EVEN THE spaciousness of Whitey Gwynne's Buick did not offer much comfort on those long West Virginia University road trips in the 1950s.
Pete White, a 6-foot-5 center, still remembers sitting in the backseat, his knees pressed against the seat in front of him, as Gwynne, WVU's athletic trainer, negotiated the 10-hour drive from Morgantown to Durham, N.C., for a basketball game against the Duke Blue Devils.
As it turns out, those lengthy trips on mostly two-lane roads did more than simply deliver discomfort. As the story goes, bad roads and geographic isolation cost West Virginia a chance to receive charter membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference and, it's safe to say, are largely responsible for the school's current state of realignment uncertainty.
If history had been a little kinder, the Mountaineers might have remained more South-oriented and their followers might be feeling a little less uneasy about their Big East Conference future.
In those days, WVU was part of the 17-member Southern Conference, the nation's largest, but in May of 1953 seven of the league's strongest schools - Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest - met at a hotel near Greensboro, N.C., and decided to break away from the other 10 and form what is now the ACC.
That left West Virginia to make do with remaining members Davidson, Furman, George Washington, Richmond, The Citadel, Virginia Military, Virginia Tech, Washington & Lee and William & Mary.
White, a Clendenin native who averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds for the 1954-55 Mountaineers, believes it would have made perfect sense for West Virginia to continue those mid-South rivalries as a member of the ACC.
"I really think that that's where we belonged,'' he said recently. "We had played for a long time with Virginia, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Duke and all those schools. It just felt like more of a home to me than how things have progressed. It's who we had played all along, although not so much North Carolina. But we had more in common with the South than the East.''
The proposed new league, which considered calling itself the Dixie Conference, the Blue Gray Conference and the Shoreline Conference, made it known that it wanted an eighth member, prompting speculation that Virginia would abandon its independent status and sign on as the eighth member. And that's exactly what happened.
"The reason we were excluded was that they wanted to divide the pot into eight pies instead of 17, but no more than eight,'' recalled Eddie Barrett of Huntington, who worked as WVU's sports information director at the time. "Virginia was sitting right there in the middle of them. UVA was an independent at the time.''
Nevertheless, West Virginia apparently remained in contention for the No. 8 spot.
Shortly after the Greensboro meeting, the Associated Press reported: "There was considerable talk in Greensboro that West Virginia definitely was being considered.'' The AP added that WVU's basketball prowess made it a contender "in spite of travel and schedule difficulties involved.''
Another Associated Press story at the time, however, downplayed the Mountaineers' chances. "West Virginia, a relative newcomer to the [Southern Conference], appears to have only a fighting chance to qualify,'' it said.
The Morgantown Post, meanwhile, held out hope for membership in the new league. In an editorial a few days after the Greensboro meeting, the newspaper said: "There is some possibility, we are told, that if the bigger boys get a turndown at Charlottesville, they may decide that, rather than be one short, they'll let West Virginia go with them. ... And, as we sense the sentiment here, such a belated invitation would be accepted joyously with nary a complaint about not being asked in the first place.''
But in December of that year, the seven members met again and accepted Virginia, thus eliminating West Virginia. The Mountaineers remained in the Southern Conference until 1969.
Seeing seven teams defect from the Southern Conference undoubtedly hurt WVU athletic director Roy "Legs'' Hawley, a Bluefield native and former Mountaineer basketball player.
A Charleston sportswriter in 1953 wrote that Hawley had "worked like a beaver'' to help his school gain admission to the Southern Conference in 1950. But three years later, the seven defections had left the SC greatly diminished.
"I was there at the time, and I was close to Legs Hawley,'' said Barrett. "It was the greatest disappointment of his career that we were excluded.''
In addition, said Barrett, the stress of the 1953 realignment and the disappointment of West Virginia's rejection contributed to Hawley's death of a heart attack at age 53 in 1954.
"He was having angina pains,'' Barrett remembered. "He had a setback in December of '53, and he should have quit. But he kept going for two reasons: because we were hosting the Southern Conference basketball tournament and we were preparing for the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1954. But he kept on going, and that cost him his life. There's no doubt about that. He died a disappointed man.''