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Joe Retton, the winningest coach in college basketball, is at the wheel of the Fairmont State College van, fast-braking through the dark mountains of West Virginia. Slick as a moonshiner outrunning the revenooers, he speeds through each snaking, snow-banked turn with the sure touch of a man who has spent the better part of his 50 years searching the hills for the "big, hungry kid with that special look in his eyes."
Some of Retton's bigger finds are folded into the rear of the van in a tangle of knees and elbows, dozing to the rocking lullabies of their portable radios and the inescapable John Denver refrain:
Country Roads, take me home,
Ahead this January evening in 1981 is a game against Concord College deep in the coal mining country of Logan, W. Va. Behind, or "up that hollow a coupla mile," as the locals say, are such roundball shrines as Cabin Creek, birthplace of Jerry West. Back thataway is where Rod Hundley earned the handle Hot Rod. And all around is Appalachia, the area the national media always descends on when it needs a stock shot—gaunt mountain family posed beside lopsided shack—for yet another report on Poverty in America.
Retton, the son of an Italian immigrant coal miner, resents the Dogpatch image of the Mountain State. Not merely because it makes the recruiting of out-of-state players more difficult, but because it is a gross distortion of a "truly beautiful state," and an affront to a good, hardy people.
"Hell, where can't you find a dilapidated place to take a picture of," Retton says. "I've seen much worse in New York City. Hey, I love West Virginia. Love the people. To be truthful, so much of me is wrapped up in these hills, deep down I've always known that I'm going to live and die here."
He already has. Or so claimed the obituary in the 1979-80 edition of Street & Smith's Official Yearbook, which solemnly reported: "The sudden death last spring of Coach Joe Retton ended an incredible era of basketball for the Fighting Falcons.... Basketball at this West Virginia school will never be the same."
Retton sure felt the same, even amused when it was suggested that he had a lock on the comeback of the century award. Though Street & Smith's, which had inadvertently confused Retton with another West Virginia coach who had indeed passed away, printed a correction last year ("Joe Retton lives!"), news of the resurrection didn't immediately reach all of Retton's many friends in basketball. Carl Tacy, the Wake Forest coach, was shocked to his socks when, at a high school game in Virginia, he spotted Retton sitting big as life in the stands.
"Poor Carl had tears in his eyes," Retton recalls as he guns the van along the last remaining miles to Logan. "I think he wanted to pinch me to see if I was for real. But I wouldn't let him. You see, I want the coaches in our conference to think I'm a ghost who has come back to haunt them. Gives us an edge."
Retton's friends were only kidding, of course, when they accused him of plotting his "death" to gain some of the recognition denied him in life. Yet that was the result. Suddenly, from the big-city elitists who think college basketball is a game played on network TV by the so-called major schools, there were questions: Where's Fairmont State? Who's Joe Retton? And what's all this business about the "winningest coach ever?"