By Bob Williams, Men’s basketball coach
The game of basketball began on the Tech campus 100 years ago. Tech was known at the time as the Montgomery Preparatory School. The school opened in 1895 and played its first basketball game in 1911.
As the game of basketball evolved through the years, so too, did the institution. In 1921, the name was changed to New River State and in 1941 to West Virginia Institute of Technology (WVIT).
A decade after the 3-point shot changed the game in 1986, WVIT merged with WVU and is now known as West Virginia University Institute of Technology, or WVU Tech.
As change was evident over the past century, so were the drastic changes in the game of basketball. The rules changed, styles of play evolved, so did the uniforms, and most especially the interest level in the game escalated tremendously.
Basketball provided the Montgomery campus and area with so many great teams, players and coaches throughout its history. So many championships and accolades. So much excitement and pride built through basketball. So many life-lasting friendships.
The names are countless. Too many to mention all of them in this article, but one name does come to mind when thinking of Tech’s basketball tradition. Neal D. Baisi. Coach Baisi is still widely regarded as one of the best all-time coaches in West Virginia state history. He put West Virginia Tech on the map with his innovative pressing and scoring style of play. His teams in the 1950’s and 1960’s traveled the country for tournaments and led the nation in scoring six times. Five times, Tech averaged over an unprecedented 100 points per game for the season. In February of 1957, Tech was ranked #15 in the nation by the Associated Press for all colleges and universities. North Carolina was #1 in that poll, WVU #10, Duke #17, and Indiana #18.
Baisi had many great players, including All-American Ken Hammond, who once scored 58 points in a game. Baisi was a renowned basketball clinician, wrote the book “Coaching the Zone and Man to Man Pressing Defenses”, and once turned down the WVU job to stay at Tech. His coaching mentor, Hugh Bosely, called Baisi a “natural winner”. The late “Papa Bear” was revered. His funeral was held in the very gym that he helped design. The very building that was named for him in 2000. Dick Hart played on those great Baisi teams. “Under Coach Baisi, basketball was a 12-month sport, even back in those days. He taught us discipline, responsibility and he emphasized academics. His 4-corners offense and zone press defense were ahead of the times. He was an innovator. A lot of his players came from nothing, but because of the Tech education and his coaching influence, most became successful in life,” states Hart, who is a member of the Tech Athletics Hall of Fame as a contributor. Neal Baisi finished his twelve year career with a remarkable 319-76 record.
One of “Baisi’s Boys” was none other than Mike Barrett. After starring at Tech, the Richwood native went on to a professional basketball career in the ABA after helping the USA Olympic Team win Gold in the 1968 Mexico City Games. Barrett, who passed away in the summer of 2011, displays his Olympic uniform and Gold medal in Tech’s Hall of Fame Room. Pete Kelley, who the Tech Hall of Fame Room is named after, was a teammate and close friend of Barrett’s. “I first met Mike in junior high school on an outdoor basketball court in Longacre Bottom. He loved the game and had great enthusiasm for playing. Crowds loved him. He was a special talent, and Mike loved Tech and was always a loyal supporter of Tech throughout the years,” said Kelley, who also has been a staunch Tech supporter over the years and has served as Tech’s Athletic Director as well.
Although Tech had many great decades, teams and players, another decade stood out. The 1980’s. Head Coach, Tom Sutherland, took recruiting to another level. While Baisi won with all West Virginia kids and many from the Montgomery area, Sutherland starting recruiting out of state. Combining home-grown talent with out of state recruits, especially the Atlanta pipeline, Sutherland built a tremendous record of success at West Virginia Tech.
Sutherland’s top recruit was Sedale Threatt, a high-scoring guard from Atlanta. Threatt dazzled Tech crowds for 4 seasons, finishing as Tech’s all-time leading scorer. He was drafted by Philadelphia in 1983 and played 12 overall seasons in the NBA, for the 76ers, Bulls, Rockets, Sonics and Lakers. The late Sutherland led Tech to 4 WVIAC championships and twice to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City. Bobby Lake was a player and assistant coach under Sutherland from 1977-1982. “Coach had a great personality, which made him a great recruiter. He had a great rapport with the campus and town. His up-tempo style of play attracted the fans and students, and fraternities were big back then at Tech and they supported the team at the games,” said Lake, who is now a high school basketball coach in Virginia.
So many great coaches over the years. Besides Baisi and Sutherland, there was Goodrich “Pete” Phillips. Phillips served as Baisi’s assistant coach before taking over as head coach in 1966. Phillips received a lot of behind-the-scenes credit as a great tactician for Baisi. The late Phillips was highly regarded as a top-flight coach and person. Matty Watts played for Phillips and reflects back. “Coach Phillips helped Coach Baisi architect the 4-corners and zone press. He was the most principled man I have ever met. So honest and respected by everyone. He was a master of the 4-corners offense, a system coach. He knew basketball and was extremely intelligent,” said Watts, who serves as Pastor of the Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s west-side.
Before Baisi, was Hugh Bosely, who coached Tech from 1947-1954, compiling a 135-54 record. Bosely, with Baisi as his assistant, elevated the basketball program to prominence. He started a successful run of winning teams, culminating in an unprecedented 4 consecutive WVIAC championships from 1950-1954. Bosely’s prized recruits included George Swyers, Eddie Solomon and Clair Muscaro, among others. Eddie Solomon, a Morgantown native, once scored 60 points against Beckley College and averaged 34 points per game in his last two seasons, ranking him near the top of national scorers. Solomon and Swyers are regarded as two of the best to ever don the Blue and Gold. Tech Hall of Fame member, Clair Muscaro, played on those 4 championship teams. “Coach Bosely was a player’s coach. He cared about his players and I had much admiration for him,” Muscaro recalls of playing for Bosely. “Our teams were well prepared. He impacted his player’s lives through discipline, hard work and teamwork. He cared about his players on and off the court.”
So many great players. The list is long. Too long to mention them all in this article. The aforementioned Mike Barrett, Sedale Threatt, Pete Kelley, Eddie Solomon, George Swyers, Ken Hammond, Clair Muscaro and Matty Watts. Others, like Raymond Updike, Lawrence O’Brien, Al Nida, Don Thompson, Dick Cantley, Robert Fudge, Al Davidson, Charlie Kelly, Dick Brown, Onas Aliff, Kermit Gentry, Bob Watson, Dale Russell, Lon Sizemore, Art Shelton, Herb Carpenter, Tim Floyd, John Mollohan, John Gorley, Bill Auxier, Al Martin, Bill Turner, Clint Hannah, Jack McClinton, David West, Arthur Culbreath, Antoine Scott, Michael Merritt, Ron Beatty, Greg Saunders, Al Toothman, Bob Foster, Raymond Pringle and recent stars Philip Godfrey, Rodney Mayes, Sam Robertson, and current Tech All-American Josh Proctor. Apologies for the many, many great Tech players who were not mentioned here.
The history is rich. The tradition steep. The WVIAC championships. Fifteen in all. The NAIA years. The NCAA years. Teams, players, and coaches have come and gone, but tradition never graduates. The rivalries with Morris Harvey (University of Charleston), West Virginia State, A-B, Fairmont St., and Concord. The great tournament games in Buckhannon and Charleston.
Born in 1911. Now a century old and celebrating! The game of basketball has impacted hundreds on this great campus. As the saying goes, “It’s a Great Day to Be a Golden Bear!”