By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
That literary classic could have come out of the sports pages of West Virginia as well as anything Charles Dickens had written in the early days of the 21st century, a time when the sport of basketball was in a shambles.
The worst of times?
Gale Catlett’s final year saw the Mountaineers lose 18 of their final 19 games, win only one Big East game the entire season, have their veteran coach step down with a scandal surrounding Jonathan Hargett brewing.
The worst of times?
It saw them go after one of their own, Bob Huggins, to replace Catlett, only to have him turn them down. So they turned to Bowling Green coach Dan Dakich with such fanfare it became a national joke as he walked out on them within eight days, afraid the scandal would bring the program down.
But the scandal never really developed and, as it was the worst of times, it would also become the best of times because athletic director Ed Pastilong led the school on a search for the next basketball coach, a search that would bring them to the doorstep of a little-known coach at Richmond.
His name was John Beilein and last night he coached Michigan in the national championship game against Louisville.
It can be said that West Virginia made one of the best hires it ever made, one that had a huge effect not only on its own game but the game across the nation.
Pastilong is retired now, the program at WVU in Oliver Luck’s hands and wavering in all kinds of directions as it transitions into a new era of collegiate sports and into the Big 12 Conference, economics ruling all and, in most instances, ruining all.
Pastilong had his own problems, of course, at the time he went looking to replace Catlett/Huggins/Dakich, desperate problems, for the program had become the laughing stock of college basketball and was looking at sinking into a secondary role in a sport it long had been prominent in.
“We did an all-out search (for a new coach) and John Beilein wound up at the top of our list,” Pastilong recalled just hours before Beilein would lead his Michigan team into the championship game.
As Pastilong recalled it, associate athletic director Mike Parsons had been the first to mention Beilein to the search committee and that they had studied him from afar, then went to Virginia to meet with the man who was then coaching at Richmond.
Pastilong and those on the search committee including school president David Hardesty, vice president Ken Gray, Parsons and a few others were impressed.
“His approach was down-to-earth. His approach was old-fashioned hard work and fundamentals,” Pastilong said.
“We started looking at his record and there was a progression of winning more games each year. We liked that. We liked his approach to the overall program, not just winning but the things that went into the program like academics and assembling an overall staff.”
They checked references. They went to Richmond and watched a game.
“The search grew rather long, but we were determined we weren’t going to make a snap choice, even if it took a little longer than some people thought it should. We had to make sure it was the right choice,” Pastilong said.
What might have happened had it been wrong again? What if probation had come to West Virginia or Beilein proved to be immoral or had recruited the wrong kind of players or had been accused of skirting NCAA rules?
You saw a lot of it this past week at Rutgers with Mike Rice, and as Pastilong observed, “As they found out at Rutgers, if it’s wrong it’s the athletic director who takes the sword first.”
That didn’t happen though. Beilein came in and put to use the players he found on scene such as a big, gawky 7-foot kid who shot 3-point shots named Kevin Pittsnogle, brought in his own kind of players such as Mike Gansey and Alex Ruoff and even brought along a non-scholarship player with the same last name, considering he was his son, Patrick, and put together a team that came within overtime of reaching the Final Four.
It reached that point because Beilein did things the right way. Asked what he liked about Beilein when he hired him, Pastilong replied:
“It was the thoroughness of his practices. He wasn’t thinking about doing it overnight. I think we all realized it was going to take time, that what was most important was having a nice basketball team after a few years.
“We weren’t pressuring him and he didn’t feel pressured to grab players who would stay a year, but who would be here for their junior and senior years with maturity and dedication.”
And when he’d had enough, leaving for Michigan, he used the same approach. Able to get a higher quality athlete, that coach who narrowly missed reaching the Final Four found himself going into the final day of the basketball season as one of only two teams left playing — and he owed his best of times to the opportunity WVU gave him, and WVU owed its basketball survival to what he did in the school’s worst of times.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.