Despite the bitter circumstances attending his impending departure, one of Virginia’s winningest basketball coaches tries to remain focused on winning.
“I think my own personal drive and competitiveness and wanting to do the best job possible is driving me right now,” Wilson said. “But not the old zest that used to be there. The damage has been done.”
Last spring, rumors flew that Wilson was ready to retire. When asked by fans, he told them it was merely gossip. It felt “like a dagger,” he said, when he learned in July that the school board was not going to renew his contract after this season — his 39th at Norton.
While Wilson subsequently tendered his resignation in November, he insists that it was only after having been informed that he wouldn’t be offered a contract for next year.
J.I. Burton basketball has been Stan Wilson’s life’s work, quite literally. Norton is where he played his high school ball before scrapping his way to a spot on the Tusculum College roster. He’s been head coach at Burton since 1969.
Community ties aside, the tone of Wilson’s sendoff isn’t what one might expect for a man of his professional stature.
Wilson’s 536 career victories at the start of the season placed him among the top four winningest active coaches in the state. He’s won six Lonesome Pine District regular-season championships. A tournament wizard, Wilson has won 14 LPD tournament titles and five Region D tournament crowns. He has taken the Raiders to the state tournament seven times.
In the meantime, he continues to command the respect of his coaching peers, who remain wary of his peculiar genius for the upset.
Gate City blew out the Raiders in the first non-district meeting of this season, but Blue Devils coach Scott Vermillion marveled at the adjustments Wilson was able to make in time for the hotly contested rematch.
“That’s not the first time he’s done that to us. Two years ago they beat us at J.I. Burton two weeks before we went on to the Final Four and lost to Clark County in the finals,” Vermillion recalled. “Yeah, he’s crafty.”
Thanks to Burton being a Division 1 team nowadays, Vermillion won’t have to stay up late studying for a third meeting.
The Raiders’ district and divisional opponents don’t have that luxury.
Prior to a 51-48 win at Norton, Appalachia’s single-game high for turnovers was 16. The Raiders’ press forced the Bulldogs into 16 turnovers before the half.
“He gives you a man-to-man look and it changes over to a zone press. We scouted them, but we weren’t prepared for that. My players were confused for most of the first half,” said Appalachia coach Pat Jervis, who has coached against Wilson since the 1980s.
“His teams always get better as the season goes along and peak at tournament time. I don’t guess there’s anybody of this time period that’s won as many LPD tournaments as Stan.”
Wilson would be the first to admit his teams rarely stand around “bouncing the air out of the ball.” The persistent outsider myth has been that Norton’s press-and-run regimes ride the coattails of unbridled athleticism. Anything that much fun to watch simply has to be wild and undisciplined.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Burton volleyball and softball coach Jon Bright played under Wilson on the 1988 and 1990 state tournament teams. Those squads — which included the likes of Huck Forney and Reecie Gravely — were unquestionably seething with athletic talent.
Wilson ruled them with an iron hand.
“He had a way of intimidating you to get the most out of you,” Bright said. “One time, we didn’t take a charge the whole game. The next day in practice, we had to take full-court charges. We had to stand there and take them on the other end. It was brutal.”
But don’t think for a minute that Wilson can be pigeonholed as a control freak.
“You have to teach athletes to be thinkers as well. They have to make split-second decisions running the break. They have to start thinking on their own sometime,” Wilson said. “I’d rather have those kinds of players out there instead of a bunch of robots.”
Burton assistant coach Doug Campbell, who was senior point guard on Wilson’s 1997 squad that ambushed a ranked Twin Springs squad in the Region D tournament, remembers when Wilson enlightened him.
“My sophomore year I hit the game-winning shot against Coeburn and the players were all congratulating me and patting me on the back,” Campbell said.
“Coach Wilson gave me a stern look and said, ‘Everybody will remember that shot you made tonight. But I’ll remember the 10 turnovers that led to this game being close.’”
It was the first of many revelations for Campbell. Like discovering that a normally wide-open Raiders squad could slow the ball to a crawl — and ride that tactic to a state tournament berth. Or that one of Wilson’s most heated rivals was also one of Wilson’s best friends.
Former J.J. Kelly coach Dave Bentley, now an assistant coach at Virginia-Wise, was invited to speak at J.I. Burton when the gym was named for Wilson in 1995.
“I think Stan is a fine man as well as a very good basketball coach. His teams were opponents you had to prepare well for. You couldn’t assume that you were going to throw it up and go. You had to be prepared for what they ran,” Bentley said.
“It was always very entertaining and very intense at the same time.”