June 7, 2016
Bob Smith is one of a handful of West Virginia University basketball players not named Jerry West to play on teams that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country one year, and then played in the national championship game the next.
Of course, we’re talking about the great 1958 Mountaineer team that took a 26-1 record into the NCAA Tournament before losing to Manhattan in a miserable, foul-marred game at Madison Square Garden that saw 61 infractions called on both teams with eight players being disqualified, and the equally great 1959 WVU team that bounced back to reach the NCAA finals in Louisville, Kentucky, where it lost to California by a single point.
Smith, inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, recalled those two fabulous seasons while spending some time in Morgantown last weekend to take part in Bob Huggins’ 2016 Fantasy Basketball Camp.
“Looking back, and coaching nearly 25 years myself – 15 years in high school and eight years here with Gale Catlett – (WVU coach) Fred Schaus was way before his time,” Smith said. “He recruited players for certain positions and when he brought you in he let you know what your role was. He had us believing and understanding that’s what our role was. We didn’t care about individual (accolades) – we just wanted to win games.”
And win they did, 25 games during Smith’s sophomore season in 1957, 26 in 1958 and 29 during that magical 1959 season that included many in come-from-behind fashion. That’s an 80-12 record during Smith’s three varsity seasons – a three-year mark that ranks among the most successful in school history.
But it was that one loss to a vastly inferior Jaspers team in New York City, considered one of the biggest upset defeats in NCAA Tournament history, that still sticks in his craw.
“The biggest disappointment of my career was ’58 because we were national champions that year, there was no question about it,” Smith said.
“We were playing the Southern Conference (semifinals) in Richmond and Fred was taking the players out one by one and (Don) Vincent was the last guy to go out,” Smith recalled. “There was like a minute left in the game and he gets undercut and breaks his ankle. We were 26-1 at the time and the No. 1 team in the United States in every poll and Vincent was one heck of a player for us.
“I’ll never forget, Fred may have made a mistake when he moved me back to guard (in Vincent’s place for the Manhattan game) because I had played forward and he probably should have kept me at forward and brought somebody else in with Joedy (Gardner) to play guard,” Smith added.
West Virginia was easily the best team in the country that year, beating eventual national champion Kentucky by seven points on the Wildcats’ home floor one day before unseating North Carolina as college basketball No. 1 team earlier that season. After those two wins, WVU jumped from No. 9 to No. 1 in the polls, to this day the biggest jump to No. 1 in poll history. It was also the only time West Virginia ever reached No. 1 in any of the major basketball polls.
That ’58 Mountaineer squad had everything – size (6-foot-10-inch center Lloyd Sharrar), speed and quickness on the perimeter, excellent depth, outstanding versatility with Smith capable of playing guard or forward, and a budding superstar player in West.
What made those teams even more remarkable was the fact that all but three of them came from West Virginia, including Charleston’s Smith.
Actually, high school basketball was so good in the Mountain State back then – particularly in Kanawha, Logan and Raleigh Counties – that college hoop recruiters could frequently be found there attempting to raid West Virginia’s best players.
Schaus was able to keep most of them, but not all of them.
Pineville’s Buzzy Wilkerson earned All-America honors at Virginia. Howard Hurt and Johnny Frye were all-ACC players at Duke, and nearly half of Chuck Noe’s roster at Virginia Tech featured players from Charleston, Mullens and other small towns in the southern part of the state, including dominating 6-foot-7-inch center Chris Smith, who many believe could have been the missing piece to a couple of national titles for the Mountaineers.
Noe once told the late Eddie Barrett, West Virginia’s sports information director at the time, that he would always look at the box scores of the high school games played in Virginia and would see scores in the 40s and 50s, then when he would look at the box scores of the games played up in West Virginia and the games were usually in the 80s and 90s.
“I want those guys,” Noe told Barrett.
“I remember Chuck very well,” Smith said. “That’s what we lived for (Mountaineer basketball). Since we were in grade school we listened to the games on the radio and when we got beat we cried. We took pride in the state back then.”
Prideful of their West Virginia heritage, many of these guys were also outstanding players good enough to play anywhere, including Smith, who scored 1,127 points while averaging 12.3 points per game during his three-year varsity career.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 185-pound forward scored a career-high 29 points in a two-point loss against NYU in 1959, and he also contributed 26 points in West Virginia’s unforgettable 38-point victory over Duke at the Field House that same season.
Smith earned All-Southern Conference Second Team honors during his senior season in 1959, and he was named to the Southern Conference all-tournament team during his junior campaign when he scored 43 points in postseason victories over Davidson, Richmond and William & Mary.
Following a brief career in the pros, Smith became a successful high school coach in Northern Virginia before returning to Morgantown for eight years as a member of Catlett’s staff when Mountaineer basketball experienced a resurgence in the early 1980s.
While coaching at George C. Marshall High in Falls Church, Virginia, Smith had a tall and talented center named Tim Kearney, and the two eventually wound up at WVU together.
Smith said he finds it hard to believe how much Morgantown has grown through the years, but also how much some things have still remained the same despite the considerable growth.
“We were 6,000 students and we only had the campus downtown when I was in school and there was nothing out in this area right here,” he said of the Coliseum complex that also includes the basketball practice facility. “The (population) has grown but the town hasn’t. My wife and I drove over to South Park where we lived in the 80s and all the pot holes in the roads and so forth … there are a lot of places that are still the same.”
Smith, now living in Naples, Florida, has remained in touch with many of his Mountaineer teammates through the years and he also keeps close tabs on the current WVU teams.
“I’m able to get the Big 12 games living in Naples, Florida, so I catch probably 80 percent of the games,” he said. “I feel like I know the players that are presently playing and I’m anxious to get a chance to meet them or at least watch them work out.”
Smith said he loves the modern game with a renewed emphasis on shooting, passing, teamwork and freedom of movement – the style he was accustomed to playing in college at WVU in the late 1950s and during the brief period he spent in the pros playing for Schaus with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“When the three-pointer came in that has taken away the athlete with the natural ability to just jump up and dunk it,” he explained. “Other people are now involved in the game and there is no question the fun team to watch right now is the (Golden State) Warriors. They play like they like each other. They pass it, move the ball and move themselves where LeBron (James) jumps up and dunks it and that kind of thing.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing them make the three-point play a four-point play and move it back another step to open it up so these people that are not gifted physically have a chance because they are skilled, they know how to dribble, know how to pass and know how to shoot. The fun part is watching people put the ball in the basket.”
For Smith, the bottom line in today’s game is being able to score with the basketball.
“Everybody says defense is the name of the game, and I buy that to an extent, but if you can put the ball in the basket … look at West Virginia this year,” he said. “When we were making three-point shots at even a decent percentage we were winning our ball games.”
Indeed, and last weekend Smith was able to impart some of that wisdom on the current Mountaineer players he had an opportunity to meet.
“This is what it’s all about. This is what makes the sport what it is,” he said. “Those four years go very quickly but to be able to come back to be able to be a part of this is just unbelievable. What a great job they’ve done here.”