Last WVIAC season and Joe Retton still looms large

The curtain is coming down. For the last time.

After this season’s WVIAC men’s basketball tournament closes in early March, the conference will have played its last game.

There will be no more West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Most of the schools now associated with the league will be gathering in the newly-formed Mountain East Conference for the 2013-14 school term. A few of the others will go off to a midwest-based league.

Coach Joe Retton won over 83 percent of his games while at Fairmont.

In the last 50 years of WVIAC men’s basketball the most dominant figure and the one who caused the most waves with his winning teams and conference championships was Fairmont coach Joe Retton.

Retton was a Fairmont graduate who returned to coach the Falcons in 1963. His impact was immediate. Fairmont began winning … and winning … and winning against both conference and non-conference opposition.

The WVIAC was under the auspices of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). And that organization held its annual national tournament for 32 qualifying teams in Kansas City.

Joe Retton would coach at his alma mater through the 1981-82 season. Only in the last of the 19 seasons he was there did one of his teams fail to win at least 20 games. Retton retired from coaching in 1982.

When Retton went to coach at Fairmont, games were played at smallish Colebank Gymnasium. It wasn’t long before home games were moved to the Williams Armory in town where the larger crowds could be better accommodated. And toward the close of his 19-year coaching career with the Falcons, the games returned to the new on-campus Feaster Center facility. Since Retton’s retirement, the on-campus facility is now called the Joe Retton Arena.

Crowd sizes had increased. People tend to gravitate toward winning teams. And Retton’s eventual career record would be 478-94, a national-best .836 winning percentage.

Three of his teams won more than 30 games (32-4, 32-3, and 31-6). While Retton never had an unbeaten season, some of his other records were 28-1, 26-2, 28-3, and 23-4.

Only once in his 19 seasons did Fairmont lose more than six times.

His teams had 12 regular season conference championships and also won eight league tournament titles. The Falcons qualified for 12 NAIA national tournaments in Kansas City where they reached four Final Fours and one national championship game that was lost by three points to unbeaten Central State (Ohio).

After two of his seasons, Retton was named the national NAIA Coach of the Year. Six times he was the WVIAC Coach of the Year.

Fairmont had four consecutive conference tournament titles in the mid-1970s — claiming crowns from 1973-76. The other four tournament championships came in 1965, 1969, 1980, and 1981. On two other occasions, the Falcons fell in the WVIAC championship game.

The team winning the WVIAC tournament championship automatically qualified for the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City.

Fairmont’s players became a significant part of the lore associated with the first and second days/nights of any Kansas City tournament that saw eight games played from 8 a.m. until past midnight.

The WVIAC tournament will be staged in Charleston for the 53rd straight season. Joe Retton is 80 years old. One of his teams hasn’t been playing in the league tournament for 31 seasons.

Yet, Joe Retton and his “match-up zone” defense and orchestrating guards like Teddy Darcus, Dave Cooper, and Davey Moore still have a hold on the history of the WVIAC tournament that once had to find seats for crowds of 10,000.

This will be the final roundup.

Many of the previous roundups had a Joe Retton flavor. Many of the previous roundups had a Fairmont championship team leaving by train for Kansas City and the 32-team NAIA national tournament.

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