MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Let us begin with an apology. Understanding that we have virtually instantaneous reporting of news in this Internet era — be it true or fake news is entirely another discussion — but timeliness has become next to Godliness in this business.
We admit to being a little bit late in addressing this subject — about a century late, to be more precise — but this is as good a time as any to turn it out as West Virginia University’s sports are in their annual graduation lull, with the coaches of the major sports out raising money. It’s important to tell because it involves a one-time local area hero in Pierre Hill of Fairmont, a name that is in the Mountaineers’ basketball record book but who has unfortunately become something of a footnote to history.
I sort of stumbled upon him working on another story that eventually we will get to — hopefully not in another 100 years from now — but seeing that he was something of a free-throw marvel of another era, it piqued my interest. Upon looking up some records we saw that Pierre Hill played four years at WVU, a basketball starter at forward and a football end on the school’s only undefeated team, the 1922 10-0-1 squad that went to the Mountaineers’ first bowl and beat Gonzaga.
Looking at Hill’s statistics, though, showed that in four years on the basketball court in a low-scoring era when teams seldom scored 40 points in a game, he had 135 field goals but chipped in 343 free throws in 621 attempts.
Finding things from that era is hard to do. While we can safely say he weighed 162 pounds, his height is registered nowhere, although team pictures from the time seem to indicate he probably was 6-foot or 6-foot-2, which was big for the day (He is second from the right in the front row of the above photo.) He doesn’t show much in the way of statistics in football, having been an end, but he did score one touchdown, apparently on a blocked punt that he recovered in the end zone in an 81-0 rout of Marshall in 1923.
But let us go back 100 years, for that remains the gold standard of WVU football, one not dissimilar to the 2007 season in which Pitt stunned WVU in the regular-season finale to cost them a shot at the National Championship. Well, in 1922, the Mountaineers scored one of their greatest victories over Pitt, winning on Oct 15, 9-6, at Forbes Field. This victory loomed so large that the school president canceled Monday classes as a reward for the student body, setting off a snake dance through town, a late afternoon pep rally and a dance that night while Mountaineer fans gathered in downtown Pittsburgh chanting “Spears for Governor,” – that being coach Clarence Spears.
The thrill was short-lived, for the next week the Mountaineer football team was trained to Charleston where it played Washington & Lee at a 3-year-old Laidley Field, blowing a 12-0 halftime lead and having to settle for a 12-12 tie.
We mention this because that year the basketball team of coach Francis Stasvold might have been special, but its five starters also played football and were excused from early-season participation so they could travel to the bowl game.
The 1922 hoops season started well with Hill scoring 18 in the opener and 10 days later breaking Grove City’s 34-game winning streak, Moose Martin hitting three long field goals and Hill hitting 16 free throws. Now, let’s delve into Hill’s prolific — if only half accurate free throw shooting — for the rules were different then. A player could be designated to shoot free throws for his team, rather than having the player who was fouled shooting them. Hill was the “designated hitter,” so to speak, for WVU. Because of that, five times during the 1922 season he took 25 or more free throws in a game, and holds the Nos. 2-6 single-game marks, putting up 27 against Carnegie Mellon and 25 against Grove City (twice) and Pitt once. Only Bill Morrison’s 28 against the Panthers in 1920 kept him from a stranglehold on all of the top spots, and he still holds seven of the top 11 single-game totals.
But this team, like the 2020 team of Bob Huggins, found the flu to be a tougher opponent than the opposition. Martin was first to be stricken while in D.C. and was left at the team hotel before being returned to Morgantown. Another player was stricken with the bug, then Hill was lost before losing to Penn. Center Roy “Legs” Hawley was quarantined and sent home and WVU now barely had enough players to play.
During an eight-point loss in New York to CCNY, the Beavers agreed to let Robert Hawkins continue to play for WVU after fouling out, and then against Princeton, with only five available players, Stasvold had to suit up student manager J.B. Davis when one of his starters was injured.
The 1923 season wasn’t much better as on Jan. 27 they set a record that never will be broken when they did not score a field goal in a 29-point loss to Grove City, Hill’s six free throws and two from Joe Bartell and one to Bowers accounting for all of the Mountaineer scoring.
However, 1924 would be a big year. That season the free throw rule was changed and the player fouled had to shoot his own free throws and WVU had a team that returned its entire starting lineup … a huge departure from what Huggins looks at this year. It was a good team, sweeping Pitt for the first time in school history, including a 24-23 overtime “thriller” that was considered at the time a historic victory for the Mountaineers. The Mountaineers would finish at 14-2, the two losses being by two points at Washington & Jefferson and by three points at Kentucky. Oddly, in this game, Hill had one of his worst free throw shooting nights, making just three of nine. The Lexington News-Herald summed the game up this way in its story:
“West Virginia held its season’s record to the Wildcats at the university gym last night and the Blue and White basketeers [Honest, basketeers] scratch it with as black a mark as ever was made by any printer’s devil. “Unbeaten in all their games this season, the Mountaineers, towering over the Wildcats like Mutt does over Jeff, appeared sure winners over George Buchheit’s men and the start of the contest indicated this, but in the end the speed and floor play of the Kentucky warriors triumphed over the size advantage of the visitors.”
The story went on to call the game “the best basketball game played in Lexington this season and few battles of other years equal it for hair-raising interest.” It wasn’t until 2009 when WVU stunned No. 2 Kentucky to reach the NCAA Final Four in 2010 that the Mountaineers got true revenge.