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Friends, family remember legendary coach as innovator, gentlema

by Greg Talkington

SPORTS WRITER

Before the run-and-shoot, before the West Coast offense, before teams lined up with wide receivers, there were the spread offenses of former Kelly Miller High School and West Virginia State coach Mark Cardwell.

Barely after the T-formation displaced the single wing, Cardwell had his offenses at West Virginia State using wide receivers with quick pitches, pulling guards and ends and more innovative ideas that are still used today.

Cardwell's genius spread to the basketball court, too, where he led State to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) national title in 1948 with a team that went 30-0.

There's little doubt that people who have gathered at this weekend's Black Heritage Festival in Clarksburg, speak fondly of the "old days" when the coach roamed the sidelines here and in Institute.

"I would say he was 20-to-30 years ahead of his time," said John "Skip" Courtney, a defensive back and punter on Cardwell's first football team at State in 1945. "We ran spread formations, threw the ball and had set pass defenses that a lot of schools didn't have at that time.

"Those formations really confused our opposition."

His 1948 basketball team featured several well-known players who later achieved success at higher levels. Earl Lloyd was the first black to ever play in the National Basketball Association and he was followed by Clarksburg native Bob Wilson.

Joe Gilliam Sr. also played on that team, but became more known for his football coaching ability and namesake son who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. In a recent book, Gilliam credits Cardwell for several of his coaching strategies and philosophies.

Wilson said Cardwell's basketball strategies were also ahead of his day.

"He ran a weave that the only other team in the nation used was the Boston Celtics," Wilson said from his home in Newark, N.J. "He stressed defense, but he was always looking for ways to get an edge offensively.

"He was definitely ahead of his time."

Willie "Suitcase" Smith, a standout in both basketball and football at State, said the school was blessed with great athletes at that time.

"He was a great, great coach, and he was able to recruit great athletes at that time because there were very few blacks playing at Division I schools," Smith said. "All of the great black athletes of that day were going to black schools."

While Cardwell's genius as a coach goes unquestioned, it was his conduct on and off the field that many remember most.

"I never heard him curse," Wilson said. "He was definitely a gentleman."

Added Courtney, "I never heard him curse or really ever saw him get angry and lose his temper. But he was a strict disciplinarian. One time, he left an All-American on campus for being late for the bus and the guy was running across the campus trying to get there on time."

Cardwell's no-nonsense approach was appreciated by his players, but that didn't extend to his children -- Mark Jr. and Betty, both of whom played basketball at State.

"Our mom was the disciplinarian at our house," Cardwell Jr. said. "I got to travel with the team some so I was with him a little more growing up, but he never disciplined us because that's the way my mom wanted it."

Daughter Betty Spencer, now principal at Ford Elementary in Dunbar, said she and Mark Jr. were the light of his life. Back then, there were just two black schools in West Virginia, State and Bluefield.

"We couldn't wait until he got back from long road trips," Spencer said. "With only two black schools in the state, they had to go south a great deal to play.

"There would be times when he would play Tennessee State one Saturday, stay there until Wednesday, and then go to Grambling and stay there until after that game the next Saturday."

But Cardwell never forgot about his family.

"No matter where he went, he brought me back something from every game," Spencer said. "I just couldn't wait to jump in my dad's arm and sit on his lap after he came back from a road trip."

Both of his children believe their father had lasting influence on everyone he coached.

"He cared about each of his players as students first and athletes second," Cardwell Jr., who runs his own business in Institute after getting out of the teaching profession in 1995, said. "He stressed being a total human being."

Added Spencer, "Several of his players went on to be doctors, lawyers, school superintendents and in other professions.

"Two of his players, Wayne Casey and Lawrence Bailey were on President Carter's transition team when he took office in 1976."

Cardwell was born Jan. 7, 1900 in Columbus, Ohio.

He came to West Virginia State in 1921 as a student and was a star athlete, making the black All-American team as a fullback. He was later named to the 1900-1950 Negro All-star team.

Cardwell arrived in Clarksburg in 1925 to teach and coach at Kelly Miller High. There, he produced five state titles in basketball and five more in football before, after a brief stint in the Army, heading to Institute in 1945.

In addition to his great 1948 basketball team, he coached State to CIAA tournament title in 1949, and CIAA regular season titles in 1950 and 1952.

His football squads claimed CIAA titles in 1948 and 1951 and his 1949 team was unbeaten but once tied.

When schools became integrated in the 1950s and more coaches were allowed at schools, Cardwell chose basketball over football.

"Dad told me he like football better, but he decided to go with basketball," Spencer said. "It was harder for him to recruit because so many of the better black players were going to the bigger schools and he relied on alumni to help him find players."

Cardwell's Yellowjackets won one West Virginia Conference title and also a pair of NAIA District Playoffs.

"He was most proud of the one West Virginia Conference title," Cardwell Jr. said. "It really meant something to him because it was harder to get players at that point."

Cardwell died March 20, 1964, while recruiting at the state high school tournament in Morgantown.

"He died on the job, doing what he loved," Spencer said. "I think that's how he would have wanted it."

Sports writer Greg Talkington can be reached at 626-1444.

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