1971 WVU basketball team dealt with tragedy

A column by Mickey Furfari

Mickey Furfari

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sonny Moran, undoubtedly the unluckiest coach in West Virginia University men’s basketball history, still golfs three times a week at the age of 88 in Alabama.

The Charleston native, an assistant to Bucky Waters from 1966 to 1969, took over the program for the 1969-70 season with a young, talented team. It then opened the spanking new Coliseum, which was built for about $20 million.

What followed just a year later, however, is what had to be the greatest tragedy in the WVU men’s basketball program history.

Moran’s 1970-71 team, after a highly promising 5-0 start to a 24-game season was suddenly struck by disaster. Two of his top players – Larry “Decan” Harris and Sam Oglesby – were involved in an automobile crash during WVU’s Christmas break.

That happened on a high-speed roadway in the Fairmont area. Shockingly and most sadly, Harris was killed from the impact of the single-car crash and Oglesby was paralyzed.

As if that loss of two starters wasn’t bad enough, Moran was informed on Christmas Eve that Harris and Levi Phillips had been ruled ineligible academically for the remainder of the season.

Now the Mountaineers found the squad without three regulars, and that was a terrible blow to the downhearted, almost-unbelieving Moran. His team had been so happy with its 5-0 start and national Top 20 recognition.

North Carolina State, then a perennial power and highly ranked team, was one of those season-opening victories.

Moran noted that the other wins were over Northwestern, Columbia, California-Irvine and East Carolina.

“What happened was a very, very difficult situation,” Moran recalled in a recent interview. “We had ruling those two players ineligible on the basis of one grade at Christmas break was highly questionable to me.”

Making matters even worse, the No. 6 player moved up and developed a collapsed lung, keeping him from playing. Then Gary Reichenbecher broke his leg.

“We lost five of our top seven players in my second year there,” Moran said. “And all of that within a period of 10 days.

“But we went on and still had a winning record (13-11)…”

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