A Who's Who of What Ifs?

  • By John Antonik
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  • January 27, 2011 10:50 AM
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I was sifting through Wednesday’s email of “Daily Clips” the Sports Communications Department circulates each morning to the staff when I came across Chuck McGill’s outstanding story in the Charleston Daily Mail on ex-Mountaineer Jason Gwaltney.

(You can read Chuck’s fine work at this link http://www.dailymail.com/Sports/201101251273)

Of course Jason Gwaltney was supposed to be the second coming of Jim Brown (another Long Island football star) - the guy who was going to hoist Mountaineer football on his broad shoulders and take the program to the Promised Land.

But for a variety of reasons the running back’s career never blossomed at West Virginia the way everyone expected it to and he needed to eventually go to Division III Keane (N.J.) University to get his career straightened out.

I can still recall the TD Jason scored at Maryland during his freshman season in 2005 when he ran around (and through) Terrapin tacklers before doing a neat little pirouette at the goal line. Gwaltney’s score came during a key part of a game the Mountaineers eventually won 31-19.

It was one of only three touchdowns Jason produced during his all-too-brief West Virginia career.

The tale of Gwaltney’s Division I flameout can be told a hundred times and a hundred different ways – great high school players (sometimes overhyped, sometimes not) who failed to meet enormous expectations when they reached college, for one reason or another.

Jogging my memory - as well as the memories of WVU sports authorities Doug Huff and Greg Hunter – I/we came up with some other guys who could fall into Jason’s category: players who were supposed to do great things at WVU but for one reason or another never made it, didn’t last, or failed to meet the enormous expectations placed on them … A West Virginia Who’s Who list of What Ifs?

At the very top of any West Virginia What If List has to be “King” Kelly Coleman, one of the top high school basketball players in the country in 1956 who played at Wayland High School in a small coal mining town in eastern Kentucky not too far from the West Virginia border.

Coleman averaged 46.8 points per game as a senior and he broke the hearts of rabid Kentucky fans in the Bluegrass State when he turned his back on Adolph Rupp to attend West Virginia University. However, there were improprieties in his recruitment (overzealous booster involvement unbeknownst to WVU and reported to the NCAA by, you guessed it, Kentucky) and Coleman was not accepted into school because of poor grades.

King Kelly spent five weeks at Eastern Kentucky, dropped out of school to work briefly in a factory in Middletown, Ohio, and then ended up at Kentucky Wesleyan, where he eventually played well enough to earn a tryout with the New York Knicks.

Some graybeards still say a Kelly Coleman-Jerry West pairing could have delivered multiple national titles to West Virginia in the late 1950s.

Bill Maphis and Marty Lentz, basketball teammates at WVU in the early 1960s, were also expected to become college stars.

Maphis was a Parade All-American player at Romney High in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, but injuries and bad luck kept him from joining West Virginia’s assembly line of All-American basketball players coaches Fred Schaus and George King were rolling out like sausages in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Guard Rod Thorn, one of those All-Americans, thought Maphis was destined for stardom when he first saw him play as a freshman in 1962, but Maphis never quite got to that level, though he did average a career-best 13.3 points per game as a senior in 1965.

Lentz, too, had a long list of prep accomplishments when he arrived at West Virginia in 1962 – most significantly his breaking Elgin Baylor’s metro-D.C. scoring record by scoring 74 points in one high school game. The 6-foot-7 forward did letter three years at West Virginia and finished his career on a strong note by leading the Mountaineers to the NCAA tournament during his senior season in 1965, but he came nowhere near the prodigious high school scoring totals he put up in his native Alexandria, Va.

Some of King’s critics liked to cite the misuse of Lentz as one of his unforgivable coaching sins at WVU.

In the mid-1960s, ardent Mountaineer football fans may recall Wesley Garnett, an all-everything halfback at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh who was destined for football fame and fortune. Garnett was so good Pittsburgh sports announcer Bob Prince even got involved in his recruitment by trying to steer him down to WVU (Prince’s favorite school) to play for Gene Corum.

Garnett, who went 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, was clocked at 9.8 seconds in the 100 and scored 27 rushing touchdowns his senior year (seven more were called back). But it was high school report cards that turned out to be Garnett’s Kryptonite. Garnett went first to Missouri Southern before later emerging as a wide receiver at Utah State, where he was good enough to be drafted in the 12th round by the Oakland Raiders in 1971.

During a four-year period from 1968-72, West Virginia went to two bowl games and enjoyed considerable success with quarterbacks Mike Sherwood and Bernie Galiffa. The next guy in line was supposed to have been New Castle’s Chuck Fiorante, who in 1971 broke all of Terry Hanratty’s Western Pa passing records, but a bum throwing shoulder was one of the big factors that kept Fiorante from achieving stardom in college at WVU.

“By the time he was a senior his shoulder was so bad that he could barely throw the ball farther than I could,” WVU teammate Jeff Merrow once recalled.

Likely making it all the more difficult for Fiorante was watching the success Western Pa quarterbacks Chuck Fusina and Joe Montana were enjoying in college at about the same time he was toiling in obscurity at WVU.

Another highly recruited quarterback, Bluefield’s Dick Ward, who served as Mike Sherwood’s backup in the late 1960s, also failed to meet lofty expectations.

Charleston’s Robert Alexander was the nation’s No. 1-rated high school running back in 1976 known everywhere throughout the state simply as “Alexander the Great.” When he finally announced that he was attending West Virginia University it was done with great fanfare at the Governor’s Mansion in Charleston (back then great West Virginia athletes were also considered "natural resources" for some reason). But it wasn’t until Alexander’s senior year in 1980 when new coach Don Nehlen ran him out of the I-formation that he finally achieved a 1,000 yard rushing season.

Alexander the Great’s Achilles’ heel on the football field was said to have been a lack of straight-line speed.

Mike Dawson’s New Martinsville family home was the site of in-house visits by Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno, as well as several telephone calls from Barry Switzer, before he chose to attend West Virginia University. Dawson had the brains, the brawn and the jets to become a big-time college safety, but a lack of linebacker depth early in his WVU career forced a switch to a position he was ill-suited to play and where he eventually tore up his knee.

I was told by more than one knowledgeable football onlooker that Dawson had “NFL” written all over him before his position switch and subsequent knee injury.

Running back Tony Johnson was the key component in a two-player Morgantown High package deal that also included defensive back Willie Edwards, but it was actually Edwards who distinguished himself at WVU instead of Johnson.

Highland Park, Michigan’s Renardo Brown was Gale Catlett’s first major national recruit at West Virginia and he enjoyed a solid four-year career for the Mountaineers, but Brown was never quite able to duplicate the enormous notoriety he received when he first arrived in Morgantown. Like Johnson, it was Brown’s high school sidekick J.J. Crawl who actually achieved more fame at WVU with his steal and layup to beat Oregon State in the first round of the 1984 NCAA tournament.

Forward Chris Brooks, a 6-5 high school center from New York City who won the slam dunk contest at the 1986 McDonald’s High School All-America all-star basketball game, had enough press clippings to get West Virginia fans whipped into a frenzy. And while Brooks was an outstanding college player, at 6-5 and not possessing an effective perimeter game, his basketball career was never destined to advance beyond college as many Mountaineer fans had hoped it would.

Two Don Nehlen recruits, fullback Tom Bowman and linebacker Mike Booth, were also players who could never quite add to their extensive high school scrapbooks. Bowman, from Portsmouth, Ohio, was one of the first high school players offered a scholarship by new Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust and he later became a co-captain and a solid player for the Mountaineers, but college stardom was not in the offing.

Booth, a 5-foot-11 linebacker who eventually played defensive end in college, was a punishing defender in the Pittsburgh city league in the late 1980s before announcing at the 1989 Dapper Dan banquet his intention to follow his high school hero Major Harris to WVU. And while Harris is widely recalled as one of the game’s great playmaking quarterbacks, Booth’s name is barely a footnote in Mountaineer football history.

More recently, guys such as Jonathan Hargett, Brandon Barrett and Tevita Finau were supposed to re-write the school record books but for whatever reason, it never happened.

As long as we will continue to read about the wonderful exploits of high school athletes, there will always be those who fail to measure up in college for one reason or another – and not always because of their own doing.