In sports, it can be frustrating and pointless to play the “what if” game. But, what the heck, I’m going to do it anyway.
What if Marshall had hired Sonny Allen as its basketball coach in 1972 after Carl Tacy left for Wake Forest?
Our state lost one of its coaching legends a couple of days ago with the passing of Allen, a Moundsville native and former Marshall player.
Allen played at Marshall in the late 1950s and started his coaching career in the early 1960s under Ellis Johnson. As a young coach, Allen made a very significant contribution to the Marshall program.
Allen convinced Johnson to recruit Dan D’Antoni to Marshall in 1965. Johnson was recruiting Dallas Blankenship from Pineville and D’Antoni played at Wyoming County rival Mullens. Allen encouraged Johnson to recruit both of the Wyoming County guards and he did. Allen was sure that Marshall and the fans in Huntington would love D’Antoni’s swagger and style. He was correct. Marshall fans still love D’Antoni’s style. Allen also knew that D’Antoni had a younger brother, Mike, who had a chance to be an elite national player.
Fast forward in time and Allen leaves Marshall to take his first head coaching job at Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia. Meanwhile, Dan D’Antoni becomes a Hall of Fame player at Marshall, plays in two NITs and begins his own coaching career after he graduates in 1969.
Between 1970-72, the Marshall basketball program was in a state of transition and some uncertainty. Former Huntington High coach Stewart Way was the head coach for two seasons from 1969-71 before swapping roles with assistant coach Tacy. Tacy led Marshall to the NCAA tournament in 1972 before leaving for Wake Forest.
During that time, there were many boosters who lobbied for Marshall to lure Sonny Allen back from Old Dominion. One of the plans was for Allen to hire his friend and former Marshall player Tex Williams as one assistant and a young Dan D’Antoni as another assistant.
Can you imagine?
Marshall fans love fast-break basketball, and Allen was nationally known as an innovator in fast-break basketball. His 1967-68 team averaged 98.2 points per game. Coaches at blue-blood programs from around the country sought his counsel. Former Lakers and Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead said Indiana coach Bob Knight once said, “If I want to talk defense I talk with Bob Knight. If I want to talk fast break, I talk with Sonny Allen.”
Meanwhile, Marshall basketball struggled in the 1970s and attendance declined. With a coaching staff of Allen, Williams and a young Dan D’Antoni, it is hard to imagine that happening.
Allen’s teams were classy, entertaining, drew large crowds and they won. His son, Billy, probably would have played for his dad and he was an all-conference-caliber player for his dad at SMU and Nevada.
Allen and his staff would have loved in-state players also. At Old Dominion Allen recruited “Buttons” Speakes from Huntington, Skip Noble, Wendell Morrison and Bill Herscher from St. Albans, Joey Caruthers from DuPont and Rick Nau from Wheeling Central.
Allen’s overall coaching record was 613-383. “What If” he had coached at Marshall following the 1971-72 season?