A capacity crowd of 7,067 packed the Charleston Civic Center for the West Virginia Conference basketball tournament championship on Feb. 22, 1969. It was the heyday of WVC basketball, and tickets were hot commodities and, in this case, not always available for the asking.
Dozens of fans found “sold out’’ signs at the box office and were forced to improvise. Instead of watching Fairmont State rally past West Virginia State 77-72 for the title, the ticketless folks stood in the lobby, listening to the radio broadcast and hearing thunderous roars from the arena.
“Some of these people,’’ wrote Gazette sports columnist Shorty Hardman, “had driven from distant points in the state only to be turned back at the gate.’’
The championship-game crowd set a tournament record and, aside from the seating limitations, the 1969 tourney was another extraordinary success, drawing 31,301 fans in four days, helping fill every one of downtown Charleston’s 1,200 hotel rooms and capping a decade of big, loud, joyful crowds. Television’s saturation of college and NBA basketball was still a generation away.
And like other WVC tourneys of that era, it delivered additional juice to the conference’s hallowed standing in state basketball lore.
Old-timers have long considered it the greatest small-college basketball tournament in the country, never mind the statistical data that an out-of-state hoops geek might uncover. Fans took vacation days and spent the week in Charleston, watching basketball and hanging out.
Maroon-clad Fairmonters, drawn to their perennially powerful Falcons, were the most visible. They mostly stayed at the Daniel Boone, the state’s No. 1 hotel, and gathered in the chandeliered lobby to socialize. For meals, they walked a block down Capitol Street to the Sterling restaurant where the 24-ounce Bull in the Pen beckoned.
The conference’s players were largely indigenous and thus were already familiar to the state’s basketball devotees. And by staying at one school for four years, they often achieved celebrity status. Coaches like Rich Meckfessel at Morris Harvey and Joe Retton at Fairmont State were household names statewide.
Every year, high school basketball teams from throughout the state were admitted free on the tournament’s opening day, a policy that undoubtedly enticed many players to attend in-state schools, eager to bask in Civic Center glory.
A half century later, Steve Quinn, a Morris Harvey player from 1965-69 and a basketball referee for 29 years, recalled that, when telling WVC stories to younger referees, he often met with skepticism.
“I would tell guys I used to referee with that you wouldn’t believe the crowds that used to show up back when I was playing,’’ said Quinn, a resident of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, who officiated in the WVC and Big East. “And I used to tell them about the tournament, and they would say, ‘No way!’’’
Similarly, it’s still difficult for Dave Cooper — a Fairmont State player from 1967-71 and former coach and athletic director at the school — to comprehend the crowd sizes.
“Sometimes I pinch myself,’’ Cooper said recently from his home in Petersburg, “and I say, ‘Did we really have crowds like that?’ I tell people about the crowds, and they look at you like you’re crazy.’’
The fans of that era not only turned out in big numbers but made noise. Early in the 1960s, West Virginia Tech fans began bringing garbage can lids to games and pounding them against bleacher seats and other acoustically rich surfaces.
Hardman, perhaps annoyed by all the clamor, called them “noise-makers to end all noise-makers.’’
“In my freshman year when we played up there in the playoffs, they did that,’’ said Roger Hart, a Morris Harvey player from 1963-67 and former Hurricane High principal. “When we went into the dressing room [before the game], they were beating on those bleachers, and you thought ‘Wow!’ That got us fired up, and we thought, ‘Let’s go get ‘em. Let’s enjoy this atmosphere.’’’
Not everyone agreed.
“The people in the community were complaining that Tech students were stealing their garbage can lids,’’ remembered Pete Kelley, a Tech player from 1960-64 and a former Tech athletic director.
When the Tech fans began bringing lids to the Civic Center, conference officials deemed the noise a nuisance and issued a ban. Before each game, the Civic Center’s public-address announcer, Frank LePage, would dutifully make an announcement, telling fans that noise-makers were prohibited in the arena.
Fairmont State in the 1960s played at Colebank Gym, a cramped on-campus venue with bleachers on each side, a lobby at one end to accommodate standing room and enough space for folding chairs at the other end.
“Man alive, the fans were right on top of you, and I mean on top of you,’’ recalled Jim Fout, a Morris Harvey player from 1967-71 and former DuPont and Riverside teacher and coach. “Whatever it seated, there were twice that many in there. They stuck ‘em in the corners. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t people sitting on each other’s shoulders. It seemed like there were thousands in there. It was a great atmosphere for the home team, but not so much if you were the visitors.’’
Said Hart, “They had people back underneath those baskets as deep as you could see. When we went there, they packed that place.’’
“People were jam-packed in there, hanging from the rafters,’’ recalled John Jamerson, a transfer from Salem who played at Fairmont from 1967-69.
Pat Sloan, a Fairmont State player from 1965-69, remembers the night West Virginia State visited Colebank shortly after defeating small-college power Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio. It’s important to know that Colebank Gym did not have benches for the players; there was not enough room. The players sat on the front row of the bleachers alongside the fans.
“The crowd was so large for a 7:30 game that the gym was full at 5 or 5:30,’’ said Sloan, a clinical psychologist in Johnson City, Tennessee. “People were sitting in the bleachers and were crowding down and were sitting where the West Virginia State players were to sit. And [State coach] Art Burris was very upset.’’
Fortunately, FSC athletic director Squibb Wilson saved the day, demanding that the fans make room for the visitors — but it wasn’t easy.
“They wouldn’t move,’’ said Jamerson, a former history teacher and coach in Ohio. “Squibb came over, or security came over to move the people because they said, ‘Hey, I’ve been here since 6 o’clock. I’m not moving.’ That was something else.’’
“The place was absolutely jammed,’’ said Sloan.
At Colebank it was even a chore for players to make their way from the downstairs dressing rooms to the upstairs arena.
“Once you came up from downstairs,’’ said Hart, a Charleston High graduate and Hurricane resident, “you had to fight your way through the crowd to get to the floor.’’
Upon entering the floor, visiting players heard boos; the Falcons, of course, heard cheers.
At West Virginia State’s Fleming Hall, someone invariably brought a bongo drum and, as the visiting players entered the floor to begin pregame warmups, Yellow Jacket fans, accompanied by drum beats, swayed back and forth and chanted, “Get back, get back, get back into the woods. Your coach is a farmer and your team is no good. Get back, get back...’’
“You couldn’t help but get excited to play down there,’’ Quinn recalled.
At Glenville, fans brought hard objects and pounded against a radiator attached to a nearby wall.
“It was similar to the Tech fans pounding on the trash can lids,’’ said Quinn. “They were taking sticks or whatever they were using and pounding the radiators. It was so darn loud the place would almost shake. But it was quite an environment to play in.’’
Quinn also remembers hearing “Harvey High’’ chants throughout the conference and when the Golden Eagles played at the Marshall Memorial Fieldhouse.
On Jan. 4, 1969, Morris Harvey visited a packed Colebank Gym and, after falling behind by 19 points, applied full-court defensive pressure and began chipping away. The Golden Eagles rallied to within 100-89 with two minutes left and, taking advantage of the Falcons’ cold shooting down the stretch, continued rallying and made it close.
But Fairmont survived for a 100-99 victory and maintained its home-court winning streak of more than two years.
Four weeks later on Feb. 1, the unbeaten Falcons traveled to Charleston to face Morris Harvey. At 16-0, the Falcons were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and NAIA polls, had won 16 in a row to tie a school record and had outscored the opposition by an average of 103-68.
A year earlier, the Falcons reached the title game of the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, having won their first four games against some of the nation’s best small-college talent. In the title game, they committed just three turnovers but suffered a 51-48 loss to a taller Central State (Ohio) team. Despite Fairmont’s credentials, however, Meckfessel owned a 6-5 record against the Falcons since taking the MH job in 1965.
Playing in front of 6,000 fans at the Civic Center, the Golden Eagles fashioned a 15-point lead with 4:30 left in the game and won 88-78, prompting MH students to chant, “We’re No. 1!’’
“With the way we played, we’re lucky we didn’t get beat by 40 points,’’ Retton said afterward.
“I don’t think they played bad basketball,’’ Meckfessel said at the time. “We just played better in almost every department.’’
Added Meckfessel, the school’s frugal athletic director, “And that crowd brought in money. It’ll help make our tennis budget.’’
Back then, the Falcons made two, and sometimes three, trips annually to Charleston and enjoyed playing in front of huge Civic Center crowds and staying at the Daniel Boone.
“Oh, we loved it. But it took about five hours to get there,’’ said Cooper, alluding to the pre-interstate days of curvy two-lane roads, slow-moving coal trucks and small-town traffic congestion along the way.
The Falcons’ home winning streak, by the way, dated back to Dec. 17, 1966, when Morris Harvey shot 52.6 percent (40 for 76) and collected an 88-84 victory at Colebank.
“I don’t believe we can play any better,’’ Meckfessel told a reporter afterward.
Upon arriving back in Charleston at 2 a.m. after a road game, Quinn and several teammates, feeling late-night hunger pangs, drove to the open-air market in Kanawha City for bologna and bread. They then returned to the dorm and made sandwiches.
For a special treat, the MH players would sometimes visit the Southern Kitchen restaurant in Kanawha City. After all these years, Fout and Quinn still remember that two bucks got you two hot dogs, fries and a drink.
The ultimate treat was spaghetti at Fazio’s on Bullitt Street.
“We’d go there maybe once a month or month and a half if we were lucky,’’ said Quinn. “We didn’t have a whole lot of money back then.’’
The Golden Eagles not only enjoyed eclectic dining in the 1968-69 season but picked up some memorable victories. In addition to knocking off No. 1-ranked Fairmont, they twice beat Marshall by one point — 82-81 in Huntington and 71-70 at the Civic Center, attracting crowds of 6,500 and 3,500, respectively. In the 71-70 victory, Morris Harvey’s Roger Bartrum of Chapmanville scored the winning basket with four seconds left.
On Feb. 10, 1969, the Golden Eagles needed four overtimes to slip past West Virginia Tech 99-97, attracting 3,000 fans on a Monday night in Montgomery. Tech led 70-69 when time apparently expired in regulation, prompting Tech fans to storm the floor. But referee Harold Hagy ran to the scoring desk to say Tech’s Tim Floyd had fouled Quinn on a last-second shot. Quinn then hit the first free throw but missed the second, forcing the four overtimes.
“We were robbed,’’ Tech coach Pete Phillips said after the game. He added, “This has got to be the greatest Morris Harvey-Tech game of all time.’’
By this time, the Golden Eagles were playing nearly all their home games at the Civic Center, having outgrown their on-campus facility, Eddie King Gym, which accommodated only 3,000.
“We moved all of our games basically out of Eddie King and to the Civic Center because we couldn’t hold the people at the gym,’’ said Hart. “It was the start of something big. It just escalated after that.’’
Late in the 1960s, Fairmont State moved from tiny Colebank to the 3,000-seat National Guard Armory two miles from campus.
“In my first year,’’ said Cooper, “we played all our games at Colebank. In my second year, we used both gyms, and after that we played all the time at the Armory.’’
The conference’s popularity remained high throughout the 1970s and, despite a barrage of college basketball telecasts beginning in 1979, it remained popular into the 1980s, helped by construction of the 12,337-seat Coliseum, which adjoined the old Civic Center.
More and more WVC coaches, however, were recruiting out of state, diluting the conference’s West Virginia flavor. A notable exception, however, was University of Charleston coach Tex Williams, who bucked the trend and assembled a 1985-86 roster that included at least 10 West Virginia players, whose hometowns ranged from Northfork to Wheeling.
The homegrown 1985-86 UC team compiled a 19-0 regular-season conference record and drew high praise from Tech coach Tom Sutherland.
“They seem to have a better team concept than other teams,’’ said Sutherland at the time, “and they seem to like each other.’’
In the tournament that year, UC defeated Glenville in the semifinals, drawing a crowd of 7,525 but lost in the finals to Sutherland’s Golden Bears, drawing another 7,079 fans. UC then defeated Tech in the best-of-three playoff for an NAIA bid to Kansas City. But interest in the WVC began to wane, hurt by televised basketball, the computer age and other factors. By 2014, the league had changed its name to the Mountain East Conference and reconfigured itself, comprising most of the original members and several obscure, out-of-the-way schools in Ohio and Virginia.
On Sunday afternoon March 4, 2018, Wheeling Jesuit defeated UC, 80-63, for the tournament championship at the Coliseum. A sparse crowd of about 1,200 attended. A day later, the MEC announced it was moving its tournament to Wheeling, ending a basketball tradition that started in Charleston in 1960.