When Tech Was Good in Basketball
by Jim Alderson
TSL Extra, Issue #17

Occasionally, I am able to write TSL columns that generate quite a bit of interest, and one that did just that was "Basketball at a Football School," where I commented on the low esteem in which Virginia Tech men's basketball seems to be held among the administration and current student body.

It wasn't always that way, and a number of e-mails found their way into my Inbox, all from older Hokies who remembered when basketball at Tech was something other than some sort of game that took place between football season and spring football. All of these e-mails contained the question "What happened?" giving me the inspiration for this piece, and drawing interest from Will.

As is often the case, I have opinions on the decline of basketball at Tech, and they are a bit different from that expressed by a couple of correspondents, that "firing Charlie Moir was the worst move Tech ever made." More on that will come later.

While attempting to research this article, I discovered that very little material pertaining to Tech's basketball history exists on the Internet. A Google search for "Virginia Tech basketball" yielded about 253,000 returns; obviously I didn't check them all out, but about twenty pages in showed a collection of posts on the TSL basketball message board, recent game stories and more information on the more successful Tech women's team.

Out of curiosity, I typed in a search for "Virginia Tech football," and marveled as about 390,000 returns were produced, covering just about anything anyone cared to know about Frank Beamer's team.

Refining my basketball search to "Virginia Tech men's basketball" dropped the returns to about 91,000, and only five pages into this, Google was returning keywords, and I was noticing sites related to Virginia, Georgia Tech and West Virginia Tech, which was not exactly what I had in mind. I finally gave up when I spied a return under "Virginia Tech men's basketball" that read "Gator Bowl photo album." Yep, we're a football school.

Since this article will be written largely from memory, my first ones of Tech basketball center on the opening of what was then known as Tech Coliseum (renaming it in honor of Stuart Cassell would come later) in 1964. I was able to discover the year from Google, as a brief history popped up in a search of "Cassell Coliseum" after a return headed "Sugar Bowl tickets to go on sale at Cassell Coliseum," and then another from the Tech site instructing students in the protocol for picking up football tickets (search anything about Tech athletics, and you never get too far away from football).

Cassell was and remains a superbly-designed structure with its clean sight lines, steep rows of seats giving fans the feel of being right on top of the action, and its low ceiling, which traps noise and can create a very uncomfortable situation for opposing teams, as it has for much of its history. It is a far superior design to that of Virginia's University Hall, with its goofy-looking balloon roof and circular seating design that seems to have been intended to keep spectators as far away from the playing floor as possible, which, given the state of Hoo basketball at the time, was certainly understandable.

Cassell is also a superior facility to one in use at the time and now, Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. For those who sat up straight at that sentence, I have been in Cameron many times, and my experience is not the televised ones of Dick Vitale gushing over the grand old palace, but cramped seating, narrow stairwells to reach one's seat and a near-total lack of amenities. Cassell is a much better venue to watch a game.

Tech's early years in Cassell were good ones. Howie Shannon ran a fairly good program, highlighted by a Final Four near miss in 1967 when Tech gave away a game to Dayton in the last minutes. Shannon's program was good, but not good enough, and when Tech President T. Marshall Hahn decided he wanted a greater athletic profile for his up-and-coming state university, Shannon suffered the same fate at the same time as football coach Jerry Claiborne and was fired, and Don DeVoe brought in, in 1971.

DeVoe had played alongside Bobby Knight at Ohio State, and brought to Tech the principles of man-to-man defense that both had learned under Buckeye coach Fred Taylor. DeVoe inherited from Shannon star player Allen Bristow, and in his second year re-tooled his roster with junior college players and shocked the basketball world by capturing the National Invitational Tournament in New York's Madison Square Garden. The NIT championship was a much stronger accomplishment then than now, as the NCAA Tournament only invited sixteen teams, only one per conference, and Tech went through a very strong NIT field, beating Notre Dame in the championship game. Times were very good.

DeVoe's program leveled off the next couple of years, but he was recruiting strongly, and his 1976 team garnered an NCAA invitation. It was DeVoe's last Tech team. He never really fit into the Tech culture, and his wife chafed at living in a Blacksburg that was a far cry from the university town that today draws such acclaim for the quality of its life. DeVoe had sniffed around other job openings, then made a push when Fred Taylor retired at his alma mater, Ohio State. This did not sit well with the Tech administration, and after DeVoe's refusal to disavow interest in OSU, he was fired. Some good times and some very bad ones lay ahead.

Brought in to succeed DeVoe was Charlie Moir, a former Tech assistant under Shannon who had gone on to big things, winning a Division II national championship at Roanoke and breathing life into a moribund Tulane program. He seemed to be a good choice, and was, for a while.

Moir inherited a good team from DeVoe, featuring players such as Wayne Robinson and Marshall Ashford, and recruited well, and won, but the college basketball landscape was changing. The NCAA expanded its tournament field from 16 teams, first to 32 and eventually to 64. Another rule change allowed initially a second team from a conference other than its champion, and later multiple teams from a conference.

This meant that the chances of an independent such as Tech copping a bid were greatly reduced, and it was time to find a conference home. Overtures were made to Tech's logical and geographical neighbor, the ACC, getting absolutely nowhere, garnering only two votes for admittance, from the Hoos and Clemson.

Due to the NCAA changes in participation in its basketball tournament, new conferences were springing up all over the place, and Moir, given a free hand by Athletic Director Bill Dooley, chose the Metro, which was the best option available, certainly better than the new Eastern Eight, which was about to have its best teams raided by the coming Big East, which had no interest in the rural Virginia Tech.

Tech hit the Metro ground running, winning the first conference tournament they played in 1979, a sparkling run that included a semi-final defeat of the Metro's flagship team, Louisville. Tech went on to an NCAA victory over Jacksonville, before being eliminated by an Indiana State team featuring Larry Bird. Moir had recruited well, adding Dale Solomon and Jeff Schneider to Robinson and Ashford, and Tech seemed poised for a very bright future. There was trouble on the horizon, however.

Following that successful 1978-79 season, Moir lost a protracted recruiting battle with the Hoos, North Carolina and Kentucky for high school superstar Ralph Sampson. It was to set a pattern for Moir at Tech; he could recruit well enough to keep Tech competitive and around the top twenty, but he never got the big man (he was later to whiff on Melvin Turpin, who chose Kentucky, and Chris Washburn, who went to NC State) that might have put Tech into the top ten.

Worse still, Moir lost Sampson to the Hoos, and Terry Holland took him and ran, rocketing into the top of the rankings and the national spotlight, eclipsing Moir's still-winning program at Tech. And, as Sampson's Hoo career continued through the early 80's, another factor began to work against Tech: television.

The Metro had been founded with television in mind, but it was regional exposure. The early 80's saw the emergence of cable network ESPN, which hung its programming hat on college basketball and brought the weeknight national game to the tube. It also was choosing games based on viewing appeal, and the Metro, grafted onto the territories of two dominant conferences, the ACC and SEC, was generally bypassed in favor of games involving those two leagues.

Tech was televised plenty, but it was local coverage, and the Hoos with their very strong program and playing in an ACC that at the time was not the top-heavy league it is today, but instead a highly-competitive one featuring media-friendly characters such as Maryland' s Lefty Drissell, Jim Valvano of N.C. State and Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, along with the patriarchal Dean Smith, began to get a lot of national exposure. The ACC dominated national coverage, and Tech, along with the rest of the Metro, began to drift into television obscurity. It was to eventually lead to the Metro's dissolution, but not before Moir's recruiting was wrecked.

Moir had based his Tech teams on an inside-outside combination recruited together. He had inherited Robinson and Ashford from DeVoe, then built his teams around first Dale Solomon and Jeff Schneider, then Bobby Beecher and Dell Curry, who was won in a bruising recruiting battle with the Hoos. It was when Moir looked to replace Curry and Beecher that disaster struck.

One of the country's top point guard recruits in 1985 was Michael Porter, from Tech's backyard in Pulaski County. Everybody around recruited him, and it seemed a major coup when he committed to Virginia Tech. The celebration by Tech fans was short-lived, however, as Porter was soon arrested for a charge involving stolen checks. Porter was suspended from high school and never played a minute for Tech (he eventually went to junior college and ended up at St. John's, never fulfilling his enormous potential).

Porter was gone, and Moir's program was rocked again when big man Terry Dozier, recruited to replace Beecher, chose South Carolina over the Hokies. Moir had struck out. Things were going to get worse.

A sure sign of a basketball program in trouble is when large numbers of transfers start appearing, and quite a few were flowing into Tech. Moir was finding it increasingly difficult to recruit against the dominant ACC, and indeed, two years before the failed recruitment of Porter, Moir had lost Northern Virginia point guard Tommy Amaker to Duke, where young coach Mike Krzyzewski was no longer setting school records for most losses in a season or ACC Tournament marks for most lopsided defeats, but was instead building the foundation for what was to become a very, very good program. Moir was losing more and more recruiting battles such as that (another player Moir had coveted, forward Allen Williams from West Virginia, had also been lost to Duke), and in desperation bringing transfers into his program. It would bite him.

Moir rebounded well from the loss of Porter, the next year corralling a little-known West Virginia guard named Bimbo Coles, who had a terrific career at Tech. It was trying to replace Dozier that Moir came to the end of his Tech road. Already in the program were transfers Johnny Fort and Wally Lancaster; Moir took another, a forward from N.C. State named Russell Pierre.

Many Hokies were upset when Pierre landed at Tech. Jim Valvano at State had a well-earned reputation for running a rogue program; he was a likeable rogue, to be sure, but his Wolfpack teams had players who were constantly in trouble, both academically and with the law. It would eventually tear apart his State program.

Valvano was well known for recruiting anybody and keeping them around no matter what they had done and Moir was taking the guy Valvano actually ran off? This was trouble, and it wasn't long in coming, as during Pierre's first and only year on the Tech basketball team, he was involved in welfare fraud, and then it was revealed he was having academic trouble, even with a Moir-crafted curriculum that included a class called "History of the Metro Conference."

Pierre was thrown off the team, and it was the wrong thing at the wrong time. Tech was already reeling from the very public firing and subsequent lawsuit of football coach/AD Bill Dooley, and the media pounced. Daily, Hokie fans opened their newspapers in dread, and were treated to stories about the woeful graduation rate under Moir, problem after problem with his players, and an NCAA investigation that gave Tech the rare double of having both its football and basketball teams on probation.

Moir had been running something other than an exemplary program at Tech. University officials did not react well to evidence of further athletic shenanigans, and Moir was abruptly fired on the eve of the 1988 season. The basketball program has never fully recovered.

Moir assistant Frankie Allen was hired to pick up the pieces, and he proved to be totally not up for the job. He was fired the instant his contract ran out four years later and was replaced by Bill Foster, a stopgap measure who acted like it. Foster achieved success with one class, not recruiting behind them, and leaving when the last player in that class, Ace Custis, exhausted his eligibility.

Foster was replaced by assistant Bobby Hussey, who made one recruiting blunder after another during his brief tenure, and Tech now finds itself with young Ricky Stokes attempting to piece together some semblance of a program. Stokes has taken small steps, but has many more to go if he is to bring Tech back to the level of success achieved years ago. Stokes does have a fighting chance, as Tech finally has achieved what eluded Moir, membership in a dominant conference.

Looking back, I don't feel there was any one thing that caused Tech's severe basketball decline, but rather a combination: the emergence of the ACC as a television-centric conference and Tech's inability to find a conference home that would level the playing field; the loss of Sampson that enabled the Hoos rather than Tech to create a dominant program and the increasing recruiting difficulties this caused Moir; and the shortcuts he took as a result.

Many Hokies like Moir and feel he was treated unfairly, but it can be demonstrated that while Tech has endured some very poor coaching since, today's problems can be traced to the regime of Charlie Moir.

 

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