Singer John Denver's West Virginia is a land of country roads and mountain mamas. Well, yes, but a better description, at least down in Huntington, would go something like this: it is the land of the Thunderin' Herd. Do anything for you? It will if you ever get within earshot of Huntington's 74,000 souls spread along the banks of the Ohio River.
The Herd is the Marshall University basketball team and the local claim is that these are the best unknowns to build a national reputation since Jerry West walked onto the West Virginia University campus up in Morgantown. They are small by today's standards, but oh my how they do scrap and hustle. If they cannot stampede their victims to death with their fast break—it is just a blur of green and white uniforms—then they steal them blind or blind them with lightning, which is how some people describe their passing and shooting. They have a near-perfect record, 22-2, and they are, to use the most sacred of basketball's words, ranked.
For an idea of how the Herd works, consider baby-faced Mike D'Antoni, the 6'3" Italian hillbilly with the 37-inch arms and A academic standing in premed. He is so clever with the ball that he seemingly can wink at a cheerleader at the same time he is whipping a pass to someone wide open under the hoop. There is Center Russell Lee, only 6'5" but able to hold his own against the likes of such giants as 6'9" Greg Cluess of St. John's and 6'11" Jim Chones, ex-Marquette. There is Randy Noll, tall for Marshall at 6'8" and skinny for anybody at 210 pounds. He spent his sophomore year warming the bench for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, transferred to Marshall and now is the Herd's No. 1 rebounder. Says Noll, who still wears his blue Kentucky letter jacket around the Marshall campus, "You can say that I would sort of like to come back and haunt my old friends in a tournament."
Noll is not the only one around Huntington who is looking forward to the postseason action. The townspeople always have been avid about basketball, but now, with the school on the brink of its best record ever, they are sprouting bumper stickers that say such things as, "If you love the Herd, honk," and wearing the number 8—Marshall's ranking last week—on their sweaters and coats and neckties. The athletic department was besieged with requests for tournament tickets long before the team had even decided which tournament it might get to—if any. And through it all Carl Tacy, the Herd's 39-year-old rookie coach, remained the coolest man in town.
"I really haven't had time to savor the rankings and the attention," he said recently. "I think the most important thing now is to keep up the routines we have been doing all season."
That Tacy should have to reflect on the hazards of success is in itself surprising, considering that this is only Marshall's second rebuilding year since being drummed out of the Mid-American Conference for football recruiting transgressions. In addition, Tacy is Marshall's second coach in two years. A native West Virginian who had been coaching at a junior college, he succeeded Stewart Way, who stepped aside and now is, in an unusual switch, Tacy's assistant.
With five high school All-Americas on hand, Tacy knew he had the makings of a pretty fair season. He also knew that he would have to teach the Herd defense, something Marshall players have regarded in the past as about as useful as a prairie-dog hole. Today the team has all the usual defenses plus six variations of the full-court press and a newfound knowledge of how to get position for "rebounds. Few teams this year, even big, experienced ones, have kept their composure against Marshall's pressure. "Oh, man, we love to run," says Lee. "We can go all day."
Lee is Marshall's leading scorer with a 22.8 average and the team's only senior starter. He came to Marshall from Boston because, he says, "The fans were so friendly and enthusiastic." Now he hopes one of those country roads will take him home to play pro ball for his boyhood idols, the Celtics.
As good as Lee is, and he is already the top three-year scorer in Marshall's history, the man who directs the Herd is D'Antoni. He grew up in the little coal town of Mullens, where his father was a high school coach. His older brother Don was a star for Marshall's NIT team of a few years ago, and a younger brother Mark, 8, already is a ball-handling wizard of some repute. While D'Antoni is a fine outside shooter, his specialty is fancy action on the fast break. "I love it when the crowd goes wild at one of my passes," he says. "I guess there's a little hotdog in all of us."
So what do the Herdsmen do wrong? Through no fault of their own they do not play the toughest schedule in the country. Still, their best games have come against their strongest competition. They beat St. John's—then undefeated and highly regarded—in the finals of Marshall's holiday tournament. And in the final of Marquette's tournament they lost to the unbeaten Warriors by only 74-72. After that game Tacy and Marquette's Al McGuire exchanged words that ended with McGuire telling a West Virginia writer, "We've had enough of you guys. Why don't you go back to the hills where you belong?"