By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The thing that you like best about Mike Carey is that ... well, that he’s Mike Carey.
You might remember him from his younger days when he was finishing his playing career with more than 2,000 points at Salem back when Terry Bradshaw was throwing for a record 319 yards and four touchdowns as the Pittsburgh Steelers were beating the Dallas Cowboys, 35-31, to win the final Super Bowl played in the 1970s.
Or maybe you remember him as a rookie coach of the men’s team a decade later as he took over an 8-19 team at his alma mater and built them into a Division II power. They reached No. 1 in the nation twice, played in the Final Four and during his final five years there compiled a record of 138-20.
His teams were known to be rough and tough, playing a physical brand of hard-nosed basketball that included in-your-face defense and face break offense ... a team that reflected his personality that was, at times, a bit rough around the edges.
His reputation was such that you forgot that right out of college, back when he was just about to learn his trade, he was a high school girls’ basketball coach at Flemington and Clarksburg Liberty, where he had begun to develop a style that would allow him to exist between the two-gendered world of the sport of basketball.
When Ed Pastilong brought him out of Salem to West Virginia to revive a women’s program that had become among the worst in Division I in any gender and any sport, there were some who wondered whether Carey would be able to have his persona fit into a women’s program.
That was 12 years and 244 wins ago in two of the toughest conferences in college basketball — the Big East and Big 12.
His women’s teams play as much like his men’s teams at Salem as possible, defense first and push the ball, and he coaches them much the same as he did at Salem, intensely involved and with a vocabulary that they would not have heard at Mrs. Smith’s Finishing School.
Fortunately, like most athletes, none of them did attend Mrs. Smith’s Finishing School.
That he hasn’t been able to reach the heights of Geno Auriemma at Connecticut or Kim Mulkey at Baylor is not a condemnation, for few ,if any, do, and it might also be a comment upon some of the devastating injuries to key players he has had to coach through during his career, including this year when his senior center, Asya Bussie, tore up her knee before playing a minute.
This year Carey has led a young team built around but one senior through the transition to the Big 12, a season that has taken some masterful coaching to change on the fly the offense and defense he thought he would run with Bussie while adjusting to the increased travel demands and a schedule of different opponents.
On Saturday night, his team plays its final home game, which would normally pass without a lot of notice were it not against Kim Mulkey’s Baylor Bears, the unbeaten No. 1 team in the nation featuring one Brittney Griner, a 3,000-point scorer who, at 6-8, is one of the greatest women players ever to play the game.
At Baylor earlier in the season, she and the Bears cruised past West Virginia, 76-58, and there really is no reason to believe that will change, but you do not approach Carey and offer that as prediction.
No, he is neither brash enough nor insane enough to predict a different winner, but what he does promise is that his team will go at Griner and Bears with neither fear nor hesitation.
“She might set an NCAA record, most blocks ever during the game. I don’t care. We’re taking it to her,” Carey promised. “We’re just hoping somebody will call a foul ... at least a couple. So we’re not going to back down. We’re going to attack. She’s the best player in the country; they’re the best team. We’re going to come out and play hard, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Carey expects that the Mountaineers will draw a large crowd on that night, a night when Ya Ya Dunning is honored with her final home game.
Some honor, going against Griner, but hey.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “There will be a big crowd. We’ll be playing the best team and one of the players to play women’s basketball. I’m excited about it.”
Carey is excited, too, although he says he wishes it were just a little bit different.
“We’ll have a great crowd to watch Griner. I’d like to get a great crowd to watch our girls,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.