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SPORTS OP-ED: Halls of Fame Have Room for Improvement
Unfortunately, many deserving individuals too often get overlooked. The reasons or excuses given by those in charge are numerous but could boil down to a bias, politics, or the fact that the selection committee does not have the institutional memory needed for many worthy candidates.
When age is an issue, it can be resolved by having a separate “old timers” or veterans committee that recommends individuals to be honored every year. The National Football League and Major League Baseball have had such committees now for decades.
One exceptionally deserving individual who obviously has been forgotten is Joedy Gardner, the point guard on West Virginia University’s basketball teams in 1956, 1957 and 1958. Playing first with Hot Rod Hundley and then Jerry West, he was team captain, playmaker and outstanding in two of WVU’s greatest victories, both in the Kentucky Invitational in December 1957 – a 77-70 victory over host Kentucky and a 75-64 win in championship game over North Carolina. With 26 wins and only 2 losses, the team because the only one in WVU history to be ranked #1 in the final Associated Press poll.
In those days freshmen were not eligible and like Hundley and West, Gardner played only three varsity years. During his career the Mountaineers began a 44 regular season win streak against Southern Conference opponents which is still an NCAA record, won the conference championship three straight years and were tournament champions in the 1955 Orange Bowl Classic, 1956 Birmingham Classic and the Kentucky Invitational. As a sophomore he led WVU in field goal percentage with 66.7%
The Ellwood City, Penn. native interrupted his sports career after graduation. He turned down an opportunity to play in the NBA and volunteered to serve the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot. After 10 years of flying combat missions off of an aircraft carrier and then as a flight leader on Vietnam raids, he retired with the rank of major. During his military career he also flew several times with the fabled Blue Angels.
In 1974 he returned to Morgantown as head basketball coach and directed WVU to the first of three straight winning seasons. Since 1968 the Mountaineers had only two winning seasons. In 1977, after leading WVU as a player to two of its greatest basketball wins, as coach WVU had two of its greatest wins in the 15-year period from 1976-1990 beating Syracuse 83-78 in the Hall of Fame Tournament and then 17th ranked Notre Dame 81-68. The Mountaineers finished with an 18-11 record in 1977 but had to decline an invitation to play in the NIT because of an athletic department deficit.
He also gave current WVU coach Bob Huggins his first coaching job as a student assistant. Huggins played three years for Gardner and was team captain as a senior. In 1978, Gardner was succeeded by Gale Catlett who coached WVU for the next 24 years.
Those endorsing him for the WVU Sports Hall of Fame selection committee include Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley, Bob Huggins and the late Eddie Barrett.
Unfortunately, the people responsible for organizing the committee and handling the selection process are no different than their counterparts at other colleges and organizations. Few committee secretaries, if any, ever respond to or thank the person submitting the nomination. The secretary should also give the nominators periodic updates before and after a selection is made. While most organizations do name the committee members, to be open, honest and transparent, the vote on each candidate also should be made public. There is a lack of the basic principles of customer service.
Committees usually consider several criteria for candidates: 1) achievements as a player, coach or administrator; 2) a lifetime achievement in sport and a career; and 3) continuing to give back and help. He and his wife, Ruth Ann, now live in Peoria, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. In collaboration with his former teammate Hundley, they organized a group of area alumni to watch telecasts of WVU football and basketball games.
Still very physically fit and encouraged by his daughter, Deborah, he qualified for and competed in two swimming events in the recently-held Seniors Games. Charleston’s Nemo Nearman is now recruiting him to play on his 3-on-3 basketball team since Gardner will be 80 when the next competition is held. Nearman, now 87, has won gold medals in four age categories but is still looking for a win in the over 80 class. He would consider Gardner his young rookie!
It is time for WVU to recognize Gardner’s accomplishments as a player, coach, alumnus, patriot and citizen and elect him to the Mountaineer Sports Hall of Fame. Those responsible for the administration of other halls of fame need to adopt as policy the basic rules of customer service and be responsive and communicate.
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Rene A. Henry was sports information director at West Virginia University from 1954-1956. He and Gardner have been friends since. Henry, a Charleston native who now lives in Seattle, also is the author of nine books, including “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success.” He has been honored by the College of William & Mary with its highest honor, The Alumni Medallion, and chaired the College of Fellows of the Public Relations Society of America.