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Early days of the WVC tourney

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By introducing a basketball tournament to conclude the 1935 season, the West Virginia Conference's forebears were rolling the dice a bit uneasily.

The Great Depression still gripped the nation, leaving little money for extravagance, and, besides, small-college basketball tournaments were a rarity in those days. The Clarksburg Telegram, in fact, reported that no such tournament existed anywhere in the nation.

Nevertheless, Fairmont State coach and athletic director Jasper Colebank and several other conference coaches persevered, determined to satisfy a desire that apparently had been building throughout the state. The tournament had been "a dream entertained by college coaches for years and years,'' the West Virginian of Fairmont observed.

Colebank, assisted by Glenville coach Nate Rohrbaugh, launched the tournament in the spacious 11-year-old gym at East Fairmont High School March 21-23 of 1935 and invited each WVC member. Those participating were Alderson-Broaddus, Concord, Davis & Elkins, Fairmont State, Glenville, New River, Potomac State, Salem, Shepherd, Wesleyan and West Liberty. Two other members, Marshall and Morris Harvey, chose not to participate.

Though the tournament suffered significant red ink and faced questions of survival in that first year, it was the start of something worth keeping and, since then, has survived everything except World War II.

At the moment, however, rampant conference realignment and reconfiguration apparently have trickled all the way down from Division I to the venerable WVC, which until a few years ago had seemed like a bastion of stability.

This week's tourney at the Charleston Civic Center, alas, will be the finale under the West Virginia Conference banner. Beginning this fall, the 88-year-old WVC will fade into history and be replaced, sort of, by the new Mountain East Conference, whose membership will consist of WVC holdovers Concord, Fairmont State, Glenville, Shepherd, the University of Charleston, West Liberty, West Virginia State, West Virginia Wesleyan and Wheeling Jesuit and newcomers Notre Dame (Ohio), Urbana (Ohio) and Virginia-Wise. Other WVC members, Alderson-Broaddus, Bluefield State, D&E, Ohio Valley, Seton Hill and Pitt Johnstown, will be left out.

The Mountain East's arrival also may bring an end to small-college basketball at the Civic Center. Whether the new conference chooses to hold its 2014 basketball tournament in the downtown Charleston arena remains up in the air. The Mountain East, said commissioner Reid Amos, "is in the process of evaluating venues and cities to partner with for all championship events beginning in the fall of 2013.''

Despite a steady attendance decline in recent decades, the WVC tournament has been a fixture in the state, partly as a showcase for some of the nation's best Division II basketball and partly as an annual social gathering. Its proximity to hotels, restaurants, shopping and interstates has always made it an ideal tournament locale.

It's stunning enough that the conference soon will disband and that the tournament, a Charleston tradition since 1960, may move elsewhere. Such goings-on would have been unthinkable in the 1970s when the WVC and its tournament enjoyed their pre-ESPN heyday and routinely filled the old 7,000-seat Civic Center.

But change is not always easy, even as tourney crowds dwindle.

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  • The inaugural West Virginia Conference tournament apparently was an artistic, if not financial, success in Fairmont. The 10 visiting teams stayed at the city's finest hotel, the Fairmont, and were treated to lunch by the town's Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs. About 20 reporters arrived to chronicle the event.

    The West Virginian referred to the tournament as "Jasper Colebank's three-day basketball frolic.''

    In the title game, the Senators of D&E defeated Potomac State 45-30 and afterward received a commemorative plaque, courtesy of Fairmont State president Joseph Rosier. New River State of Montgomery won the sportsmanship award.

    But when only 500 fans attended the three-game opening round, Colebank told sportswriters he was disappointed. The title game on Saturday night attracted fewer than 1,000, which the Fairmont Times likewise called disappointing.

    The tournament lost money, wrote Fairmont Times columnist Judson Bailey: "It went into a deep crevice financially, which will perhaps make some of the more timid representatives 'afeared' to venture such a thing again. It didn't make much of a flutter among the student bodies of the competing schools ...''

    Whether the tournament would continue in 1936 was a "major problem in the minds of the coaches and heads of the institutions,'' Bailey added. "It likely will not be continued long if it does not prove itself a money maker since the schools each year are having to get along on reduced appropriations, etc., and have no funds to underwrite a losing venture.''

    The West Virginian's Forrest B. Crane wrote: "What hurt the tournament most was the failure of the local customers to storm the gate. Maybe they didn't have the money, maybe they weren't enthused, but in any event they weren't in the numbers they should have been.''

    A day after the tournament, Colebank said he would not serve as tournament chairman in 1936. To offset the financial losses, each of the WVC schools contributed $100, or about $1,500 in today's economy.

    The 1935 championship game, incidentally, holds another distinction. It ended Cam Henderson's 12-year D&E coaching tenure, during which his teams adopted the newfangled fast-break style that gave rise to the school's famous nickname.

    In a game at a Washington D.C.-area school, Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich watched the red-clad Senators scamper up and down the floor and felt inspired to call them the "Scarlet Hurricane.'' 

    Shortly thereafter, the 45-year-old Henderson learned of a vacancy at Marshall College and began a 14-year run as perhaps the school's most famous coach ever. 

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  • As the 1935-36 season began, it was still not clear whether a postseason tournament would be played.

    Regardless, the WVC obviously wanted to try again, despite the financial setback of the previous year. "Although the tournament was not a financial success [in 1935],'' the Clarksburg Telegram offered, "the college officials were not satisfied with one attempt.''

    Such an undertaking apparently needed a sponsor, and it found one in the 11th hour when the American Legion, negotiating with WVC officials in Clarksburg in late February 1936, agreed to sponsor the tournament at the city's Carmichael Auditorium.

    To help create interest in the 1936 tourney, the WVC offered special rates to area high school teams. Among those taking advantage were Flemington, Lost Creek, Normantown, Sand Fork, Troy and Glenville. Attendance picked up noticeably, drawing about 2,000 fans a day for the two-day tournament.

    The tournament spent four years in Clarksburg and in 1940 began a 20-year run at West Virginia Wesleyan, which had played host to the state high school tournament from 1914 through 1938. In 1960, it found what looked like a permanent home in the new Charleston Civic Center.

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  • The founding of the West Virginia Conference tournament was not Jasper Colebank's first contribution to small-college sports in the state.

    In the summer of 1924, in an effort to bring athletic uniformity and order to the state, Colebank joined with Cebe Ross of Wesleyan and Ed Davis of Salem to form the WVC.

    It was a much-needed formation. Back then, it was not uncommon for small-college players to participate in Saturday football games in West Virginia and take trains to Ohio to play Sunday semipro games. Or an athlete might compete for four years at one of the state's small colleges and continue his athletic career at West Virginia University.

    Colebank, a Taylor County native who attended Fairmont Normal School and WVU, fought in World War I and spent 28 years at Fairmont State as athletic director and football and basketball coach. When the school built a new gym in 1940, it was named Colebank Gym.

    Before starting his Fairmont career, Colebank coached at Grafton High School and earned a reputation for integrity. On one occasion during the basketball season, controversy arose when the game's lone official made a call that favored Grafton, infuriating the opposing coach.

    Confused, the official checked with Colebank, who said the call should have gone against his Grafton team, prompting the official to reverse the ruling. After that, Colebank was known as "Honest Jasper.''

    Reach Mike Whiteford at mikewhiteford@wvgazette.com.

     


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