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More on Virginia Tech women’s basketball:
John Wetzel decided it was time to begin the next chapter of his life.
Little did he know that fate would lead him to his next act just months later in Blacksburg. Nor did he realize he would still be a fan of a program that he was introduced to in its infancy.
“I know exactly where I will be [Friday] at 1 p.m. [Hawaiian time],” Wetzel said. “I’ll be sitting in front of the TV watching Virginia Tech in the Final Four.”
Following four years at Virginia Tech that were good enough to earn him a spot in the Hokies’ sports Hall of Fame, Wetzel began his professional career in 1966 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and two stops with the Phoenix Suns followed, as did a two-year stint in the Army that put his career on hold in the late 1960s.
By 1976, Wetzel, then 31, felt it was time to retire. That season, Wetzel and his Suns were on the short end of one of the most storied NBA Finals ever played. In a series that helped thrust the league into its modern era, a veteran Boston Celtics team that feature players such as Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Don Nelson and Jo Jo White, edged Phoenix, which was led by Paul Westphal, Garfield Heard and rookie of the year winner Alvin Adams, in six games.
“I had decided that I was not going to try to make a team again,” Wetzel said Thursday in a phone interview from his home on the island of Maui. “In those days, I never had any guaranteed money – just like a lot of other guys then. I had to go every year, go to camp, be in shape, play my tail off and try to make a roster. I had done that [many times] and I was at the point where it was really hard. At 31, back then, you started to lose some of your skills.”
So, Wetzel headed back to Virginia Tech. He needed to earn a handful of credits to finish his degree. His original major was general science, but that program had been eliminated, so he switched to liberal arts. Shortly after arriving on campus, Wetzel said he crossed paths with Bill Matthews.
Now an associate athletic director, Matthews had been on the basketball coaching staff when Wetzel was being recruited out of Wilson Memorial High School in Augusta County and played a major role in getting Wetzel to become a Hokie. Both would eventually be inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame – Wetzel in 1985, Matthews in 1993.
Matthews, as it turned out, was still a good recruiter.
Women’s basketball at the collegiate level was still in its infancy. Thanks to the implementation of Title IX a few years earlier, varsity programs were beginning to sprout around the country, but the NCAA had yet to sanction the sport under its umbrella. And in the fall of 1976, Virginia Tech had decided to shift its women’s club program to varsity status.
“He explained that the women’s basketball team will become a varsity sport that year and he said he wanted me to coach them,” Wetzel said of his conversation with Matthews.
Several weeks later, Wetzel was introducing himself to a couple of dozen prospective players eager to try out for the inaugural season. There would be some growing pains.
After tryouts ended, cuts had to be made. Wetzel admits he did not expect that process to be as emotional for the women being given the bad news. And there was also the realization that the skill level differed from the professional game.
“The biggest difference for me from having played the season before [in the NBA] was the strength and quickness,” Wetzel said. “After playing with and against NBA players for all those years, that was a big adjustment. We had to change our expectations for what they could do, but they were always willing to try.
“Some of the plays we’d run, we get them a good shot at the basket, but then they’d get blocked or bumped off the shot.”
Considering that this year’s Hokies will be playing game No. 36 of the season on Friday night, the Hokies’ 14-game regular season, followed by a postseason state tournament, was just a blip of a year. Other than a road game at East Tennessee State, every game Virginia Tech played was against other Virginia colleges of all sizes.
After losing a pair of close games to Virginia State and the University of Virginia in early December, Virginia Tech posted its first program victory on Dec. 14, 1976, winning at Bridgewater College 59-55.
It didn’t last long, but Wetzel said those Hokies helped him figure out the next part of his life.
“I really enjoyed working with the women’s team and coaching them,” he said. “They were attentive, they were coachable, they listened, and they tried to do the things we were telling them to do.”
The names of his key players are still fresh in his head. Hokies such as center Karen Garbis, guard Kelly Bradley and swing player Thea Bertola helped the Hokies to a 7-7 record during the regular season, which included a pair of three-game winning streaks.
“I liked being around them,” Wetzel said. “They were cooperative. Sometimes you’re with a team or part of a team where a bunch of egos get in the way, and they don’t want to be coached. But being able to coach that group of young women was very satisfying.”
When the season came to an end, Wetzel, who had earned his diploma by the end of the spring, had resigned. He and his wife, Diane, wanted to move back to the Phoenix area, where he had ended his playing career.
That next year, Wetzel got his first professional head coaching job with the Washington Lumberjacks of the upstart Western Basketball Association. In 1979, the Suns brought Wetzel back as an assistant coach. He spent the next 25 years coaching for five different NBA franchises, ending when retired after the 2003-04 year in Sacramento.
“I still enjoyed the coaching, but the travel was beginning to be too much,” Wetzel, now 78, said. “I had been [playing and coaching] at that point for 31 years. At that time, we chartered our flights. So you’d play a game, take your coat and tie off and put on your sweats and go to the airport. Your whole lifestyle is turned upside down for seven months every year, and I just had enough by then.”
The good news was that the Wetzels had made the most of those 30-plus years financially. They owned houses in Hawaii and Arizona and he didn’t need to find ways to supplement their income. He’s a season ticket holder for Arizona women’s basketball and a dedicated viewer of all Virginia Tech sports – especially the women’s basketball team.
“I enjoy watching the women play,” Wetzel said. “They play hard, they’re in great condition and they are great athletes. You can tell from the style of the game compared to when I was involved that it’s so much better.”
And if just being a former Hokies player and coach isn’t enough, Wetzel is also part of how the women’s basketball program has come full circle with head coaches. Current coach Kenny Brooks, just like Wetzel, was born in Waynesboro and grew up in the same area.
“I’ve never met [Brooks], but I think he’s doing a great job,” Wetzel said. “He’s got a great handle on his team and they respect him and play hard for him. … I hope to eventually get back there so I can be able to say hello to him.”