This is one of my favorite times of the year, from mid-February through mid-March, when the days get longer, when there is the occasional spring-like weather that promises more to come. In the Montgomery County of my youth, there were usually piles of dirty snow still in parking lots and along the sides of the roads this time of year, but you knew warmer days were ahead.
My most vivid memories of that time involved basketball, specifically tournament basketball. March Madness had not yet become the national mania that it has become. There were few televised college games. We got the C. D. Chesley Jefferson Pilot ACC game of the week (“Sail with the Pilot”) on Saturday afternoons, and the Friday night and Saturday night semi-finals and finals of the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Finals. That was it. I do not even remember if the term “Final Four” had been coined, and I am pretty sure no one referred to the “Elite Eight” or the “Sweet Sixteen”.
Only 23 teams made the NCAA Tournament. The brackets were truly regional – we did not get the incongruous pairings of Florida versus Ohio State in the Western Regional or California versus New Mexico State in the East. The regionals were truly regional. In fact, there were so few teams and conferences in the West that the West Regional consisted of only 4 teams, with no first round games. And the regionals were actually symmetrical, with a Mideast Region in those years instead of the one they now call the South Region.
One slight deviation from the symmetry of the tourney during this era was in 1967 when the Hokies were placed in the Mid-East bracket. I guess southwest Virginia was further west than we realized. The Techmen actually won their first round game against Toledo, and the regional semifinal against the Indiana Hoosiers, advancing to the regional finals only to lose to a Dayton team led by a super star of that era, Donnie May.
I still remember the starting lineup of that Tech team, Glen Combs (who went on to become an early star of the ABA), Ron Perry, Ken Talley, Ted Ware and my favorite, Chris Ellis, a tenacious defender, plus a phenomenal 6th man, Don Brown, who had perfected a fall away shot from around the foul line, an early version of the step back jumper of today. The high school coaches in the New River Valley had to spend considerable practice time discouraging their charges’ efforts to replicate this move.
This “Haley’s Comet” of an NCAA appearance by Tech (my beloved (later) Cavaliers were perennial first round losers in the ACC tournament and Tech didn’t sniff the Big Dance again until the tournament expanded significantly in the 70’s), was actually televised by one of the Roanoke channels. In my mind, this was a bigger TV event than Neil Armstrong’s moon walk a couple of years later. I still remember gathering nervously in my parents’ den, watching on a black and white television set, marveling that the Fighting Gobblers, the local boys, were actually on television!
All of this is back drop though as to why the high school tournaments of this time were so significant. The NCAA had adopted a rule during this period that only UCLA could win the national title. ESPN was only a gleam in advertisers’ eyes, twenty years away, CBS had not yet bought the NCAA tournament and made us all sick of hearing “We are the Champions”, and these two forces had not yet combined to dampen local interest in high school and small college sports.
The Virginia Tech Coliseum (no Cassell then, simply THE Coliseum) had opened in January of 1960, when I was in the first grade, with my Dad and me in attendance. Within a few years, this magnificent facility (the Hoos were still in Memorial Gymnasium, the Mountaineers were in the Field House, the Heels were in Woollen Gymnasium, twice removed from today’s Dean Dome, and most colleges still played in similar gyms built soon after WW I) began hosting the district, regional and occasional state high school tournaments. These 3 weeks of back to back games are what I think of first when the days become longer and the sun looks different in late February.
Schools came from all over southwest Virginia to play life or death games in one of the best college arenas in the country. At that time, Virginia had four classes of schools – 1A, 1B (Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Radford were 1B schools), II and III. The Coliseum hosted the New River District Tournament (the Montgomery County schools and their rivals), the next weekend (or maybe the next 2) there were Regional rounds for 1B, II and III, and some years we were lucky enough to get the state finals. The “bigger schools”, i.e., Roanoke east, Class 1A, did not venture west to play their games. We cared not about them. Teams came from Gate City and Grundy, from Fort Chiswell and Covington, from Pound and Pearisburg, to compete.
These were the real “one and done” days. One loss and your team went home, and we constantly witnessed the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Radford were members of the New River Valley District then, along with Dublin and Pulaski (in the 70s these schools were consolidated, ending one of the great rivalries of all time in my mind), Narrows, Giles County, Galax, Hillsville, and Wytheville and, for a few years, Fort Chiswell. During, this era, probably from my second or third grade year through high school, Blacksburg dominated the district and was a perennial participant in the regionals and states, guaranteeing that my mom and dad would be in attendance since my father was head of the schools in Montgomery County at the time.
Blacksburg won two state titles during this period, led by a wonderful player named Rick Aydlett, who amazingly was the star both his freshman and senior years when the Indians (it was okay to call them that at that time) won state titles. They were coached during this run by the great Allen Wiley, who, if memory serves me well, won a total of 5 state titles at BHS and went on to successfully coach at Pulaski County, much to the chagrin of all Blacksburgers. Aydlett went on to play for Frank McGuire’s great teams at South Carolina, perplexing and breaking the hearts of all Hokie fans, me included.
Sadly, our own Blue Demons never won a tourney game during this time that I can recall, usually being bounced in the very first game of the NRV District tournament, not even making the field a few times when the district got too big. This game was usually at noon on Thursday and relieved any stress for all Blue Demon fans for the rest of the month.
There were some epic games. One year Blacksburg and Pulaski met in the district finals, with each team sporting a 20 – 0 record, through a scheduling quirk they had not met during the regular season. They both advanced to the Regionals and met again, with Blacksburg winning both games. One of the games ended with Tot Martin hitting a jumper from the top of the key to win the game. It was one of the great clutch plays of my youth. This was Aydlett’s freshman year and the Indians went on to win the state. His senior year BHS had another epic win against Harrisonburg in the state finals, from “up the valley”.
While my family and I were died in the wool Blue Demons, we couldn’t help but root for BHS during these years, partly because the team was so good and well-coached, partly because of my dad’s fondness for Curtis “Ducky” Gray who was principal of BHS , and partly because it would have been poor form for the superintendent of schools not to pull for a county team.
There were legendary coaches as well, the aforementioned Allen Wiley, my cousin Sammy Joe Lucas who won several Class III championships at Auburn High and Sonny Smith who coached at Dublin. Sonny went on to be the head coach at VCU and eventually at the “other” Auburn, the university, not my mother’s alma mater in Riner. Sonny was by far the most entertaining, in what had to be one of the first stops on his storied coaching path. I saw him once kick the scorer’s table over before being asked to leave the floor of the Coliseum. My mom and dad were so intrigued by Sonny that we tried to sit behind his bench so we could hear him exhorting his troops. His catch phrase when his team transitioned to defense was “get your happy tails up the court”. My mother laughed for weeks over that line and some of Sonny’s other sideline shenanigans. A few years later these legendary coaches were replaced by other Montgomery County icons, family friend Bob Trear at BHS and Nelson Simpkins at Auburn High.
So, this time of year I remember the drive from Christiansburg to Blacksburg with the sun at a funny angle, walking through the parking lot beside the Coliseum with my parents dodging snow drifts, entering the doors of the grandest arena in the region. And I remember walking the halls during halftimes, looking for familiar faces, smelling the popcorn (served by my Aunt Ruth and her husband Ralph who had the concessions), marveling at a gym that could seat 10,000 people. And I remember the hollow feeling I got, sometime while I was in college I believe, when my dad told me “Tech’s not going to let us use the Coliseum any more”.