If so, it's because Retton has spent much of his career struggling against the kind of hardscrabble odds that make his achievements all the more impressive. He was raised in Grant Town, a mining camp, where he was forever hitching rides on the coal trains to Fairmont, 16 miles away, to play ball.
Retton graduated from Fairmont State in 1953, served with the Army in Korea and then returned to coach at Barrackville High, a tiny school tucked away in the hollows. His 147-19 record over seven seasons was the equivalent of drawing five of a kind from half a deck. He recalls, "My last year at Barrackville, the season we were 27-0 and won the state championship, the school graduated six boys and seven girls."
There were too many students when Retton moved to Fairmont State in 1963. Trouble was, the school's bandbox gym was 10 feet too short and a few thousand seats too small for the pandemonium the Falcons stirred up. Compelled to move after four seasons to the 3,300-seat Marion County Armory three miles from campus, Retton had to juggle his practice schedule around circuses, wrestling matches and concerts.
Running defensive drills at 6:30 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. was bad enough. So was having the players wait in line to use the two available showers. But what exactly was Retton to say when he imported a hot prospect for the grand tour of the campus and then had to drive him over to the armory for a look at a "home court" that was overrun by a dog show? "Obstacles are the measure of the man," was one of the inspiring sayings he tried. "It doesn't matter where you play, it matters how you play," was another. In truth, Retton admits, "It was embarrassing."
Worse yet, for his first seven seasons at Fairmont State, Retton's budget was so lacking he couldn't offer a single full scholarship. Consider two of his stars: One was recruited out of a gym class and the other was a wayward transfer from Salem College. Wayne Denham, a 6'7" center who had never played organized basketball before Retton spotted him doing side-straddle hops, won all-conference honors, and John Jamerson, a muscular pivotman who is now a high school teacher, became an All-America. And together, in 1968, they led the Falcons to the finals of the NAIA's annual 32-team tournament in Kansas City.
Still, Retton's bench is so chronically shallow the Falcons are always in danger of being devastated by the loss of one or more starters because of injuries or foul problems. The Poky Dot Irregulars, for example, still talk about the epic triple-overtime game against West Virginia Tech at the conference tournament in Charleston several seasons ago. Having suited up only eight players, the Falcons got into foul trouble and found themselves with four men on the court in the second overtime period and—whistle, whistle—only three in the third.
"All three of them were guards, none of them over six feet," Retton recalls. "All we could do was go into a 1-1-1 defense and pray." Miraculously, the tiny trio pulled off a 64-59 win.
Today, thanks to federal grants, tuition waivers and $12,000 from the booster club, Retton can offer six full scholarships and enough partial aid to suit up a respectable 10-man traveling squad. But times are still tough. Without an assistant coach for his first seven seasons, Retton now has an excellent one in Dave Cooper, one of his former All-Americas. The country roads are so crowded with rival recruiters these days that the pair has to take to the interstates for all-night treks to Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and the area in between.
The range of their talent hunt is restricted by more than their gas allowance. Retton explains, "Since small colleges can't compete with the majors and their 15 full scholarships, we mainly recruit the potential player." And because NCAA rules require recruits to have a two-point grade average, Retton restricts himself to what might be called the potential player formula: Anyone 6'5" and above must be two-point and below.
Which is O.K. by Retton. Rarely, he says, are his recruits true C students; they don't lack smarts, just motivation. And that he supplies in abundance. If not a ghost, he is something of a White Shadow, a stern taskmaster who has been known to chew out his players for an hour or more, and then invite them over for supper. "Discipline is love," he preaches. "It's the same with a team as it is in a family. If a kid goes wrong, you have to get him right. You motivate, enforce, and he falls in line."