Finding an inconspicuous, out-of-the-way parking spot was a high priority. Red Brown, West Virginia University’s athletic director, had driven from Morgantown to the home of West Virginia Tech basketball coach Neal Baisi, who lived in Charlton Heights, seven miles beyond Tech’s Montgomery campus off U.S. Route 60.
Brown was prepared to offer Baisi the Mountaineer basketball coaching job but was being clandestine, knowing that Baisi might say no and that a rejection would not look good. And if the neighbors spotted Brown’s car in front of Baisi’s house, word might leak out and reach Charleston’s influential and bull-horned sports columnists, Shorty Hardman of the Gazette and Dick Hudson of the Daily Mail.
Brown found a parking spot along Route 60 and walked discreetly down a road that crossed the railroad tracks and led to Riverside Drive, where Baisi lived overlooking the Kanawha River. It would be fun to imagine that maybe Brown arrived under the cover of darkness, moving stealthily, wearing a wide-brimmed fedora, looking like Humphrey Bogart.
On that occasion in the spring of 1965, Brown needed a coach to replace Charleston native George King, who had taken the Purdue job.
Baisi’s credentials were extraordinary and, it’s safe to say, he was a coaching phenom, a prodigy. An Elkins native and a 1950 Tech graduate, he never played college basketball.
Before taking the Golden Bears’ full-time job in the 1953-54 season, his only basketball coaching experience had been a year as an assistant at Montgomery High and a year as an assistant at Tech.
In that 1953-54 season, he inherited a team that had lost three starters and two key reserves who occasionally started. But he reached national prominence in that first season, using an innovative zone-press defense that produced a Niagara of turnovers and helped the Golden Bears average 109.7 points a game. It was the highest scoring average in college basketball history, regardless of level, and it remained a record as Brown and Baisi chatted on the banks of the Kanawha.
In each of his first six seasons, the Golden Bears led the nation in scoring, averaging more than 100 points in five of those seasons and earning the nickname the “Century Limited.’’ His 1961-62 team shot 55.3 percent from the field to set an NAIA record. Along the way, he picked up the affectionate nickname “Papa Bear.’’
When Brown offered him the WVU job, Baisi’s record stood at 277-75 for a .786 winning percentage in 11 seasons at Tech, which was then a member of the West Virginia Conference.
In addition, Baisi coached an entertaining fast-break offense reminiscent of the Mountaineers’ 1950s glory years under coach Fred Schaus. Schaus, in fact, often conferred with Baisi in those days and undoubtedly used some of his concepts.
The 42-year-old Baisi was very much in demand. Other schools had contacted him about jobs, and he spoke at basketball clinics all over the country. His book, “Pressing Defenses,’’ was in its third printing. In a 1957 Associated Press poll of all the nation’s colleges and universities, Tech ranked No. 15 (North Carolina was No. 1, West Virginia No. 10.)
Brown, who had coached Baisi in football and basketball at Elkins High, offered him the job at $20,000 a year ($165,325 in today’s dollars) and one full-time assistant — but Baisi said no, thank you.
Years later, after he had retired as Tech’s coach, athletic director and dean of students, Baisi would leave his Charlton Heights home and make the seven-mile drive to the on-campus Neal D. Baisi Athletic Center in Montgomery and work out in the weight room. On those occasions, he would sometimes visit the office of Pete Kelley, the Tech athletic director who played for him from 1960-64. They would sit, drink coffee and chitchat.
On one occasion, Kelley asked him why he had never taken a job elsewhere. “I asked him why he didn’t go,’’ Kelley remembered recently. “I said I’m sure you were offered many jobs, but you never left. And he said, ‘You know, Pete, sometimes you find a place where you’re comfortable and you’re happy and it’s good for your family and all those intangible things. I just decided that I would stay.’ ’’
In deepest Wyoming County, not far from the Virginia line, Baisi was driving unsteadily along a rutted one-lane dirt road a mile up the hollow from the blacktop. An overnight rain had given the road a good soaking, and Baisi’s car began sinking in the goo. He was stuck. It was late August 1956, and Baisi was looking for Kermit Gentry’s house, seeking another good basketball player.
He recently had recruited Gentry, a 1956 Glen Rogers High graduate who had accepted Baisi’s scholarship offer and said he’d arrive on campus as soon as he found transportation. But finding transportation was no easy feat in the Gentry household, where electricity, running water and a telephone were nonexistent. The conversation took place on his aunt’s phone. Hearing his plight, Baisi offered him a ride.
And now Gentry was standing at the top of the hollow, holding a duffel bag, waiting to begin life as a Tech student and basketball player and looking down the hollow. And when he suddenly saw Baisi’s predicament, he and several family members hurried down and pushed his car onto terra firma.
“And I hopped in the car with him, and we came back to Tech,’’ Gentry recalled more than 64 years later, “and that’s how I ended up at Tech. That’s the type of guy he was.’’
Like most West Virginia Conference coaches back then, Baisi recruited mostly state talent and generally limited his recruiting to southern West Virginia. He once, for example, recruited four of Montgomery High’s five starters.
Once on the Tech campus, the players learned Baisi’s famous zone-press defense during lengthy practices that David West still remembers.
“They were three hours of running and running and running,’’ recalled West, a Golden Bear from 1957-1961. “We were glad to play a game and get out of practice.’’
Like many teams back then, the Golden Bears began practice long before the season started.
“We practiced from the day we started school all the way through the season at least three hours a day almost every day,’’ said Onas Aliff, a former East Bank player who played for Baisi from 1962-66. “In the fall, we’d run three miles, then practiced the rest of the time. We’d either run before or after practice, but we’d run from Montgomery up to Boomer to a church and around a tree and back.’’
Most of the practice time was devoted to the zone press. When executed properly, it would funnel the dribbler just past the mid-court line alongside the out-of-bounds line where the Bears would double-team him, using the two lines to further block his path and putting him in an impossible situation.
“You let the guy dribble and trap him. He had no place to go,’’ recalled Mike Bell, who played from 1956-60. “We scored an awful lot of points on that. [Baisi] was out ahead of everybody else. We beat people badly.’’
Said Gentry: “Baisi always said you have two other defenders: the out-of-bounds line and the half-court line. He was innovative. He came up with things at the time that most coaches had not used or seen. He had a knack for doing that.’’
Bell recalled that West Virginia Wesleyan coach Hank Ellis would sometimes beat the press by posting 6-foot-7 Ken Remley at midcourt. If the Bobcats got the ball to Remley, he might find an open man darting into the frontcourt.
Remley, incidentally, was later taken by the Pistons in the fourth round of the 1960 NBA draft but never played professionally.
Although Baisi never played college basketball, he earned All-WVC honors in football at West Virginia Tech and, to a large degree, designed his zone-press concepts from football’s defensive principles.
And if the Bears weren’t scoring quickly off the press, they were scoring quickly — or at least shooting quickly — off the fast break. “We didn’t pass much,’’ said West. “We usually had two passes and a shot.’’
Clair Muscaro was a Golden Bear from 1950-54, his senior year coinciding with Baisi’s one season as an assistant under Hugh Bosely, whose teams won or shared the WVC title from 1951-54. Muscaro developed a friendship with Baisi that continued for many years.
“He revolutionized the zone presses in basketball,’’ said Muscaro, a Weirton native and one of the few Tech players not from the southern part of the state. “He was an outstanding individual. I liked his personality, his interest in you as a person. You always got that feeling that he cared about you as an individual.’’
The practices also included endless free-throw shooting in which every miss necessitated a sprint up and down the bleachers. After that, the players might do some creative weightlifting, though it was not yet fashionable. Sitting on the edge of the stage at the old Montgomery High gym, they would attach weighted buckets to their ankles and do leg extensions.
In preseason workouts, the players often wore galoshes to build leg strength.
“They made big red rings around your legs,’’ said Bell, who averaged 32.4 points as a senior at Nicholas County High. “You had to run in them and try to rebound. His theory was that when you took the galoshes off, you were so much faster and you could jump so much higher. I don’t know whether it worked or not. People made fun of him.’’
When not wearing galoshes in practice, the Golden Bears often wore ankle weights.
“Now, everybody worries about upper-body strength,’’ said Aliff. “That was not a big item in the time I played. It was all leg strength.’’
Practices sometimes extended past the school’s cafeteria hours, forcing the players to improvise.
“We would go to Benny’s and get a hamburger or something,’’ said Bell, referring to the venerable establishment on Third Avenue in Montgomery.
During the summer months, Baisi would encourage his players to stay in shape by sending them motivational letters that contained nine words in big, bold letters: “Run Run Run, Jump Jump Jump, Shoot Shoot Shoot.’’
And he never cursed, said Aliff, but would sometimes express loud disapproval. “Golly neds!’’ Baisi would shout.
The victories and uptempo style attracted big crowds to the Montgomery High School gym on Fifth Avenue near the Kanawha River, where the Golden Bears played their home games during Baisi’s tenure. It was an easy walk down the hill from the Tech campus. The place seated 1,800. It overflowed and rocked.
“People would run from their night classes to get over there to get a seat,’’ recalled Aliff. “They’d be rushing to get there. Many nights, they’d be standing along the end line, and all the seats were filled. It was a real raucous crowd.’’
“Conference basketball at that time,’’ added Kelley, “was just a wonderful thing to see.’’
The Tech students began bringing garbage-can lids to games and banging them incessantly on acoustically rich surfaces, raising a frightful din. They even took them to the Charleston Civic Center when the Golden Bears played there. The practice, however, was discontinued for two distinct reasons: the ruckus annoyed the middle-aged and older folks, and Montgomery residents complained that Tech students were stealing their lids.
The Tech administration annually invited the West Virginia legislators to a Golden Bears game, and they responded, making the 28-mile trip to Montgomery, arriving en masse.
Baisi retired on March 2, 1966, about a year after his meeting with Red Brown, citing “administrative responsibilities.’’ He said his duties as athletic director and dean of students were detracting from his coaching. He was 43.
His 12-year record was 295-81 for a winning percentage of .785, which ranked second only to Adolph Rupp’s .828 percentage at Kentucky at the time. Baisi won four WVC titles and finished second three times. Meanwhile, construction of the new athletic building that would bear his name was nearly complete.
Replacing him was 30-year-old Pete Phillips, a Montgomery native and Tech graduate who had been Baisi’s assistant for seven years. Phillips did not match Baisi’s success, of course, but earned wide respect and a spot in Tech’s athletic hall of fame. He also developed a reputation for his clever, off-the-wall quips to sportswriters. “We’re as green as a bilious alligator,’’ he once said.
Baisi died March 7, 2005, at age 81. To accommodate all the family and friends and all the former players and rivals and all the students, faculty and admirers, they held the funeral at the Neal D. Baisi Athletic Center.