MORGANTOWN – As the world as we knew it was grinding to a halt this month, West Virginia’s men’s basketball program was on the verge of a rebirth, seemingly ready to make a run in the NCAA Championships this year and to become a potential Final Four participant in the following season.
Bob Huggins had done a masterful job of rebuilding his program, and for that, he deserves a great amount of credit, but if one is to put a finger on the man who saved Mountaineer basketball one must go back to John Beilein.
Our story begins at the end of the 2001 basketball season, to the final game, a loss for West Virginia and coach Gale Catlett, its fourth loss in succession in a first-round NIT game at Richmond.
Forgotten by history now is the fact that the coach on the bench that day was none other than John Beilein, a man with no inkling of how fate would reach out and touch him to rescue the Mountaineers’ program from its lowest point.
The 2001-02 season swallowed the veteran coach Catlett under a rock slide of adversity. He had brought in a celebrated recruit in Jonathan Hargett, a high school star ironically out of Richmond, expecting him to turn the program around.
Instead, he turned it upside down, leading to an investigation of him about recruitment, to a team that would unravel at its very core and win but one of its last 18 games – that game coached not by Catlett but his cousin, Drew Catlett, as Gale was out ill.
WVU finished last in the Big East with a 1-15 record in conference games.
Catlett retired at the end of the season, sending Athletic Director Ed Pastilong and a selection committee on a search for a replacement, a search that landed upon Dan Dakich, a long-time Bobby Knight assistant at Indiana and, at the time, a successful head coach at Bowling Green.
Dakich was given a hero’s welcome with a Coliseum press conference that included fans in the stands, cheerleaders, pep band and hope that was springing eternal.
Six days later, he quit and returned to Bowling Green.
Ed Pastilong was in a fix. The man he had selected to coach his basketball team at its lowest moment had dragged it even lower by leaving … and he had no one else in mind at the time.
Then he got a phone call with a recommendation he look into Beilein, the Richmond coach who had beaten Catlett’s team a year earlier, his starters hitting 9 of 20 3-point shots in a 23-point victory.
This Wednesday morning, the retired Pastilong thought about the situation he was in at the time as he spoke on the phone while wondering how many times he can walk his dog, which is about all any of us have left to do while the pandemic runs its ugly course.
“Dakich came highly recommended and impressed the search committee. He came to campus, everything was going smoothly. We got together to talk about the particulars, sift everything out, and then he said, ‘This thing is a disaster,’” Pastilong recalled.
“It was not a disaster but he was telling me how bad everything was. We had a good discussion about where we were, about our facilities, about the enthusiasm of the fans but, for whatever reason, he choose to leave.
“We were in a bind. That was a curve ball.”
That’s when he called Beilein, setting up a meeting in Richmond.
“It was just he and I and my interest grew during that meeting,” Pastilong said. “I was impressed. Every place he’d been he’d had success and was the type of person you could picture heading up your basketball program … articulate, sincere, experienced, successful.”
Pastilong came back, met with the committee, brought him in and hired him.
But, Pastilong maintains, it wasn’t a desperation move.
“It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction because we’d been let down a couple of weeks earlier,” Pastilong said.
This was no time for a knee-jerk reaction at all.
They had to get the right man to heal the wounds that had been inflicted upon the program over the past year.
“Fortunately, the right man appeared,” Pastilong said.
Beilein was meticulous in his approach. He started nearly from scratch and he started late.
He inherited a star player in Drew Schifino, the last Mountaineer to average 20 points a game for a season, but by the middle of the next season, which was his junior year, he and Beilein had come into conflict and he was gone.
But that first year Beilein took on a Catlett recruit, a tall, gangly 7-footer who shot 3-point shots by the name of Kevin Pittsnogle, who would come to symbolize what Beilein basketball was all about. He brought his son, Patrick, in and Johannes Hebert and point guard J.D. Collins.
They made up the core of what would provide WVU basketball with its rebirth.
The first year was a getting to know you 14-15 season, the next year an improved 17-14 season … but by the third year with the addition of freshman Darris Nichols, St. Bonaventure transfer Mike Gansey, who would develop into one of WVU’s all-time best players; scorer Frank Young and shot blocking 7-foot transfer D’Or Fischer the Mountaineers put together one of the most memorable seasons in their history.
The fans in West Virginia went gaga over this team and it was adopted across the nation as Beilein’s unique offense built around Pittsnogle and a then school record 319 3-point field goals made, 83 more than any other WVU team had recorded.
The 2005 season finished at 24-11, but played two “instant classic” games in the NCAA Tournament that carried them to the Elite Eight.
The first was a 111-105 victory over Chris Paul, a future NBA star, and Wake Forest in double overtime in Cleveland, which had Gansey celebrating playing in his hometown by scoring 29 points while playing 44 minutes compared with 23 points for Paul. This game was called “the greatest basketball game very played in Cleveland” by Plain-Dealer veteran columnist Bill Livingston.
It was a game played at the pace of an Indianapolis 500 from start to finish with the Mountaineers surviving as much on Beilein’s adjustments throughout as on Gansey’s heroics.
“That West Virginia team had an incredible acumen for the game,” Beilein said as he looked back on it years later. “Pound for pound, inch for inch, those guys had the highest basketball IQ I had ever seen. We could adjust in games.”
But that was only the appetizer for one of the most disappointing games in WVU history, the Elite Eight meeting with No. 4 Louisville in which the Mountaineers built a 20-point lead. They led by 13 at the half but were down by a Cardinal second-half press and an overtime period, losing 93-85, in a game The Athletic sportswriter Brian Bennett recently wrote about as the greatest game he ever covered.
Such was the emotional drain of this game that J.D. Collins lay motionless on the floor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the game and was found lying on the floor when the Mountaineer locker room was opened to media a half hour later.
Beilein would coach one more season at West Virginia, go 27-9 and win the NIT championship, then jump to Michigan, where he would win a national championship.
He would, however, turn over a healthy Mountaineers program to Bob Huggins, who returned to his hometown and alma mater to inherit a team with Da’Sean Butler, Joe Alexander, Joe Mazzulla, Darris Nichols, Alex Ruoff and Wellington Smith.
Within three years, he molded that team with his recruits into a Final Four team and has kept the Mountaineers in national prominence.
But had Beilein not been the right man at the right time, where would WVU be? Had he failed, Huggins might never have come home and WVU might have been passed over by the Big 12 in favor of Louisville due to their basketball program.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel