fire sellout.1956
– Marshall was 18-5 and MAC champions, advancing to the NCAA tournament where it lost in the first round to Morehead State. West Virginia went 21-9 and won its second straight Southern Conference title, losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Dartmouth in overtime.
Marshall had the top rebounder in the country in Charlie Slack; West Virginia had the best entertainer in the country in Hot Rod Hundley. The question is: Would Hot Rod have done something crazy and ignited a riot? Probably.
If this game would have been played Eisenhower may have had to mobilize the 101st airborne a year before he sent them out to Little Rock.1958
– A WVU-Marshall game in 1958 would have featured two future NBA Hall of Famers – Jerry West for West Virginia and Hal Greer for Marshall. Plus, Marshall (17-7) had another great player in All-American guard Leo Byrd.
In addition to West, the 26-2 Mountaineers had the size (6-foot-10 center Lloyd Sharrar) to go along with a well-balanced team that finished No. 1 in both wire service polls.
I am not suggesting Marshall’s Big Two would have been enough to keep up with the best team in the country, but it would have been an interesting game nonetheless. 1967
– Marshall coach Ellis Johnson was struggling along with sub-10-win seasons in 1964 and 1965 before recruiting silky smooth 6-foot-7 forward George Stone, who led the Herd to a 20-8 record and a fourth-place NIT finish in 1967. Stone dropped 46 on Nebraska in the NIT quarterfinals before Marshall fell to Marquette in the semifinals.
West Virginia’s Bucky Waters had two 20-point scorers in Fritz Williams and Carl Head, and could have had a third in Dave Reeser (19.9 ppg.) if he would have had a little better game against Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Blacksburg.
This one would have been a shootout in Morgantown, Huntington, Charleston, Beckley, Wheeling or on I-79 in Flatwoods.1968
– West Virginia lost to Davidson in the Southern Conference championship game and fell to eventual champion Dayton in the first round of the NIT. Marshall also made the NIT, dropping its first-round game to St. Peters.
The two best players, Stone for Marshall and Williams for West Virginia, were both seniors. Marshall finished the year 17-8 while West Virginia had its third consecutive 19-win season under Waters. It was Johnson’s last successful season at Marshall; two years later Johnson got out of coaching at about the same time Waters high-tailed it out of Morgantown. 1972
– This game would have featured one of the best teams in Marshall history against a West Virginia team that could have possibly been among its best if not for tragedy and misfortune. The Mountaineers were 6-0 to start the season, including a big win over NC State in Morgantown, and cracked the national rankings for the first time in more than five years.
Then came the academic suspensions, injuries and a tragic car accident that claimed the life of Deacon Harris and the playing career of Sam Oglesby. All-American guard Wil Robinson was about all that was left for the Mountaineers at the end of the year.
Marshall, meanwhile, had an All-American player in 6-foot-5 forward Russell Lee and a 1,000-point scorer and a coach’s son in Mike D’Antoni. The Herd beat eighth-ranked St. John’s, 110-107, in the Marshall Memorial Invitational in Huntington and nearly knocked off second-ranked Marquette in the Milwaukee Classic before finishing the season ranked 12th in the AP and 18th in the UPI polls.
Seeing Russell Lee and Wil Robinson perform in the same gym would have been really neat to watch.