Joe Retton, the winningest coach in college basketball, is at the wheel of the Fairmont State College van, fast-braking through the dark mountains of West Virginia. Slick as a moonshiner outrunning the revenooers, he speeds through each snaking, snow-banked turn with the sure touch of a man who has spent the better part of his 50 years searching the hills for the "big, hungry kid with that special look in his eyes."
Some of Retton's bigger finds are folded into the rear of the van in a tangle of knees and elbows, dozing to the rocking lullabies of their portable radios and the inescapable John Denver refrain:
Country Roads, take me home,
To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain momma,
Take me home, Country Roads.
Ahead this January evening in 1981 is a game against Concord College deep in the coal mining country of Logan, W. Va. Behind, or "up that hollow a coupla mile," as the locals say, are such roundball shrines as Cabin Creek, birthplace of Jerry West. Back thataway is where Rod Hundley earned the handle Hot Rod. And all around is Appalachia, the area the national media always descends on when it needs a stock shot—gaunt mountain family posed beside lopsided shack—for yet another report on Poverty in America.
November 30, 1981
Retton, the son of an Italian immigrant coal miner, resents the Dogpatch image of the Mountain State. Not merely because it makes the recruiting of out-of-state players more difficult, but because it is a gross distortion of a "truly beautiful state," and an affront to a good, hardy people.
"Hell, where can't you find a dilapidated place to take a picture of," Retton says. "I've seen much worse in New York City. Hey, I love West Virginia. Love the people. To be truthful, so much of me is wrapped up in these hills, deep down I've always known that I'm going to live and die here."
He already has. Or so claimed the obituary in the 1979-80 edition of Street & Smith's Official Yearbook, which solemnly reported: "The sudden death last spring of Coach Joe Retton ended an incredible era of basketball for the Fighting Falcons.... Basketball at this West Virginia school will never be the same."
Retton sure felt the same, even amused when it was suggested that he had a lock on the comeback of the century award. Though Street & Smith's, which had inadvertently confused Retton with another West Virginia coach who had indeed passed away, printed a correction last year ("Joe Retton lives!"), news of the resurrection didn't immediately reach all of Retton's many friends in basketball. Carl Tacy, the Wake Forest coach, was shocked to his socks when, at a high school game in Virginia, he spotted Retton sitting big as life in the stands.
"Poor Carl had tears in his eyes," Retton recalls as he guns the van along the last remaining miles to Logan. "I think he wanted to pinch me to see if I was for real. But I wouldn't let him. You see, I want the coaches in our conference to think I'm a ghost who has come back to haunt them. Gives us an edge."
Retton's friends were only kidding, of course, when they accused him of plotting his "death" to gain some of the recognition denied him in life. Yet that was the result. Suddenly, from the big-city elitists who think college basketball is a game played on network TV by the so-called major schools, there were questions: Where's Fairmont State? Who's Joe Retton? And what's all this business about the "winningest coach ever?"
For the record: Fairmont State, the "College on the Hill," is located in Fairmont, W. Va., 90 miles and a lot of baskets south of Pittsburgh. The Fighting Falcons are members of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and compete in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Among other distinctions, Joe Retton is the only man to have twice been named NAIA Coach of the Year.
At the end of last season, his 18th at Fairmont State, Retton's career record was a stunning 461-83. His .847 winning percentage is tops among all active coaches, including Jerry Tarkanian (.810) and Denny Crum (.789), as well as such past luminaries as Adolph Rupp (.821) and John Wooden (.806).
Neither the NAIA, which has provided the NBA with Earl Monroe, Zelmo Beaty, Willis Reed, Jack Sikma, et al., nor the Falcons, who have been ranked among the NAIA's Top 10 eight times and Top 20 16 times during Retton's reign, including No. 1 in 1976, need attest the high caliber of their play. The real question, in fact, is why all those NCAA teams that know only too well who Joe Retton is, most notably a natural rival like West Virginia University, deign to play other NAIA teams but never the infamous unknowns of Fairmont State.
The Falcons need no calling cards when they arrive in Logan. More than half the town (pop. 5,000) has turned out for the game against the Concord Mountain Lions, which is being played in the Logan High gym as a tribute to the four players, two from each team, who are graduates of the school's state championship high school squads.
These are Retton's people, none more so than Concord Coach Don Christie, who says, "This is my 21st year in this game and Jo Jo Retton is the finest coach I've ever seen. He developed the passing game before Bobby Knight even thought of it."
Jo Jo could also teach Sir Laurence Olivier a few moves. Before the game, he delivers one of his patented soliloquies, pacing the locker room as if it were the ramparts of Elsinore. "If you got it here [pounds his gut] and here [clasps his heart] and here [taps his head]," he concludes, "then I'll give it to you here [whacks Daryll Corley on the rump]!"
At 6'6" and 225 pounds, "Rhino" Corley is Retton's kind of player, a tight end in shorts who revels in mixing it up under the boards. "It's like my major, industrial arts," Corley says. "I like to handle the tough jobs, you know, the elbows and bloody lips, that sort of thing."
Indeed, the game is only moments old when the Retton trademark is in striking evidence: a tenacious, clawing, in-your-face defense that is 80% zone, 20% man-to-man and 100% confounding to the Mountain Lions. Powered by Corley, 6'9" Carl Lenoir, 6'8" Andre Allen and 6'6" John Jones, the Falcons force Concord to take bad shots and then sweep the boards with a vengeance. Quick on the outlet pass, they unloose roaring fast breaks led by Guards Mike Stone and Kevin Beaford.
Beaford, a wispy sophomore who would go on to lead the team in scoring with a 19.7 average, is not your classic jump-shot artiste. Rather, he throws up bombs from somewhere off his right ear, employing so much sidespin the ball seems to curve into the basket. But in it surely goes, for Beaford, the team captain, best reflects the Falcons' attack: nothing fancy, just deadly efficiency. (Indeed, more of the same can be expected this year because Beaford and Stone are back.)
Though the Falcons lead by 10 at the half, Athletic Director Colin Cameron is taking no chances. He tries to find a position on the bench that is a safe distance from Retton, explaining, "When the team falters, he pounds on you. When they go well, he bear-hugs you and musses your hair. Either way, you come out feeling like you've gone one-on-one with Mean Joe Greene."
Mean, or at least slightly manic, is the word for Retton when a breakdown in the Falcons' offense brings him storming off the bench midway through the second half. He stalks, he stamps his feet, he slices the air with karate chops and dresses down the referees and his players in an ongoing harangue that causes him to lose up to five pounds a game.
Cameron emerges relatively unmarked as Fairmont State, spurred by a few of Beaford's timely sidewinders, outlasts Concord to win 71-60. For Retton, it is a four-pound night, a deficiency he helps make up for at a post-game buffet provided by the town mothers.
As is his wont, on the four-hour haul home, Retton reflects on basketball as a metaphor for life. "You see that one kid lagging on defense tonight?" he says. "He wasn't ready, didn't want to work. That's what worries me about this society. The youngsters today aren't as hungry, aren't as tough as they used to be.
"You know, my father used to work in the mines on his hands and knees in water. And like most fathers, he tried to give his sons the things he never had. Well, I'm not so sure that's good. You give somebody something for nothing and they lose motivation, develop a tendency to alibi. And if you let a kid alibi, all you're doing is breeding losers."
Swinging onto I-79, Retton suggests that the road to victory is as uncertain as the sections of the state's highways that have collapsed because of the honeycomb of mines underneath. "We're only 13-2 now," he says, "and that's not a good situation." Only 13-2? "Yeah, sure, our fans are so spoiled they don't even come out until we're 19-2. Winning alone isn't good enough anymore. Now they say, 'Hey, Coach, you didn't win by enough.' "
Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine a community that gives more open, unanimous support to a college team. True, two years ago, The Fairmont Times-West Virginian branded the Falcons' 20-8 season "disappointing," but that was only because of the remarkable fact that no Retton team has ever won fewer than 20 games since he took command.
More representative of the fans' esteem are the photos of Retton that adorn the walls of the bars, restaurants and shops in Fairmont, hung right up there in a place of honor with no less a hero than John L. Lewis, "the Joe Retton of the United Mine Workers," as one shopkeeper puts it.
At the Poky Dot, a restaurant that doubles as Basketball Central 24 hours a day, Co-owner Yvon Boyce dons his official maroon and white Falcon jacket each day and, like a judge in his robes, presides over the endless discussions of the team's prospects. To a man, the Poky Dot Irregulars can reel off all the particulars about, say, the 12 conference titles Jo Jo's teams have won or the nine NAIA All-Americas he has developed, six of whom have gone on to play pro ball in Europe.
An upcoming game against Salem College prompts one Irregular to recall the time in 1974 when, after losing 23 straight to the Falcons, the hapless Tigers finally upset their nemesis. "Salem's president was so overjoyed," says the Irregular, "he up and declared the next day a school holiday."
"Jo Jo's a winner, that's all," says Mickey Alvaro, an electrician who estimates that the 600 or so times he has joined the poker sessions Retton often holds in his home, "that sonofagun has won at least 575. It's just like in basketball. He'll pull your eyes out to win."
If so, it's because Retton has spent much of his career struggling against the kind of hardscrabble odds that make his achievements all the more impressive. He was raised in Grant Town, a mining camp, where he was forever hitching rides on the coal trains to Fairmont, 16 miles away, to play ball.
Retton graduated from Fairmont State in 1953, served with the Army in Korea and then returned to coach at Barrackville High, a tiny school tucked away in the hollows. His 147-19 record over seven seasons was the equivalent of drawing five of a kind from half a deck. He recalls, "My last year at Barrackville, the season we were 27-0 and won the state championship, the school graduated six boys and seven girls."
There were too many students when Retton moved to Fairmont State in 1963. Trouble was, the school's bandbox gym was 10 feet too short and a few thousand seats too small for the pandemonium the Falcons stirred up. Compelled to move after four seasons to the 3,300-seat Marion County Armory three miles from campus, Retton had to juggle his practice schedule around circuses, wrestling matches and concerts.
Running defensive drills at 6:30 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. was bad enough. So was having the players wait in line to use the two available showers. But what exactly was Retton to say when he imported a hot prospect for the grand tour of the campus and then had to drive him over to the armory for a look at a "home court" that was overrun by a dog show? "Obstacles are the measure of the man," was one of the inspiring sayings he tried. "It doesn't matter where you play, it matters how you play," was another. In truth, Retton admits, "It was embarrassing."
Worse yet, for his first seven seasons at Fairmont State, Retton's budget was so lacking he couldn't offer a single full scholarship. Consider two of his stars: One was recruited out of a gym class and the other was a wayward transfer from Salem College. Wayne Denham, a 6'7" center who had never played organized basketball before Retton spotted him doing side-straddle hops, won all-conference honors, and John Jamerson, a muscular pivotman who is now a high school teacher, became an All-America. And together, in 1968, they led the Falcons to the finals of the NAIA's annual 32-team tournament in Kansas City.
Still, Retton's bench is so chronically shallow the Falcons are always in danger of being devastated by the loss of one or more starters because of injuries or foul problems. The Poky Dot Irregulars, for example, still talk about the epic triple-overtime game against West Virginia Tech at the conference tournament in Charleston several seasons ago. Having suited up only eight players, the Falcons got into foul trouble and found themselves with four men on the court in the second overtime period and—whistle, whistle—only three in the third.
"All three of them were guards, none of them over six feet," Retton recalls. "All we could do was go into a 1-1-1 defense and pray." Miraculously, the tiny trio pulled off a 64-59 win.
Today, thanks to federal grants, tuition waivers and $12,000 from the booster club, Retton can offer six full scholarships and enough partial aid to suit up a respectable 10-man traveling squad. But times are still tough. Without an assistant coach for his first seven seasons, Retton now has an excellent one in Dave Cooper, one of his former All-Americas. The country roads are so crowded with rival recruiters these days that the pair has to take to the interstates for all-night treks to Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and the area in between.
The range of their talent hunt is restricted by more than their gas allowance. Retton explains, "Since small colleges can't compete with the majors and their 15 full scholarships, we mainly recruit the potential player." And because NCAA rules require recruits to have a two-point grade average, Retton restricts himself to what might be called the potential player formula: Anyone 6'5" and above must be two-point and below.
Which is O.K. by Retton. Rarely, he says, are his recruits true C students; they don't lack smarts, just motivation. And that he supplies in abundance. If not a ghost, he is something of a White Shadow, a stern taskmaster who has been known to chew out his players for an hour or more, and then invite them over for supper. "Discipline is love," he preaches. "It's the same with a team as it is in a family. If a kid goes wrong, you have to get him right. You motivate, enforce, and he falls in line."
And into the classroom—or else. Retton will not have anyone jeopardizing the other winningest record he is proud of: 95% of his players have earned a degree. "The only major colleges I know of," he says, "are the ones who do a major job for their kids. Many coaches say this, but we really do win both ways."
Every way, in fact, save the old hand-to-mouth way, for at long last the Fairmont State Gypsies have a real home. It is the Feaster Center, a new $4.2 million athletic complex that, among other amenities, features a basketball locker room that looks like a suite at the Holiday Inn-Charleston House. Lounging in an office adjacent to his luxury layout, Retton says, "We were a suitcase team for so long I promised myself that when and if we got our own locker room, it would be special." And it is: plush carpeting, easy chairs, sofas, stereo, and enough food, soft drinks and toiletries to open a 7-11—all donated by the friends of Joe Retton.
"When you don't have any money," Retton says, "you have to rub elbows with people who do." Especially if their name is Rockefeller. Like most of Retton's friends in high places, Jay Rockefeller, the governor of West Virginia, appreciates the winning image the Falcons project to the outside world. Jo Jo's record, the guv wryly notes, "looks like the precinct results in Mingo County in a good year."
Along with a new Plymouth Horizon that was driven onto the court after his 400th win, Retton has been the recipient of the ultimate tribute for a coal miner's son, a real Hollywood-style roast. At the latter affair, Rockefeller allowed that while he was president of West Virginia Wesleyan, he tried to induce Jo Jo to switch allegiances. "I offered him 20% of Exxon and one-half of my blind trust and he said he'd rather stay at FSC. After that, I didn't want him. I knew he was crazy."
Yeah, like a fox. As Retton the fundraiser, he makes the most of the fact that West Virginia University is so close, just 16 miles away, and so overshadowing a presence that the locals refer to it simply as The University. Thus he is able to work both sides of the street as Retton, the poor cousin. On one side, for example, is Bob Martin, an insurance executive who shifted his considerable support to Fairmont State because The University, his alma mater, came close but twice failed to offer Retton the head coaching job. On the other side is Liberal Lou the used car dealer, who says, "Joe can't get all the biggies, the bankers and lawyers. They back The University. What he's got, though, counts for more; he's got all the little people."
And how. On the eve of the Salem game, Retton makes his rounds with the joshing, back-clapping conviviality of an old pol priming his precinct. At Soles Electric Co. he insists that no, absolutely never did he run his golf cart over an opponent's ball—at least not in a serious match. At the Cozy Nook bar he admits that well, yes, maybe he did once sort of flatten out a trout with a board to win the longest-fish-of-the-day contest. Now Retton is accosting a food distributor in the parking lot of the 3-Ways Inn, wondering what kind of booster would let the locker-room larder run low on provolone cheese and salami.
The pit stops, from Colasessano's for a pepperoni bun—a heroic sandwich unique to the area—to Yann's Hot Dog Stand, are numerous; the cast of characters—Deacon, Sheriff, Squibb, Magic Fingers, Heavy Duty Judy—is endless. So is the hospitality at the home of Big John the salvage king, who breaks out a jar of white lightning, pours a jigger into a saucer and sets it afire. Purely precautionary, he explains; if the flame burns a certain hue of blue, the poison will get to you before the night is out. Big John's sample burns pure white. A moonshine fit for the gods—and winningest coaches. The next night, after a squeaky 74-69 win over Salem, Retton repairs to the Poky Dot to make up for a five-pound night. No sooner is he in the door when the Irregulars are on him: "Hey, coach, how come you didn't win by more?"
The next morning, long before dawn, Retton is back on the country roads in search of new worlds to conquer. The man who usually drives the 1,700 round-trip miles to Kansas City for the NAIA tournament because "God meant us to stay on the ground," is going to plunge nearly 700 feet into the earth, his second venture ever into a coal mine.
And so, with some trepidation, he does, creeping through an eerie netherworld that is as forlorn as a tomb. "Quite frightening," Retton concludes on the eight-minute elevator ride back to reality. "Makes me understand why my father didn't want me to end up with black lung the way he did."
Less threatening is a side trip into Retton's past. The route winds by covered bridges, by creeks where he skinny-dipped and trapped muskrat, by the baseball diamond where he dreamed of a major league career before, alas, the field was covered by a mountain of coal, and into the mining camp of his youth. The houses that the coal companies built in Grant Town decades ago are still in evidence, encircling the hills in a kind of concentric caste system. Beginning with Black Bottom, the section once reserved for black miners, the houses proceed up the hills in layers, each identical in construction but gradually increasing in size as befit the job level of the miner tenant, culminating like the decorations on a wedding cake in one showy home on top.
For Retton, whose Falcons went on to finish 26-5 last year and won their 12th conference title under his direction, the symbolism seemed apt. There may be more stately mansions in the upper reaches of college athletics. But none offers the view Retton enjoys from the College on the Hill. He is king of his own mountain and, in ways few men in sport are ever privileged to know, lord and master of all he surveys.