Remembering A Legend: Falcon coaches reflect on the life of Joe Retton

Friday, October 12, 2018
By Duane Cochran, Fairmont State Athletics
For 87 years Marion County, West Virginia was blessed by his presence.
Wednesday morning, however, legendary athlete and coach Joe Retton, who led Fairmont State University's basketball teams to national prominence in the 1960s and '70s, passed away.

Retton's death triggered an onslaught of mourning both across the Mountain State and the nation from the countless number of individuals who were fortunate enough to have known him at one time or another during their lives whether they were athletes or not. Quite simply, he had that kind of affect on people.
A two-time NAIA National Coach of the Year in 1969 and 1976, he finished his Fairmont State career with a 478-95 record and a remarkable .836 winning percentage. Despite his extraordinary success, Retton remained a very humble individual who likely would much rather see his life celebrated rather than his death mourned.
"I don't know if Fairmont has the personality it has now without him or without his success," current Fairmont State men's basketball coach Joe Mazzulla said. "What he means to Fairmont State University and to Fairmont in general is immeasurable.
"When I took this job one of the things that was so attractive about it to me was to try to have the ability to carry on that personality that coach Retton has had in this city. He established a blue collar, hard-working mentality that we strive to maintain each and every day. I think he's a direct denominator of why Fairmont is the way it is both on the court and off the court. It's an honor for me to try to continue that personality because he was so much more than just a coach. I just don't think the town or the school has quite the identity that it has now without what he did here."
Dave Cooper, who had the unique experience of playing for Retton at Fairmont State, then later serving as his assistant coach and then succeeding him when he retired after the 1982 season, agrees.
"I've known coach Retton since I was 17 years old and he recruited me to come play at Fairmont State and it's been an absolute pleasure," Cooper said. "He was wonderful to be around. He brought national recognition to Fairmont and Fairmont State with his accomplishments.
"The thing most people don't know about coach Retton is that he was a very soft-hearted individual. Most people only know the fiery, tough side they saw when he coached, but he was the type of guy who would give you the shirt off of his back. I picked up on that rather quickly when I came here. He'd push you to be the absolute best you could be, but he also did so many things for you.
"There was never very many weeks that went by that we didn't talk to each other or see each other. We also did a lot of things outside of basketball. He liked to come to Petersburg and go fishing and several years ago we'd even play some golf together. The thing about him is he was always very competitive. He wanted to be the best in whatever he did whether it was fishing, golfing or playing cards. I'm blessed that I got to play for him, coach with him and know him as a person."
Former Fairmont State and current Youngstown State University head men's basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun says Retton played a big role in helping him transition into his first collegiate coaching job when he took over the Falcons' program in 2012.
"Honestly I'm not in the situation I am today if it wasn't for coach Retton," Calhoun said. "Joe Lambiotte took me to coach Retton's house before I took the Fairmont job and educated me on the history of basketball at the school and the city of Fairmont and what his program when he was there meant to the city.
"What we tried to do was raise our standards to the Joe Retton standard. He became a great friend and mentor to me. We would go to breakfast and lunch together and he and his wife Nancy were unbelievable to me, my wife and our players. That shows you what kind of person he was. He wanted our program to be great. He came to tons of practices and almost every game. I never once felt like there was a shadow over there on the other side across from our bench where he sat, but at the same time you understand when you look up and see all of the banners and history how great his teams were and what they accomplished. We wanted our teams to play that way. I always strived to get the glory days back.
"The thing about coach Retton is he'll never go away because he impacted so many people, not just in terms of athletics, but in every day life. Before I took the job here (Youngstown State) I was struggling with my decision and I called him. When I came back to Fairmont recently I went to see him. He's just someone I looked up to and admired. It's a sad day losing him, but you know now he's up there with Nancy (who passed away in 2014), he'll be looking down on the Joe Retton Arena and he'll never be forgotten."
Joe Lambiotte, who was Fairmont State's head men's basketball coach from 1985-89, literally grew up in and around the Retton household and the great Fairmont State teams of the 1970s.
"My mom and dad were great friends with coach and Nancy and I was like the first one born in that circle of friends, so I grew up around basketball," said Lambiotte, who was also Fairmont State's sports information director and head women's basketball coach from 1980-85. "They say they took me to every Barrackville game when he coached high school there, but I was a little too young to remember that. When he got the Fairmont State job he'd come and pick me up in grade school to take me on the road games with them to be the ball boy and manager. That's kind of crazy. Here he might be getting ready to coach one of the biggest games of the season and he's worried about picking me up at school so I could be there. That's just how he was.
"If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have had the coaching positions I had during my career. Everything I learned about basketball I learned from him. He really was ahead of his time. His matchup zone was legendary. He developed it because he wanted to play man-to-man in a zone and it was incredible and his motion offense led to great movement by his players and unbelievable shot selection. His ability to get his players to completely buy into what he wanted to do and to execute it to near perfection is why I believe he was so successful.
"He also was one of the first coaches in the state, if not the first, to hold a basketball camp and he was like a magnet for the little kids. They all wanted to be around him and he'd always take the really young kids, which we all were really thankful for, and work with them. It was amazing what he could get them to do by the end of camp.
"He also had so many great relationships with some legendary coaches. Guys like John Wooden, Terry Holland, Carl Tacy, Press Maravich, Big House Gaines and John Chaney. A lot of those guys would write him letters and he'd read them and then throw them away. Man, how I wish I had kept that trash. There were some great things in those letters. He just never got sentimental about stuff like that. All he really ever wanted to do was teach basketball. He loved practice and he loved to teach. He'd always tell me the only tool I need is a whistle."
Retton's longtime assistant coach at Fairmont State, Mike Arcure, can attest to that.
"Joe Retton meant a lot to me and everything to Fairmont State," Arcure said. "He was five years older than me and the first time I ever heard his name he was about a freshman in high school and I saw him pitch a no-hitter in baseball. He was a heckuva baseball player."
Arcure coached for 10 years in Ohio with Retton's brother Dick. He returned to the Fairmont area in 1968 to head Fairmont State's recreation major and intramural program and became Retton's assistant basketball coach.
"I met a lot of great coaches in my time, but I never heard a philosophy that was as good as Joe's," Arcure said. "It was so simple and so natural. His man-to-man in a zone defense or matchup zone defense was the foundation of his winning. That was the secret to his winning. He was persistent in selling that to the kids and once they bought into it they loved it. In practice if they'd do something wrong he'd immediately stop it and correct it. He was a great fundamental coach and we always played great defense.
"A lot of people don't know when he was in college he was a college basketball official and he was very good. Therefore, he was very adamant about our kids not making mistakes and not fouling. He also was a coach who was much more concerned with how we were playing and what we were going to do instead of what the other team was doing. He always felt if you can limit your mistakes, you'd have a much better chance to win and he was right.
"He was tough and hard on kids, but it had to be done and he did it. A lot of guys didn't like it and disliked him for that, but once they figured out what he was doing was in their best interest and would give us the best chance to win then they compiled. They also realized they learned a lot of life lessons from him and appreciated that in later years. Something else he was great at is that he treated everyone on the team from the ball boy to the leading scorer the same. He never treated anyone special. No one on our teams was ever more important than anyone else.
"All the coaches in the conference liked him. He was always very gracious. If someone would beat him, he'd be the first to congratulate them. He was a pro and he was well-respected not only in our conference but all around the country."
Current Fairmont State head women's basketball coach Steve McDonald, like everyone in the Falcons' family, was saddened to hear of the death of Joe Retton and says his legacy at the school is much more than just wins and championships.
"When I first learned of coach's passing today I cried," McDonald said. "It really hit me very hard. I first met coach Retton when I was the men's coach at West Virginia Wesleyan. He came to our playoff game in 1991 against Concord at the Rockefeller Center and he came up to me afterward and had a number of really nice things to say. As a young coach those comments meant so much to me and really made a great impression on me.
"At Fairmont State as the women's coach for a number of years we ran a matchup zone which was taught to me by Tim Murphy, who had learned it as a player for coach Retton.
"Coach Retton embodies what coaches around the country should all strive to be. People talk about his winning percentage and his championships, but in reality I really think his legacy is the number of people's lives he touched and not just his players, but anyone he came in contact with. He made a difference in people's lives. My hope is all coaches would strive to be remembered in that way as opposed to their wins and championships. That's the coach Retton I'll remember. For years I'd walk in the gym here, read his name and read all of his accomplishments. Now when I walk in there I'm going to look up at his name and smile."