Sometimes you have to lift up a couple of rocks or do a little digging to come up with a good story. Other times, good stories just seem to fall right into your lap.
Well, this one was dropped on me like a water balloon from the top of the Engineering Building, and since football signing day is coming up
on Wednesday, what better time to tell another recruiting story, right?
The other day, I chased down former Mountaineer basketball assistant coach Gary McPherson to ask him a couple of questions about Dale Blaney, profiled in last week’s Friday Flashback
– the newest feature on our website.
“Coach Mac,” I began. “I need something good on Dale Blaney before I get him on the phone. What do you got?”
“How much time do you have?” he asked. “How much time do you have?”
Right away, my mind flashed back to that funny scene in Vacation when Chevy Chase’s character Clark Griswold asked the small-town auto mechanic how much it was going to cost for the repair job to his badly damaged car and the mechanic replied “how much you got?” as he tapped a crowbar.
So, how much time you got?
Not much was known about Dale Blaney when he played high school basketball in one of those one-stoplight towns in Northeastern Ohio. Just a couple of small local colleges were recruiting him when McPherson walked into his office one fall morning in 1982 and his phone started ringing.
“Our secretary comes on and says, ‘Coach, someone wants to talk to you about a player you should be recruiting,’” McPherson said.
Just what he needed, another wild goose chase looking for the next Jerry West in some godforsaken place, McPherson imagined.
“Coach,” said the guy on the other end of the line, “my name is Don Grouver, G, R, O, U, V, E, R, and I want to talk to you about a player up in Hartford, Ohio. I think he can play for the Mountaineers.”
“What’s his name?” asked McPherson.
“What position does he play?” was McPherson’s next question.
“He would probably be a guard in college.”
“Well Mr. Grouver, we’re not recruiting any guards this year,” McPherson politely answered, his train of thought beginning to drift to the 10 or 15 other things that he should be doing before practice later that afternoon. At that particular time West Virginia’s roster was already full of guards with guys like Greg Jones, Quentin Freeman, Tony Washam and Diego McCoy, and McPherson’s boss, Coach Gale Catlett, had issued a strict order to all of his assistant coaches that fall – NO MORE GUARDS.
Catlett has always been a pretty intimidating guy and whenever he issued an order it was usually carried out without a second thought. During his Mountaineer playing days back in early the 1960s, Catlett was considered one of college basketball’s top enforcers with his No. 1 job being to make sure All-American guard Rod Thorn finished each game upright and healthy.
“I used to protect Rod when guys would thug on him,” Catlett once told me. “Thug on him” was the phrase Catlett actually used, which I thought was pretty cool for a 60-some-year-old guy to say. It was pretty common knowledge around here that Catlett and Pitt tough-guy-extraordinaire Brian Generalovich used to mix it up on the basketball court about as frequently as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did in the boxing ring.
At any rate, McPherson tried to get the guy off the phone so he could get back to work. “But coach, this kid can really play and right now there are not that many schools after him. I think he can play for the Mountaineers,” Grouver said.
“That may be, but the thing is we are not going to recruit any more guards this year,” McPherson said firmly.
No dice. The guy still wasn’t giving up.
“Where are you?” McPherson finally asked.
“I’m here in Morgantown.”
“Why did you call me?” the agitation beginning to show in McPherson’s voice.
“Listen, I’m a sand salesman and I sell sand to these glass plants in the area. I have a friend up in Ohio and I told him I was going to call you and get your word that you would go and see him play and make a decision on him.”
“If I gave you my word I’d go, but I’m not going to give you my word because there is just no need for me to go if we’re not recruiting guards,” McPherson said.
The guy wouldn’t take no for an answer, so to get him off the phone, McPherson finally agreed to see the kid play. He wrote Blaney’s name on a Post-it note and stuck it on his desk right next to his telephone.
For the next couple of months, whenever he looked at his phone the first thing he saw was that Post-it note with Dale Blaney’s name written on it. Eventually, it started to bug McPherson the way that runny-nosed guy used to bug me whenever he sat down behind me for lectures in college (Why sit behind me? Why not sit someplace else in the 500-seat lecture room? Why not blow your nose once in a while instead of slurping it up like a milkshake every 15 seconds? And more importantly, why do I still think of these things?).
Nevertheless, McPherson was doing exactly what Catlett had asked him to do - recruit a center - and the player he was pursuing was 6-foot-9-inch Keith Wesson from Niles, Ohio, which just happened to be near where Blaney lived. McPherson made a couple of trips up to see Wesson play and one night while he was there, a guy tapped him on the back of the shoulder during the game McPherson was watching.
“You’re from West Virginia and you’re here to see Wesson play, aren’t you?” he said. “Well, you’re wasting your time. He’s going to Ohio State.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they’ve already given his brother a manager’s job down here at the local plant and you’re just wasting your time,” he said. “By the way, he’s not the best player up here. There’s a kid down in Hartford named Dale Blaney. He’s the best player up here.”
Dale Blaney. There was that name again.
“He’s a guard, isn’t he,” McPherson said facetiously. “Well, we’re not recruiting any more guards. By the way, what do you do?”
“I have a dry cleaning business here,” he said. “But I’m telling you right now, Blaney is the best player up here
and you’re just wasting your time with Wesson because you don’t have a chance.”
In the meantime, the Mountaineers continued to win basketball games, first 10 in a row, then 15, and then 20 on the way to a nation’s best 23-game winning streak by the end of February. West Virginia had risen to No. 6 in the polls – the highest ranking for WVU since the days when Catlett and Generalovich were beating each other up - the entire state was going berserk over the basketball team, and all McPherson could think about was that damned Post-it note stuck to his desk with Dale Blaney’s name written on it.
Finally sick of looking at it, one morning McPherson decided to get the name of the basketball coach at Kinsman-Badger High School where Blaney played, a fellow named John Sheets (Sheets happened to be the maiden name of McPherson’s wife Peg, coincidentally), and he soon got the coach on the phone.
“Coach, this is Gary McPherson down at West Virginia and I’ve had a couple of people tell me about Dale Blaney (a sand salesman and a dry cleaner). Do you think he can play for West Virginia University?” he asked.
“Well coach, I’m not sure, but he is a pretty good player. We’re a small school, he plays all over for us, but he’s a good athlete and a fine young man,” Sheets said. “I think you would have to determine that for yourself.”
“What time do you practice today?” said McPherson.
“We usually practice every day around 4 o’clock.”
“How long will it take me to get there from Morgantown?” asked McPherson.
“Oh, about three, three-and-a-half hours,” he said.
McPherson looked at his watch, saw that it was right around lunchtime, and with no practice scheduled for that afternoon, he figured there was just enough time for him to get to Hartford to watch Blaney work out.
“Can I watch your practice today?” McPherson asked.
“That’d be great coach. We’d love to have you.”
So McPherson grabbed his Ohio road map and took off for Hartford, finally arriving late that afternoon. When he walked into the gym the team was doing defensive sliding drills. McPherson barely had a chance to sit down and stretch out his legs on the bleachers behind the basket when Sheets blew his whistle. Practice was over.
Still sitting there, McPherson was certain that Sheets would bring Blaney back out on the floor for a little private workout. But Sheets sent all of his players into the locker room, including Blaney. The coach then walked over to McPherson and introduced himself. “What’d ya think, coach?”
“What do you mean, what do I think?” said McPherson. “He looks like he does a pretty good job with defensive sliding, but I have no idea what else he can do.”
“Well, coach, we had to cut practice short today and this was all we could do,” explained Sheets. “Here is our schedule for the rest of the year. Maybe you can come back up and see us play sometime.”
McPherson managed a crooked smile, gave the coach a quick handshake and got back into his car. The longer he drove the madder he got. He had just wasted seven hours of a rare day off to see a kid from a one-stoplight town do defensive sliding drills for 20 minutes.
When McPherson returned to the office and sat down at his desk the next morning, still sitting next to his phone was that Post-it note. That’s it, he decided, I’m going to see this kid play and then throw that damned piece of paper in the trash. It was time to put this old hunting dog to rest.
So he drove up to Hartford to watch Blaney play and he scored “about 30 or 35 points,” McPherson recalled, against a team without a single guy taller than 6 feet. McPherson watched Blaney play a second time, and once again, he had another great game. Still, he wasn’t sure because the team Blaney had played against was no better than the first one he saw.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers had advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in Logan, Utah where they were eliminated by Fresno State in a tough, down-to-the-wire game. When McPherson returned with the team to Morgantown, he came down with a severe case of pneumonia that required bed rest. He was under strict orders from his doctor - no recruiting.
Then the phone rang. It was John Sheets to inform McPherson that Blaney’s team had another game but he wasn’t sure if they could win it, so it might be the last opportunity to see him play. The game was in Canton, Ohio.
McPherson, barely able to stand up, got team manager Rex Foster to drive him up to Canton while he rested in the backseat of a university car. Once more, Blaney played a great game and when McPherson returned to Morgantown, Catlett had finally gotten wind of his top-secret recruiting junkets to Ohio, most likely from Foster.
“What the hell are you going up to Ohio for?” asked Catlett.
“Well, Gale, I’m recruiting this guard up there at a little school in Hartford,” said McPherson, figuring it was probably time to come clean.
“I thought I told you not to recruit guards - we don’t need any more guards,” barked Catlett.
“But Gale, this kid really intrigues me,” McPherson said. “He’s a heck of an athlete and I don’t know for sure, but I think he might turn out to be a pretty good player for us.”
A couple of weeks later, McPherson learned that Blaney was selected to play on the Mahoning County all-star team to face an all-star team made up of city kids from Youngstown. Several college coaches, including Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote, were going to be there to watch the game.
By then, McPherson was all-in for Blaney and he decided that it was time to double down. After this game he would know for sure whether or not the kid could play. And if he performed well, McPherson was going to get Catlett on the phone and demand that he give Blaney the team’s final scholarship. If he had to, McPherson was prepared to bolster his case by telling Catlett that several prominent scouts (a sand salesman and a dry cleaner) had recommended him.
When he arrived in Youngstown for the game, Blaney was not even listed in the starting lineup. Well hell, McPherson thought, if he can’t start for the Mahoning County all-stars how in the world is he going to play for the Mountaineers?
At the game’s outset, the city kids put it on the country boys, leading by 12 or 15 points when Blaney was finally put in. Immediately, he lit up the scoreboard the way Michael Jordan did against the Lakers in game five of the ’91 NBA finals, and Blaney continued to play that way for the rest of the game.
“He just destroyed those Youngstown players,” marveled McPherson.
As this was happening, a severe thunderstorm rolled through the area and knocked out the power to the gym and everyone was forced to sit there in the dark for about a half an hour until the electricity came back on.
While he sat there, McPherson must have realized that the big guy upstairs was sending him a message - if that was even possible in a place as bleak as Youngstown, Ohio – Dale Blaney was destined to play for the West Virginia Mountaineers!
It was like a shout from the mountaintops, if only in McPherson’s mind.
When the game finally ended, Blaney was named MVP over several better-known players and it didn’t take someone with the basketball IQ of a sand salesman or a drycleaner to realize that Blaney was clearly the best player on the floor. Some of the coaches in the gym watching their players waited around afterward to talk to Blaney. Great, figured McPherson, after all of the trouble I went through to find out if the kid was any good or not it’s now going to come down to this – I lose him to Jud Heathcote in an all-star game.
McPherson slipped down to the locker room before the rest of the coaches to try and get to Blaney or Sheets, whoever he could talk to first (in those days the high school coaches were far more important to talk to than the AAU coaches are today, plus, they actually knew a little something about the game which also helped). Standing next to the locker room door was an attractive young girl.
“Do you know a guy named John Sheets?” said McPherson. She did. He then asked her if she knew Dale Blaney. A wide smile formed on her face.
“You’re Dale Blaney’s girlfriend, aren’t you?” asked McPherson.
“Yes I am.”
“What’s your name?” said McPherson.
“Dawn Grouver.” She was the daughter of Don Grouver, the guy who wouldn’t let McPherson off the telephone. Had McPherson known this, there is no way he would have ever attempted to recruit Dale Blaney in the first place.
He talked to Blaney and his family after the game and convinced them to come down to Morgantown the following week for a visit. After a couple of hours touring the campus, McPherson asked Blaney if he wanted to play basketball for the Mountaineers.
“Coach, I promised Coach (Eddie) Biedenbach from Georgia that I would have him for a home visit,” said Blaney. “Call me on Friday after I talk with Coach Biedenbach and I’ll let you know.”
That Friday morning McPherson telephoned Blaney. It was going to be six months well spent or six months wasted, but either way there would finally be closure. As good fortune would have it, Biedenbach missed his flight out of Atlanta and was forced to cancel his home visit with the Blaneys. The coach wanted to reschedule, but Dale told him not to bother because his mind was made up: he was going to West Virginia.
“We spend all this money on kids, we bring them in and give them the royal treatment, and that’s how we recruited Dale Blaney,” said McPherson, figuring that it probably cost the school a couple of tanks worth of gasoline to get him, plus a whole lot of time and patience.
So that’s the story of how West Virginia ended up with Dale Blaney - one of the better players in Mountaineer history – a persistent sand salesman, his daughter, a dry cleaner, a Post-it note, a little patience and a whole lot of luck.
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