Profile: Gale Catlett
By John Antonik
McPherson, WVU's long-time athletics fund-raiser and assistant
basketball coach, was on his way to Davidson College to work a
basketball camp for Lefty Driesell.
McPherson, his wife, Peg, and their two young children packed up their car for a week in Davidson, North Carolina. McPherson, at the time the head basketball coach at VMI, was apprehensive about having two young children and his wife living in the dormitory for an entire week, and was frantically trying to make arrangements for them.
Unlike today, college basketball coaches in the mid 1960s lived on far less. Back then coaches had to work basketball camps just to help put food on the table.
When the McPhersons arrived on Sunday before the start of camp, they learned that Driesell not only didn't have a dorm room reserved for them, but he had made no arrangements whatsoever. Realizing the visitors' predicament, Lefty's young assistant coach, Gale Catlett, stepped in and offered the McPhersons his own apartment to use. Catlett had just taken an assistant coaching position at Kansas, and his wife, Anise, was back in Morgantown preparing for the move. He wasn't using it, so why not help out someone who needed it more?
That was Gale Catlett's way of introducing himself to Gary McPherson.
Gale Catlett's affiliation with West Virginia University began in
1958 as a member of the Mountaineer freshman team. The Hedgesville
native missed the 1959-60 campaign with a broken wrist before
lettering three straight seasons in 1961, 1962, and 1963.
Catlett played during one of the finest periods in West Virginia basketball history. From 1957 to 1961, Mountaineer teams spent a staggering 61 straight weeks in the Top 20. West Virginia's winning percentage from 1951 to 1961 was 78 percent, second only to Kentucky.
During Catlett's three varsity seasons, West Virginia won a remarkable 70 of 88 games and went to the NCAA tournament twice.
Although not the team's primary scorer, the 6-foot-5 forward managed to produce 407 points and grab 275 rebounds on Coach George King's guard-oriented teams. Besides all the points and the rebounds he made, Catlett was a great team player who would do almost anything to help his team get an edge.
"If he thought he had to knock somebody in the head, he knocked them in the head," teammate Willie Akers once told a statewide radio audience. "That's the way he played."
"He was a competitor," added teammate Jim McCormick. "It didn't
matter whether we were shooting pool, playing cards, running a race,
or whatever. Gale didn't like losing."
All-American teammate Rod Thorn, now a successful NBA executive with the New Jersey Nets, recalled Catlett's impressive focus and understanding of the game. "Gale was always a very good student," said Thorn. "Most of us don't have plans, but he always had a plan. He was a student of the game even then."
Catlett's keen basketball mind was also evident to opposing players. Chris Smith, Virginia Tech's all-conference center, remembered how Catlett used to deliberately delay the game when the Mountaineers were in their vaunted zone press. "He would lie on the ground and have their trainer come out and stretch him out," Smith laughed. "All he was doing was catching his breath. He'd jump up and they'd get back into that press and get a few more steals."
McCormick believes a great deal of Catlett's coaching style evolved from King's West Virginia teams.
"The things he stressed as a coach-teamwork, pride in your uniform, and respect for your elders-those were the things we had on those teams," said McCormick.
After completing his senior season in 1963, Catlett immediately
turned to coaching. He got a job as an assistant for Lew Mills at
Richmond and coached there for three seasons before moving to
Davidson. After two years with Lefty Driesell, Catlett became the
freshman coach at Kansas for Ted Owens.
In 1971, Catlett took an assistant coaching position on Adolph Rupp's staff at Kentucky. In just eight short years, Catlett had quickly moved his way up the ladder to become one of college basketball's most recognized assistant coaches.
"He didn't just start out at a small school like a lot of coaches did back then, he started out at Richmond and then worked for some of the best basketball coaches in the business," said McCormick. "He knew what he was doing."
Catlett spent just one year with Rupp at Kentucky during the
1971-72 season, but that was enough to help him land the head
basketball job at Cincinnati in 1972 at age 31. He took over for Tay
Baker and led the Bearcats to a 17-9 record in 1973. Two years later
he had Cincinnati in the 1975 NCAA tournament, and they made two
more trips in 1976 and 1977.
His '76 Bearcat team won 25 games and was ranked as high as number two in the nation. Among his top players at UC were guards Lloyd Batts, Steve Collier, and Gary Yoder, and forwards Mike Jones and Pat Cummings. Catlett spent another year at Cincinnati in 1978 before returning to West Virginia as the people's overwhelming choice to replace Joedy Gardner.
Catlett and his attractive family took the Mountain State by
storm. He was speaking at formal dinners and functions, judging
contests at the Buckwheat Festival, and riding in open cars at
country parades all over the state. His popular statewide radio
call-in show soon covered more than just basketball. He exchanged
recipes, talked country music, and got to know everyone's uncles, aunts,
West Virginia desperately needed someone with Catlett's personality to repair a basketball program that was badly damaged. The Mountaineers were just 12-16 in 1978 and had not been to the NCAA tournament in 11 years.
The new coach immediately introduced his winning ways, and by 1981 he had developed a team good enough to make postseason play. A year later, in 1982, Catlett's Mountaineer club cracked the national rankings for the first time since he was a WVU player in 1962. West Virginia advanced to as high as sixth in the national ratings and won a nation's-best 23 games. It was the first of six NCAA tournament berths for the Mountaineers in a span of eight seasons.
Players like Greg Jones, Russel Todd, Dale Blaney, Lester Rowe,
Darryl Prue, and Herbie Brooks helped lead West Virginia to one of
its most productive periods in school history. In 1983, West
Virginia defeated number one-ranked UNLV to become the first and
only Mountaineer team to down a top-ranked team on its home floor.
West Virginia also had great wins over number 17 Oregon State in the
first round of the 1984 NCAA tournament, and an upset of
tenth-ranked Auburn in the 1985 preseason NIT.
"He was always a very bright, innovative coach," said Temple's John Chaney. "He could coach on his feet as well as anyone in the business."
"I call it tunnel vision," added McPherson. "He was as good as anyone I've ever been around at blocking out things before a basketball game. All the great ones can do that."
It was during the 1980s that the WVU Coliseum became one of college basketball's most feared venues for visiting teams. The Mountaineers didn't lose a home game for more than two years and posted a Coliseum-record, 39-game winning streak that was snapped late in the 1983 season. West Virginia set a single-game attendance record of 16,704 against Pitt in 1982, and averaged a school-record 11,384 fans that season.
Catlett's success continued in the 1990s. His 1992 team was the Atlantic 10 runner-up and faced Missouri in the NCAA tournament. He had NIT teams in 1993, 1994, and 1997 before producing one of the school's most memorable seasons in 1998.
That year, West Virginia downed nationally rated Georgia and Connecticut on the way to a third-place Big East finish. The Mountaineers earned an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament and soundly defeated a good Temple team by 30 points in the first round. Two days later, Catlett engineered one of the school's most memorable victories when his team defeated number nine-rated Cincinnati on a last-second shot to reach the NCAA "Sweet 16." West Virginia's 24-9 season that year will go down as one of the finest in school history.
"When you look at the wins and the losses," commented Dick Vitale on ESPN.com, "it doesn't tell you enough about the knowledge Catlett possesses. If you ever sat down and talked basketball with him, he would give you a wealth of information about the game he gave so much to."
Although Catlett's competitive nature is almost legendary (in
later years he would gulp down handfuls of Tums to help ease the
painful losses), Catlett never lost sight of his role as a teacher
and molder of young men.
He went through the trouble of getting State Department permission so that his team could see firsthand the Demilitarized Zone when they went to Korea. He once convinced a bus driver to get the team closer to a fire that consumed an entire Philadelphia city block. He took his assistant coaches and support staff to Broadway plays. And, in his final season, he made sure his players got a good look at Ground Zero before they played St. John's in New York City.
"He not only taught us how to become better basketball players, but he also taught us how to become better men," said former player Chris Leonard, now a budget analyst for Fairfax County, Virginia. "He constantly sought out different ways to teach us about different things in life."
"He did many things that people just never knew about," Akers added. "The people of this state will never know all of the kind things he's done in his life.
Toward the end of his 24th and final campaign at WVU,
when it was becoming unbearable to digest the difficult losses, to
be a part of a game that had so dramatically changed, Catlett decided the time had come for him to step aside. On Feb. 14,
a day after the Virginia Tech loss and with five games left in the
regular season, he called Athletics Director Ed Pastilong and gave
him the news.
"He just felt the time had come for him to retire, and then we reflected back on the times we both had playing at West Virginia University in the 1960s," said Pastilong. "But the losses were really weighing heavily on him.
"Gale is a man, and when he's made up his mind, he's made up his mind," Pastilong added.
No flowery speeches, no emotional press conferences, no roasts. Just a simple statement thanking the great people of West Virginia for the opportunity to do the one thing in life he wanted to do most-coach at the school he loves so dearly.
That was his way of saying goodbye.