EDITOR’S NOTE: Third in a series. Staff writer Rick Ryan has seen a lot come and go in his newspaper career. Following are recollections from his days at the Wheeling Intelligencer (1978-90), Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times (1990-94) and Charleston Gazette-Mail (1994-2020).
Through the years, I’ve had thousands of conversations with coaches, most of them cordial and informative, some even hilarious.
But you don’t always get the whole story when you read what’s in the newspaper the next day. Sometimes the best stuff is the stuff you can’t print. With that in mind, here are a few off-the-record remarks that now find a home with the passage of time:
Gale Catlett, WVU basketball
I got to cover several WVU home basketball games when I worked for The Intelligencer, and the Mountaineers were strong at the Coliseum in the mid-1980s, going 58-4 there in the four seasons heading into the 1984-85 campaign.
That was during WVU’s days in the Atlantic 10, but the home dividends included some landmark wins, such as the one against No. 1 UNLV in February of 1983.
Victories like that had Mountaineers coach Gale Catlett beaming in his postgame media sessions, at the time held in a lounge along the main concourse of the Coliseum. After one such victory in the 1983-84 season, Catlett gushed about the home-court advantage.
“Our guys are so confident when they play here,’’ he said, “that they think they can beat the Boston Celtics.’’
Fast forward to early the following season, when WVU unexpectedly lost back-to-back home games against Virginia Tech and Auburn. Catlett, often known to be surly with the media following losses, was giving terse answers to reporters in the interview room.
Then it was my turn for a question: “Are you afraid that the Coliseum isn’t the weapon it’s been for you in recent years?’’
With a hint of sarcasm, Catlett shot back:
“Yeah, everybody knows we just roll out the ball at home and we’ll win.’’
Then for some reason, I recalled his previous words, and fired back:
“Well, didn’t you say to us last year that your teams felt so confident playing here that you thought you could beat the Boston Celtics?’’
Catlett then turned and mumbled something to sports information director Joe Boczek. Catlett then squinted at me and said:
“Are you one of those guys that’s always trying to cause trouble?’’
He tried to browbeat me, but I later walked out of that session with my head high.
Jim Donnan, Marshall football
I got to cover two seasons of Thundering Herd football (1994-95) during my first years with the Charleston Gazette (before our name change), which among other things meant that I got to meet once a week with coach Jim Donnan in his office for a one-on-one interview.
That was often an interesting occasion.
Once, I arrived at the assigned time and he greeted me in his office, but explained that something unexpected had come up and he had to shower and leave as soon as possible. But he didn’t want to deny me the interview, since I had driven from Charleston to Huntington.
So as peculiar as it sounds, I interviewed him while he was taking a shower. I wasn’t in the shower, but standing a few feet outside the door with a recorder, and Donnan, who has a roar of a voice, was able to hear me ask questions and hollered out his answers. That was certainly strange.
There was never any doubt that Donnan was the alpha male in the room at all times.
One other instance sticks in my head. Marshall’s basketball coach at that time was Billy Donovan, who when he took over the program at age 28 was the youngest Division I coach in the country — and certainly looked the part.
That leads me to another time when I walked into Donnan’s office for a weekly interview and he was finishing up a phone call. I sat down for a few moments and figured out he was talking to someone in Marshall’s athletic department about one of the school’s biggest boosters, who was interested in making a donation.
“Well,’’ Donnan growled into the phone, “tell him he doesn’t have to give all his money to Scooter.’’
Then he smiled and hung up.
Skip Prosser, Wheeling Central basketball
I first met Skip in 1978 when he coached at Linsly for two successful seasons. He then went crosstown to Wheeling Central, where he won five regional titles and a Class AA state championship in six seasons.
Later, as many know, he graduated to the college ranks and became the first coach to lead three different programs to the NCAA Tournament in his first season of coaching at the school. Prosser, coaching at Wake Forest at the time, died in 2007 from a heart attack at the age of 56.
Thinking back, the first indication to me that Prosser had the right stuff as a coach came when he put in his reserves at the end of games with Central holding a sizable lead. Even with the other team’s starters still in, the Maroon Knights often extended that lead. Prosser’s bench players didn’t come in all smiles with the intent of just jacking up shots, like some subs do. They had fire in their eyes, played airtight defense and ran the same sets as precisely as the starters.
Turned out that Prosser could also teach a young reporter a thing or two.
In the 1980-81 season, Central was reaching new heights with its program and looked like it might be on a collision course with Northfork, which was on its magical run of eight straight Class AA state titles, a national record. Their regions were scheduled to meet in the first round of the state tournament, if both made it there.
Caught up in the moment, the lead to my story after Central’s first postseason game — a lopsided 72-47 sectional win against Williamstown — went like this:
“Look out, Northfork. Here they come.’’
I was looking completely past the fact Central had to win three more games to even get to the Charleston Civic Center for the state tournament, and I heard about it from Prosser a few moments after the Maroon Knights escaped with a 53-52 win against huge underdog Magnolia in the sectional finals — back then an elimination game.
After his team filed into the dressing room after that game, Prosser abruptly stopped me outside the door when I came by for a postgame interview.
“I need to say something about what you wrote [after the first sectional game],’’ Prosser said. “The kids read that and they already think they’re going downstate. Look at what happened tonight. We were lucky to win. You just can’t put stuff like that in the paper. We’ve got a long way to go before we get [to the state tournament].’’
Of course, he was exactly right in what he said, and I have to credit Prosser for making me take a step back and assess how, as a young reporter, I was writing my stories.
Yes, I could angle them to my main audience, which most local sports writers do even today, but I needed to put myself at arm’s length from my area teams and not openly support them as much as I was doing in print.
Of course, that process took a while.
When the Maroon Knights finally did meet Northfork in the semifinal round of the Class AA state tournament that season, it was a riveting game. Central led much of the way, but when Northfork got the lead in the fourth quarter, it held the ball in a four-corner stall — a shock to most people — and the Blue Demons used the dwindling clock to their advantage in a 50-48 win.
The lead to my game story that night was:
“They came. They saw. And while they didn’t conquer, they found out they could play with the best. When the best decided to play, that is.’’
Some habits die hard, but I eventually learned how to play it straight.
Prosser led Central to its first state title the following season, beating Sissonville in the AA finals.