MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Fairmont State legend Joe Retton, who owns the best winning percentage of any coach in college basketball history, died Wednesday morning at age 87.
Retton led the Fairmont State men’s team during an era of unprecedented national success from 1964-1982. The Falcons qualified for the NAIA national tournament on 12 occasions, with Retton typically driving the team bus from Fairmont to Kansas City, Mo. — nearly 1,800 miles roundtrip — for those Elite Eight appearances.
His Falcons advanced to the semifinals four times and reached the national championship game in 1968.
A two-time NAIA national coach of the year in 1969 and 1976, he finished his career with a 478-95 record — an .836 winning percentage that remains the highest of any men’s coach across all collegiate levels.
“It is crazy to think of how successful he was but he still remained very humble,” said veteran sportswriter Duane Cochran.
In a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile, Retton outlined his demanding style that produced:
“My father used to work in the mines on his hands and knees in water. And like most fathers, he tried to give his sons the things he never had. Well, I’m not so sure that’s good. You give somebody something for nothing and they lose motivation, develop a tendency to alibi. And if you let a kid alibi, all you’re doing is breeding losers.”
“He was a tough love type of guy,” Cochran said. “He was in (the players) faces, no nonsense and very tough. But he was very fair and very caring.”
Retton’s teams dominated play in the West Virginia Conference, winning 12 regular-season titles and eight postseason tournament titles.
He twice received consideration for the head coaching job at West Virginia University only to be passed over. Instead he made his mark by building the Falcons into consistent winners and building the program through dire budgetary periods — all the way down to cajoling boosters for team meals.
The basketball arena on campus at Fairmont State bears Retton’s name and he remained a courtside fixture at sporting events through last season.
Retton, who also served as athletics director at Fairmont State, is a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame and the West Virginia Sports Writers Hall of Fame. He was an inductee into the inaugural FSU Hall of Fame class in 1993.
“He is definitely an icon in the state and a legend in this state,” Cochran said. “I hope people remember that and respect that and give him his due.”
After serving in Korea as a member of the Army, Retton got his start in coaching at Barrackville High, where his teams went 147-19 across seven seasons.
His son David Retton has continued the family coaching legacy in Fairmont, guiding the Fairmont Senior boys team for two decades and leading the Polar Bears to Class AA state championships in 2016 and 2017.