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DeMeo remembers Jimmy V, the man

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- YOU MAY HAVE seen clips this week of former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano. ESPN networks have been highlighting the Jimmy V Week for Cancer Research initiative over a two-week span.

Former University of Charleston football coach Tony DeMeo, however, has not seen the clips.

He can't bring himself to do so. He just can't.

"I saw his speech once, live," DeMeo said. "I can't watch it. Even the stuff about him, I can't watch. It's so sad."

Especially when the fight with cancer was fought by a close friend.

Which Valvano was to DeMeo.

See, back in 1975, DeMeo was the nation's youngest college football coach at the tender age of 25. ("I was hardly shaving," DeMeo said. "If I wasn't Italian, I probably wouldn't have been.")

DeMeo was the football coach at Iona College. The basketball coach was another of Italian heritage: Valvano.

"He was really a special guy," DeMeo said on Thursday. "He was a big part of my beginnings in football. That sounds strange, but it was true. We were both hired in '75. We had cubicles beside each other. We got to know each other very well. I learned a ton from him."

Through the years, many of us have, as well, on the topic of cancer awareness. Of course, we came to know Valvano when he led North Carolina State to an improbable NCAA tournament championship in 1983. We remember him running onto the court after Lorenzo Charles caught an air ball of a shot by Dereck Whittenburg (who later, in 1993-94, served as an assistant coach at WVU) and dunked to secure the title game win. We remember him searching for someone to hug. (Consider they'd beaten a Houston team that had two future Hall of Fame inductees in Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.)

Since Valvano's death in 1993, though, we know him more in regard to cancer awareness - especially though The Speech. Twenty years ago, Valvano, ravaged with cancer, made his famous plea to not "ever give up" during the first ESPY Award ceremony.

DeMeo remembers him differently.

"He taught me a lot," said the resident of South Hills in Charleston. "He taught me the strategy of managing a game. He told me my job as a coach was to put the players in a position to win at the end of the game. He said it didn't matter what style you use to do that. But just get them there. He said to be flexible. I took that with me my whole career."

DeMeo's career was one that stretched over decades, including head coaching stops at UC, Washburn, Mercyhurst and Iona.

He was an assistant at schools like Temple, James Madison, Penn, Richmond and Murray State.

"Jim taught me - and I remember him saying this - that he who controls the pace wins the race," DeMeo said. "He said to control the tempo. I learned that if we were playing a better, more experienced team, to slow the game down. If we were playing a weaker team, we'd speed it up."

Recruiting?

"I copied his philosophy," DeMeo said. "He said it's like putting stones in a jar. You put the larger ones in first. Then you put the pebbles and sand in around the larger ones. You never put the sand in first - because at the end you might not have room for the larger ones."

DeMeo can wax for hours on Valvano. He remembers they both had a love for essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. ("I always felt anyone named Waldo who would let the world know was a pretty secure guy," DeMeo said.) He remembers how, despite criticism to the contrary, Valvano cared for his players and their education. "He didn't want them just to graduate, but to excel," DeMeo said. "I carried that with me and wanted the same."

Then there was Valvano's keen sense of humor.

"He could have been a standup comic," DeMeo said. "He was tremendously funny. We'd use each other's jokes. And when he came into the office, he'd take what he heard on the radio coming in and do a 15-minute monologue. It didn't matter what I was doing, he gave it.

"He was so funny I think it caused him to be underrated as a coach, an X-and-O man. He was really good at that. He was a gym rat. He was really into the fine points of basketball. He loved [former UCLA coach] John Wooden."

DeMeo tells stories of Valvano's pranks, including once using super glue on an administrator's phone handset. Valvano, though, received as well as gave.

"One time he brought this film in," DeMeo said. "He said it was a film of this great quarterback we needed to get. Well, I knew immediately when I saw it that it was Jim in high school [at Seaford High in Long Island].

"I watched and said, 'Jimmy, this isn't an athlete. Look how clumsy and unathletic he is.' He said, 'What do you mean?' Finally, he realized I was kidding.'"

Valvano's humor was legendary, including the story of when he introduced himself to a recruit as an Iona College coach. A kid once turned to his mom after the introduction and told her Valvano claimed to own a college.

Sadly, though, Valvano is now more known for his heroic death. He's known for the fight he put up against cancer. He's known for The Speech.

The one Charleston's Tony DeMeo can't bear to watch.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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