In the 1970’s, just as UCLA was finishing up their run of seven consecutive NCAA Basketball titles, Northfork High School in McDowell County, West Virgina was beginning its run of eight straight state championships. The UCLA coach, John Wooden, is called the Wizard of Westwood due to the success of his teams which were rich in talent that he recruited from across the nation. The Northfork High School coach, Jennings Boyd, couldn’t recruit his talent, he had to develop it!
As a kid growing up in Roane County during the early 70’s, I knew about Northfork High School and I always wondered what made the place so special. I had always wanted to visit the town and find out about its coach so I could learn for myself what it was that set Jennings Boyd apart. Recently, for the first time, I was able to visit the small coal mining town in McDowell County and I discovered the secret that made Coach Boyd a great basketball coach.
I had been wondering a long time about that small town tucked away in the mountains of southern West Virginia and their basketball coach Jennings Boyd. Was it his work ethic and tough basketball practices, or perhaps his motivational skills and superior strategy that led to his tremendous success?
Those were the questions on my mind when I visited Northfork while gathering information for www.WVyourWay.com. While speaking to one of the residents of the town, I asked her about that time period and discovered she was a cheerleader at the school for four of those eight magical years. Since she knew the town and the man, I determined I would ask her for some insight from those years. However, as I awaited an opportunity to ask, she told me a story that, although she was unaware of it, revealed the secret to the success of Coach Boyd.
It seems that her boyfriend was on the basketball team and she was at his house when Coach Boyd showed up. I was surprised and asked if he visited his players often. She responded, “Oh yes, Coach Boyd was always checking up on his players and one of the things he didn’t want to find was a girl at their house.” I laughed and asked what she did and she looked at me wide-eyed and replied, “I hid in the furnace room behind a pile of coal!”
As I laughed she went on with her story. “I think he knew I was there ’cause he stayed an extra long time and I was miserable from the heat of hiding behind that coal pile. He just wouldn’t leave and I had to stay hidden in that hot room just so he could punish me for being at my boyfriend’s house when I wasn’t supposed to be. By the time he left I was streaked with coal dust, so I just went home.”
It was at that moment that I discovered the secret to Coach Boyd’s success – he cared about his players. Because of that he could get them to work hard in practice and follow his leadership. Today Northfork and McDowell County are behind, but if they come together as a team and follow the leadership of those that care, they too can come out winners. Who knows, maybe the legacy of the Wizard of Northfork can lead to another championship for the people he taught how to win.
How often do movies based on true events actually mirror those true events? Not often, it seems. Still, movies are meant to entertain and sometimes the truth is less entertaining than the story we see on the big screen. We in West Virginia can be a bit skeptical about what we see on the big screen, or especially the small screen, concerning our state. Too often people from elsewhere come here, not for the purpose of showing an accurate reflection of our state, but rather they come to further their own agenda by highlighting the ugly and passing it off as the normal.
Case in point is McDowell County. As West Virginians we are often made fun of by people who have never visited our beautiful state, and we often take offense. Yet, we in West Virginia do the same to one of our very own. I am quick to defend our state against the unjust characterizations heaped on us by an ignorant populace from other states. Yet I confess that I was part of the ignorant populace within West Virginia that jumped on the bash bandwagon for what many perceive as our poorest county – McDowell.
Of course, I had never been to McDowell County. I simply bought the perception of a county where drugs and crime are rampant and of an ignorant people too dumb to move away from their poverty. The same perception many people from other states have about West Virginia, when those people have never even been here.
Of the 55 counties in West Virginia, McDowell was the last one I visited. I saved it for last because everyone I spoke to said that there was no reason to go there since there wasn’t anything there. However, last month was my first visit and I’ve had several since.
What did I find?
I found the county with the friendliest people in the state. I found a proud people who are misunderstood and often overlooked and left to fend for themselves by the rest of the state for the bogus reason that they’re just too poor and ignorant to be helped. I found that small town America where neighbors help neighbors and where strangers are treated with a kindness you simply don’t find anywhere else. I found a county that isn’t asking for a hand-out, but just a fair shake.
In short, I found the county that the other counties in this state would do well to emulate in terms of friendliness and living the golden rule of doing onto others as you would have them do unto you. And just as I defend this state against the ignorant misconceptions of outsiders, I’m going to defend McDowell County against the ignorant misconceptions of her fellow West Virginians.
After all, if any people should know the injustice of misconceptions and hatchet jobs, its West Virginians. Why then do many West Virginian’s wield that same unjust hatchet against one of our own?
Since the answers to ignorance is information, I’m going to be writing some blogs informing anyone who will listen of what McDowell County has to offer and of the good people who live there.
Some of my upcoming blogs will be about Northfork and her national record. About the tributes to veterans and defenders of our country throughout the county. About Coalwood and growing up dreaming in a small town. In short, about the good people of McDowell County and their fight for survival.