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And into the classroom—or else. Retton will not have anyone jeopardizing the other winningest record he is proud of: 95% of his players have earned a degree. "The only major colleges I know of," he says, "are the ones who do a major job for their kids. Many coaches say this, but we really do win both ways."
Every way, in fact, save the old hand-to-mouth way, for at long last the Fairmont State Gypsies have a real home. It is the Feaster Center, a new $4.2 million athletic complex that, among other amenities, features a basketball locker room that looks like a suite at the Holiday Inn-Charleston House. Lounging in an office adjacent to his luxury layout, Retton says, "We were a suitcase team for so long I promised myself that when and if we got our own locker room, it would be special." And it is: plush carpeting, easy chairs, sofas, stereo, and enough food, soft drinks and toiletries to open a 7-11—all donated by the friends of Joe Retton.
"When you don't have any money," Retton says, "you have to rub elbows with people who do." Especially if their name is Rockefeller. Like most of Retton's friends in high places, Jay Rockefeller, the governor of West Virginia, appreciates the winning image the Falcons project to the outside world. Jo Jo's record, the guv wryly notes, "looks like the precinct results in Mingo County in a good year."
Along with a new Plymouth Horizon that was driven onto the court after his 400th win, Retton has been the recipient of the ultimate tribute for a coal miner's son, a real Hollywood-style roast. At the latter affair, Rockefeller allowed that while he was president of West Virginia Wesleyan, he tried to induce Jo Jo to switch allegiances. "I offered him 20% of Exxon and one-half of my blind trust and he said he'd rather stay at FSC. After that, I didn't want him. I knew he was crazy."
Yeah, like a fox. As Retton the fundraiser, he makes the most of the fact that West Virginia University is so close, just 16 miles away, and so overshadowing a presence that the locals refer to it simply as The University. Thus he is able to work both sides of the street as Retton, the poor cousin. On one side, for example, is Bob Martin, an insurance executive who shifted his considerable support to Fairmont State because The University, his alma mater, came close but twice failed to offer Retton the head coaching job. On the other side is Liberal Lou the used car dealer, who says, "Joe can't get all the biggies, the bankers and lawyers. They back The University. What he's got, though, counts for more; he's got all the little people."
And how. On the eve of the Salem game, Retton makes his rounds with the joshing, back-clapping conviviality of an old pol priming his precinct. At Soles Electric Co. he insists that no, absolutely never did he run his golf cart over an opponent's ball—at least not in a serious match. At the Cozy Nook bar he admits that well, yes, maybe he did once sort of flatten out a trout with a board to win the longest-fish-of-the-day contest. Now Retton is accosting a food distributor in the parking lot of the 3-Ways Inn, wondering what kind of booster would let the locker-room larder run low on provolone cheese and salami.
The pit stops, from Colasessano's for a pepperoni bun—a heroic sandwich unique to the area—to Yann's Hot Dog Stand, are numerous; the cast of characters—Deacon, Sheriff, Squibb, Magic Fingers, Heavy Duty Judy—is endless. So is the hospitality at the home of Big John the salvage king, who breaks out a jar of white lightning, pours a jigger into a saucer and sets it afire. Purely precautionary, he explains; if the flame burns a certain hue of blue, the poison will get to you before the night is out. Big John's sample burns pure white. A moonshine fit for the gods—and winningest coaches. The next night, after a squeaky 74-69 win over Salem, Retton repairs to the Poky Dot to make up for a five-pound night. No sooner is he in the door when the Irregulars are on him: "Hey, coach, how come you didn't win by more?"
The next morning, long before dawn, Retton is back on the country roads in search of new worlds to conquer. The man who usually drives the 1,700 round-trip miles to Kansas City for the NAIA tournament because "God meant us to stay on the ground," is going to plunge nearly 700 feet into the earth, his second venture ever into a coal mine.
And so, with some trepidation, he does, creeping through an eerie netherworld that is as forlorn as a tomb. "Quite frightening," Retton concludes on the eight-minute elevator ride back to reality. "Makes me understand why my father didn't want me to end up with black lung the way he did."
Less threatening is a side trip into Retton's past. The route winds by covered bridges, by creeks where he skinny-dipped and trapped muskrat, by the baseball diamond where he dreamed of a major league career before, alas, the field was covered by a mountain of coal, and into the mining camp of his youth. The houses that the coal companies built in Grant Town decades ago are still in evidence, encircling the hills in a kind of concentric caste system. Beginning with Black Bottom, the section once reserved for black miners, the houses proceed up the hills in layers, each identical in construction but gradually increasing in size as befit the job level of the miner tenant, culminating like the decorations on a wedding cake in one showy home on top.