Don Vincent, who was a major part of what was the “Golden Age” of West Virginia basketball, died Monday night. Vincent was 86 — and a native of Shinnston.
Vincent’s career at WVU spanned from Hot Rod Hundley to Jerry West. He was a teammate of each and played on the only West Virginia team ever to gain a No. 1 ranking.
He was a good enough player to gain induction into the West Virginia University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.
As a sophomore and junior, in 1956 and 1957, he played with Hundley, whose on-court clowning made him the center of attention in any game. West Virginia went 21-9 and 10-2 in the Southern Conference in 1956. A sophomore, Vincent averaged 6.5 points a game, playing in all 30 games and starting 19.
The next year WVU, now a junior, Vincent teamed with Hundley, along with yet another all-time WVU great, Lloyd Sharrar, and the Mountaineers improved to 25-5 and swept to the Southern Conference championship with undefeated 12-0 season. That junior year he averaged 6.3 points a game, playing all 30 games, scoring a career high 22 points and hitting 10 of 13 shots against Davidson.
It didn’t seem West Virginia could do much to improve in 1958, his senior season, especially with Hundley gone to the NBA, but that was the year of the highly anticipated arrival of Jerry West to the varsity. West had led an undefeated freshman team, so sportswriters and fans knew the team would be loaded again and they didn’t disappoint, going 26-2 and again winning the Southern Conference title at 12-0.
There were five players on that team that averaged double figures, led by West at 17.5. But Vincent had blossomed into a key component on the team, finishing second in scoring to West at 12.8 points a game. His presence on the court was so important that he led the team in minutes played, being there even more than West himself.
The team was so good that in addition to West and Vincent averaging double figures, center Sharrar averaged 11.8, guard Joedy Gardner averaged 12 points and junior Bobby Jo Smith averaged 12.4. All five of them wound up in the WVU Athletic Hall of Fame.
“We had a lot of good, well-played games,” Vincent would recall years later to sportswriter Mickey Furfari. “We played in a lot of really good, competitive contests while I was playing with those star guys.”
This was a team many believed could bring West Virginia its first NCAA Tournament championship. They had earned the No. 1 ranking earlier in the season after beating Kentucky at its own Invitational Tournament and then downing defending national champion North Carolina.
In those two crucial games Vincent put up numbers quite similar to West’s, scoring 14 with 7 rebounds against Kentucky while West had 15 with 10 rebounds, then scoring 15 with 8 rebounds against North Carolina as West scored 14 with 9 rebounds in that tournament’s championship game.
But fate would intervene and Vincent was the recipient of its fickle finger. On March 7, in the 1958 conference tournament semifinal against rival Richmond, Vincent suffered a broken leg.
It would be Vincent’s last collegiate basketball game and he would finish with six points and five rebounds.
His career would end with him averaging nine points a game, scoring 777 for his career and pulling down 374 rebounds and dishing out 137 assists.
While the Mountaineers would survive the conference final against William and Mary, 74-58, despite Vincent’s absence and West being held to only nine points, their run in the season would go no further.
Named No. 1 in the nation in the polls, the Mountaineers went to Madison Square Garden for the NCAA Tournament opener against Manhattan, which was right at home. West was outplayed by Jack Powers, who outscored him, 29-to-10 while pulling down 15 rebounds and Manhattan won, 89-84.
Powers would go on to become the long-time coach and athletic director at Manhattan.
Had Vincent been there for the Manhattan game, who knows what might have happened?
Current WVU color commentator and a member of that 1958 team, Jay Jacobs, thinks it could have gone all the way.
“If Don Vincent hadn’t broken his leg in the conference tournament, we probably would have won the NCAA Tournament,” he has said.
Bobby Jo Smith maintained that coach Fred Schaus probably made a mistake moving him from forward into Vincent’s guard slot with Gardner.
“I had played forward, and he probably should have kept me at forward and brought somebody else in with Joedy to play guard, Smith said.
The next year, with not nearly as well balanced a team, WVU reached the NCAA Finals only to lose to California by a point.
The Mountaineers’ record during Vincent’s three years was a gaudy 72-16.
“That’s because we played well as a team. I don’t think there was any animosity among our guys,” Vincent once said.
After graduating, Vincent toured a couple of years with Rod Hundley and an All-Star team he had put together.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said, as you might guess if you know anything about Hundley.
He put the teacher’s degree he earned at WVU in 1958 to work, in Bridgeport and in Clarksburg, where he also coached basketball and some football.
His son, Brett, lettered in basketball in 1988 at WVU and today is women’s basketball coach at West Virginia Wesleyan.
Vincent and his wife, Jean, also had a daughter, Jane-Linn Citro.