Va Tech Spring Break 2023 – Virginia Tech Final Four kicks off with ‘luck’ in history: Virginia congressman pushes gender equality as a way to bust unions
Little did he know that fate would lead him to his next role in Blacksburg a few months later. He also did not realize that he would become a fan of the program he met in childhood.
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“I know exactly where I’ll be at 1:00 [on Friday]. [Hawaii time],” Wetzel said. “I’m in front of the TV watching Virginia Tech in the finals.”
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After four years at Virginia Tech, which were enough to earn him a spot in the Hawkeye Sports Hall of Fame, Wetzel began his professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1966. Three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and two with the Phoenix Suns a two-year stint in the Army followed that ended his career in the late 1960s.
John Wetzel during his rookie 1966-67 NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Courtesy of Wetzel.
In 1976, Wetzel, then 31, thought it was time to retire. That season, Wetzel and the Suns were on the short end of one of the most epic NBA Finals of all time. A veteran Boston Celtics team, featuring players like Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Don Nelson and Joe Joe White, swept past Phoenix led by Paul Westphal, Garfield Hurd and a rookie who helped usher the league into the modern era. Alvin Adams, the six-game winner of the year.
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“I’ve decided I’m not going to try to build a team anymore,” Wetzel said Thursday in a phone call from his home on the island of Maui. “In those days, I never had any guaranteed money — like a lot of guys back then. I had to go to camp every year, get in shape, work my tail off and try to make the team. I did that [a few times ] had done and I There was a place where it was really hard. You were 31, then you start to lose some of your skills.”
Wetzel returned to Virginia Tech. He needed to earn some credits to complete his degree. His major was general science, but that program was cut, so he switched to liberal arts. Shortly after arriving on campus, Wetzel said he crossed paths with Bill Matthews.
Now an assistant athletic director, Matthews was on the basketball coaching staff when Wetzel was hired by Wilson Memorial High School in Augusta County and played a key role in landing Wetzel. Both would eventually be inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame – Wetzel in 1985 and Matthews in 1993.
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At the college level, women’s basketball was still in its infancy. Thanks to the implementation of Title IX a few years ago, college programs have spread across the country, but the NCAA has yet to approve the sport under its umbrella. And in the fall of 1976, Virginia Tech decided to upgrade its sorority program to varsity status.
“He announced that the women’s basketball team was going to be a varsity sport that year and wanted me to coach them,” Wetzel said of his conversation with Matthews.
A few weeks later, Wetzel introduced several dozen potential players who wanted to try out for the open season. There will be some growing pains.
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There would be a layoff after the tests were over. Wetzel admits she didn’t expect the process to be so emotional for the women who received the bad news. It is also understood that skill level varies by professional game.
“The biggest difference for me from playing last season [in the NBA] was power and speed,” Wetzel said. “After playing with NBA players all these years, it was a big change. We had to change our expectations of what they could do, but they were always willing to try.
“Some of the plays we’ve worked on, we’ve gotten them to make good shots at the basket, but then they get blocked or missed.”
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With this year’s Hokies set to play their 36th game of the season on Friday night, the Hokies’ 14-game regular season followed by a postseason state tournament was just one year away. With the exception of a road game at East Tennessee State, every Virginia Tech game has been against another Virginia college of any size.
After losing a pair of close games to Virginia State and the University of Virginia in early December, Virginia Tech posted the program’s first win on December 14, 1976, defeating Bridgewater College 59-55.
It didn’t last long, but Wetzel said the Hokies helped him find the next chapter in his life.
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“I was very happy to work and lead the women’s team,” he said. “They were attentive, trainable, listened and tried to do what we told them to do.”
The names of the main players are still fresh in his mind. Hokies like center Karen Garbis, guard Kelly Bradley and swingman Thea Bertola helped the Hokies to a 7-7 record that included a three-game winning streak during the regular season.
“I loved being around them,” Wetzel said. “They’ve been working together. Sometimes you’re on a team or part of a group where a bunch of egos come up against you and they don’t want to train. But being able to lead this group of young women was very satisfying.”
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Wetzel, who received his degree in late spring when the season ended, resigned. He and his wife, Diane, wanted to return to the Phoenix area, where he ended his acting career.
The following year, Wetzel took his first professional coaching job with the fledgling Washington Lumberjacks of the Western Basketball Association. In 1979, the Suns brought Wetzel back as an assistant coach. He spent the next 25 years coaching five different NBA franchises, ending his retirement in Sacramento in 2003-04.
“I still enjoyed working out, but the travel became too much,” said Wetzel, now 78. “At that time I was playing and training for 31 years. At that point we chartered our planes. So you played, took off your shirt and tie, put on your sweatshirt and headed to the airport. For seven months every year, your entire lifestyle is turned upside down, and I’ve had enough by then.
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From left: Elston Turner, Terry Porter and John Wetzel. Wetzel and Turner trained together for many years; Porter played on many of the teams he coached in Portland. Courtesy of John Wetzel.
The good news is that the Wetzels made the most of those 30 years financially. They had homes in Hawaii and Arizona and didn’t need to find ways to supplement their income. She is an Arizona women’s basketball season ticket holder and a devoted follower of all Virginia Tech sports, especially the women’s basketball team.
“I love watching the women’s game,” Wetzel said. “They are playing hard, they are in great shape and they are good sportsmen. You can tell from the play style that it is much better than when I was involved.
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And if being a former Hokies player and coach isn’t enough, Wetzel is also a part of the women’s basketball program that is completely covered by the coaches. Current coach Kenny Brooks was born in Waynesboro and grew up in the same area as Wetzel.
“I’ve never met [Brooks], but I think he’s doing a great job,” Wetzel said. “He controls the team very well and they respect him and play hard for him… I hope to finally get back there to say hello to them.
Steve Hemphill has been a sports reporter and editor for more than 30 years. That old… More by Steve Hemphill
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Keep up with the latest news from Southwest Virginia and Southern Virginia. Sign up for the free newsletter. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Virginia Tech have announced the 2023 Virginia Tech football schedule, which includes six home games for the Hokies.
In the 2023 Virginia Tech football schedule, Old Dominion, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Syracuse and N.C. Includes home vs. state games.
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The Hokies open the season with two home games against non-conference opponents Old Dominion and Purdue, followed by two non-conference games against Rutgers and Marshall.
On the 2023 calendar, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, N.C. Many highlights and potential top-25 contenders are featured this season, including In-State and Syracuse visiting Lane Stadium for Thursday night’s game in Blacksburg.