CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the more underrated basketball coaches in our state's history has been former WVU assistant Gary McPherson.McPherson, a 1954 graduate of Green Bank High School, has had an amazing basketball life. He played at Washington & Lee from 1954-58 when it was a scholarship Division I program in the Southern Conference and had two stints as a WVU assistant coach, first under Sonny Moran and then under Gale Catlett.McPherson was also the head coach at VMI from 1964-69 and he upset WVU twice, a 92-90 win in Beckley in 1968 and an 87-84 win at the WVU Field House in 1969. He has two of only five VMI wins in what used to be an every-year series.Earlier this year, McPherson reflected on an unlikely Mountaineer hoops comeback when he was coaching for Moran in the early 1970s. "In 1971-72, I was the top assistant for Sonny. It was a very hard and emotional year," recalls McPherson. "In December of that season, one of our best players, Larry 'Deacon' Harris, was killed and Sam Oglesby was paralyzed in an automobile accident. Harris was a great young prospect from Charleston High who still holds some state rebounding records. We also lost post player Bob Hornstein and Deacon's high school teammate, Levi Phillips, who stopped playing. We were down to just a handful of scholarship players."Near the end of the season we were tired and worn down. We had great leadership with guys like Curtis Price. We also had Wil Robinson, who is the best shooter I have ever seen at WVU, but we only had about seven or eight scholarship players."The previous season, one of our players was Mark Dawson from Huntington East. He was diagnosed with a heart murmur and the doctors made him stop playing. Late in the year, when he saw we only had six or seven players, he came up to us and said he could get cleared if we wanted him to try to help us out. He joined the team for the final six games of the season."On March 1, 1972, WVU was trailing Virginia Tech 82-79 with seconds to play in Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va. There was no 3-point shot in those days and McPherson remembers the wild finish."Tech led the whole game. Don DeVoe was their coach and they were very good. They would win the NIT the next season and they had an All-American who went on to be a great NBA player in Allan Bristow," recalled McPherson. "With time running out, Curt Price made a steal and then made a deep shot from the corner that cut the lead to 82-81.
"Then Bristow inbounded the ball for the Hokies and, for some reason, he just kind of heaved it up the court. Somehow he threw it right to Dawson, who intercepted it at midcourt and, basically in one motion, caught it and shot it from there. The shot went in as the buzzer sounded. "That started a wild celebration. Curt Price was so excited he vaulted himself up on one of the baskets and he celebrated by sitting up on the rim." Robinson had 32 points for the Mountaineers, while 7-0 center Mike Heitz had 18 and Dawson scored 10.Dawson was not the only former Huntington East Highlander in the game. One of the Hokie standouts was a 1968 East grad, Bill McNeer. McNeer played well against WVU, scoring 11 points with two rebounds and two assists. If you ask McPherson about the best players he played against during his era, he quickly rattles off the names of Jerry West, Rod Hundley, future Kentucky athlete Duane Wingler and former South Charleston and Marshall great Cebe Price. "There were so many great players in the state at that time," said McPherson. "When I was at W&L, we played Marshall. I guarded [All-American] Leo Byrd in the first half and I couldn't stop him. At halftime, our coach told me, 'I'm going to take you off Leo Byrd and put you on Hal Greer.' Can you imagine that?"
Self-deprecating humor is typical of McPherson. There are better-known coaches from our state, but I am not sure there any that are more loyal or respected. Reach Frank Giardina at email@example.com.