The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

March 25, 2014

Sonny Moran recalls WVU basketball’s ‘greatest tragedy’

MORGANTOWN — Sonny Moran, undoubtedly the unluckiest head coach in West Virginia University men’s basketball history, resides at the age of 88 in Alabama.

The Charleston native, an assistant to Bucky Waters from 1966 to 1969, took over the program in 1969-70 with a young, talented team. It then opened the spanking new Coliseum — built for about $20 million and perhaps could cost $60 million or more today.

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

Moran’s 1971-72 team, after a highly promising 5-0 start to a 24-game season, was suddenly struck by disaster. Two of his top players — Larry “Deacon” Harris and Sam Oglesby — were in an automobile crash during WVU Christmas break.

That happened on Interstate 79 in the Fairmont area. Shockingly and most sadly, Harris was killed from the impact of the single-car crash and Oglesby was paralyzed.

Moran was informed on Christmas Eve that Harris and Levi Phillips had been ruled academically ineligible 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, who still plays golf three times a week, 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 from his Alabama home. “We thought ruling those two players ineligible on the basis of one grade at Christmas break was highly questionable to me.”

Making matters even worse, Bob Hornstein moved up and developed a collapsed lung which kept him from playing. Then Gary Reichenbecher broke his leg.

“We lost five of our top seven players in my third year there,” Moran said, summing up his misery. “And all of that within a period of 10 days!

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

Adding to his disappointment in 1971-72, WVU was chosen as its first and only site of an NCAA Tournament regional round of games which North Carolina won for a spot in the Final Four. Moran had hoped that the Mountaineers would have qualified and been part of that field.

“I’ve thought we’d been probably 20-4 if we hadn’t suffered so many setbacks,” he recalled sadly.

“The bad part about it, that killed us for the next couple years, very honestly. We did a very poor job of recruiting after that season.”

It had to be expected, though. Except for Oglesby, Moran’s remaining players were all underclassmen. And all came back, except, of course, Harris and Oglesby.

“I do appreciate this opportunity to tell all the people back there in West Virginia the full story about the terrible tragedy we had (in the early 1970s),” the Charleston native said.

In all, he served five years as head coach after his four-year stint as Waters’ assistant. His five-year record at the helm was 57-68.

Moran, who had been head coach at Morris Harvey College in his hometown, said he firmly believed that his experience at WVU was the greatest tragedy in the history of men’s basketball in the school’s history.

While he feels it was a mistake to give up coaching, Moran has had a highly successful career in athletics administration. He became athletic director at Morehead State University in Kentucky after leaving Morgantown.

He remained there for 14 years (1974-87). Then he went to the Gulf South Conference, with offices in Birmingham, Ala., as that league’s commissioner.

He filled that position until he retired in 1992.

The conference wanted Moran to stay longer. But his aging mother had come to live with him and his wife Betty.

“She stayed with us for 13 years, and she died in 2004 one month and one day short of age 100,” he explained.

Moran, whose wife isn’t really in good health, has macular degeneration affecting his sight as he turns 89 on June 26. But he still sees well enough to “shoot my age” on the golf course.

He matched his age 44 times from the men’s tees. Then, when he turned 77 years old, he moved up to the senior tees and “have been shooting my age quite often.”

The Morans have two grown daughters, Terry and Judy, and two granddaughters, Morgan and Devon.

The Morans have lived in Gulf Shores, Ala., for 22 years. 

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