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Minium: Sonny Allen built ODU into a winner and integrated Virginia basketball; he deserves place in Va. Hall of Fame

July 18, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Many of you reading this weren’t alive in 1965. I was 13 then and remember it as a time full of discord and racial tension.

Yes, America seems more divided now than ever, but trust me, things were worse in 1965. It was two years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and three years before Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy would be gunned down.

Most of the South, and much of the rest of the country, was segregated. Riots in Watts tore apart Los Angeles.

In Montgomery, Ala., police charged and brutally beat 600 peaceful civil rights demonstrators. And not every American citizen was free to vote. The effort to grant full voting rights to everyone didn’t really begin until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Vietnam, nearly 200,000 American troops were on the ground and nearly 2,000 of them died. As the year ended, American bombers pummeled North Vietnam from the air. Millions would die before the war ended.

That was the same year Old Dominion College, as it was then known, hired a young guy named Sonny Allen as its men's basketball coach.

Sonny Allen cutting down the nets after ODU won its first national title in 1975, beating New Orleans for the Division II national crown. 

Many of you have never heard of Sonny, but if you’re an ODU fan of any sort, you should know his story.

He not only transformed ODU basketball into a national name, his fast-break offense also changed the game nationally. And he showed courageous determination to fight for racial justice.

If for no other reason, Sonny should be long remembered for this: he integrated college basketball in Virginia when it was an unpopular thing to do.

I asked ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig recently if I could lead a campaign to convince the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame to induct Sonny in its Class of 2020.

Wood is a Norfolk native. He went to high school with Billy Allen, Sonny’s son. He watched Sonny’s team play and knows the changes Sonny wrought.

He interrupted me before I got the first sentence and out and said, “Hell yes.”

President John R. Broderick also endorsed the effort, saying he'd met Sonny and knew of his many achievements.

Sonny has a compelling life story.

He grew up poor in Moundsville, W.Va., where his mom was left to take care of 5 children after his father left the family. Sonny was just 3, and his mom struggled mightily. Yet he didn't allow poverty to beat him down. Instead, it instilled in him an intense determination to succeed. As a teenager, Sonny was determined to live a better life, and to do it playing and coaching basketball.

Allen was a high school basketball star but like most kids in Moundsville, got a job in the local steel mill. Yet he had bigger and better plans than stoking fires in a plant.

He lived at home, saved his money and, after a year, walked onto the Marshall basketball team without a scholarship.

He was so good that first season that a year later he was on a full scholarship and roomed with future NBA star Hal Greer.

He came to Old Dominion after five years as Marshall’s freshman coach.

Before he accepted the job, he asked then-Athletic Director Bud Metheny if he could recruit black players. If Bud had said no, that would have been a deal breaker.

Sonny Allen flanked on the left by Blaine Taylor and right by Jack Baker, a basketball star Sonny recruited to ODU. 

But Bud didn’t flinch. He assured him that as long as they were good students, he could recruit anyone. Had Metheny said no, Sonny told me he was going to walk away from the job.

Credit the late Metheny, who is in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, for allowing Sonny to make a bold statement against racism. No predominately white basketball program in Virginia had recruited a black player an it wasn't a particularly popular thing to do in many circles.

Arthur “Buttons” Speakes, a guard from Huntington, W.Va., was the first black player to accept a scholarship from Sonny. Allen knew the first player would have to endure taunts and racist slurs and, like Jackie Robinson, resist the urge to retaliate. Allen had seen Speakes play in high school and knew he was tough enough to handle it.

Speakes endured much when he played on the freshman team – at the time, the NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to play for the varsity.

Before a game at Hampden-Sydney College, Speakes had to sleep in the school’s gym because nearby hotels barred African Americans. Hampden-Sydney and Old Dominion were members of the Mason-Dixon Conference, which is named for the border between slave and free states before the Civil War.

When Speakes took the court with the varsity in 1966-67, and he had company. Allen recruited Bob Pritchett, an African American junior college All-American from southern Indiana.

Both said they were treated pretty well by Old Dominion students, but not by fans on the road, especially in a 1966 game at The Citadel. Officials at the military school did not know an integrated team was coming to Charleston.

When officials figured it out, state troopers were called in to surround the gym. Speakes remembers the uniformed cadets being “pretty raunchy.”

Bob Pritchett scored 67 points in his last game, a 152-110 victory over Richmond Professional Institute, which is now VCU.

The Monarchs won 78-70. “One of my most satisfying wins ever,” Allen said.

Whenever the team was on the road and stopped to eat, Sonny would ask the restaurant manager if he served African Americans.

“Sonny always said that if we couldn’t go in, nobody would go in,” Pritchett said.

Based on his work in racial progress alone, Allen would deserve Hall of Fame consideration.

But his coaching career should make this a slam dunk.

When Sonny came to Norfolk, Old Dominion played at local high schools, the Norfolk Arena or a small gym on campus. The team drew well at times, but some games drew hundreds, rather than thousands, of fans.

By the time Sonny left, ODU was regularly selling out the 4,800-seat field house and was hosting what we now call Power 5 teams. ODU upset nationally ranked Cal-Berkeley and Auburn at Scope and lost by a point to Bobby Knight-coached Indiana and to the Virginia Tech team that won the 1973 NIT.

Arthur "Buttons" Speakes was also a baseball standout at ODU. Here, he's pictured playing a game at Larchmont Elementary. 

Allen took ODU to its first six NCAA tournaments, its first Final Four in 1971 and won the Division II national championship in 1975. He was named the national Division II coach of the year.

He left for Southern Methodist, figuring he’d done what he intended to do at ODU. He’d won 181 games and prepared ODU for the move to Division I.

Two years after he left, ODU made its debut in Division I by winning 22 games in a row. ODU won its first game ever at Virginia, with Wilson Washington getting things started with breakaway reverse dunk. The Monarchs also stunned Mississippi State at home.

During postseason play, ODU upset Georgetown 80-58 in Washington. ODU was a missed jump shot from beating No. 13 Syracuse before a frenetic, sold-out crown at Scope. A victory would have sent the Monarchs to the NCAA tournament.

Paul Webb succeeded Sonny and built impressively on his success. He took ODU to postseason play nine out of 10 seasons and won at Clemson, won at Virginia, stunned No. 3 Syracuse at Scope and won at No. 1 DePaul.

Minium: Paul Webb's legacy stood the test of time

Guard Joey Caruthers, recruited out of West Virginia by Allen, played on ODU’s Division II national championship team and the first Division I team.

“Paul Webb had so much to do with our success,” said Caruthers, a Virginia Beach school teacher and a high school referee. “He was a great coach and a classy guy who recruited some great players.

“But the core of that first Division I team was Sonny’s guys.”

Sonny built ODU’s fan base with a fast-break attack that many would emulate.

ODU averaged 85 or more points nine times, including 98.2 in 1967-68. In Pritchett’s final game against archrival Richmond Professional Institute (now VCU), Pritchett scored 67 points, which is still a school record, as ODU won 152-110.

Sonny honoring John O'Hara at an ODU banquet.

Allen wrote a book called “The Sonny Allen Fast Break,” and it was popular among coaches, including George Raveling, who coached at USC, Iowa and Washington State. Earlier this week, he said every team he had emulated the core principles he learned from Sonny’s book.

Paul Westhead, whose Loyola Marymount team set national scoring records in the early 1990s, said he copied his system from Sonny. Both he and Raveling have sent letters endorsing Sonny's admission to the Hall of Fame.

Even the numbers Sonny used in his system – No. 1 for the point guard, No. 2 for the shooting guard, etc. – are still used by every team at every level in America.

After five seasons at SMU, Sonny then coached seven at Nevada, where he took the team to its first two NCAA tournaments. He also coached in the World Basketball League, the Continental Basketball League and the WNBA, where one of his star players was ODU alum Ticha Penicheiro. He was also an NBA assistant for a year.

He retired in 2001 with a 613-383 record.

Sonny with wife, Donna

As a Virginian-Pilot reporter, I covered the Sports Hall of Fame’s move from Portsmouth to the Virginia Beach Town Center and know a lot of people in the organization. They're good people who are working hard to keep the Hall or Fame open. Many hall of fames across the country are closing.

Former ODU star Dave Twardzik, a member of the Hall of Fame, has nominated Sonny many times. I’m told the reason Sonny hasn’t gotten over the hump is because he only coached in Virginia for 10 years.

“I’ve heard the same thing,” Twardzik said. “And that’s crazy. Sonny should have been in the Hall of Fame years ago.”

Let me add that while everyone in the Hall of Fame deserves to be there, some were only in Virginia four years. Sonny was here 10 and what he accomplished here is still reflected in ODU’s outstanding basketball program.

1975 national championship team

Surely, someone was going to integrate college basketball in the state.Yet Sonny had the courage to do it when nobody else did.

Sonny is 83 and lives in Reno, Nev., with his wife, Donna. His health is failing, although his mind is as sharp as ever. He would treasure being honored among the sports greats enshrined at Town Center.

I've reached out to a number of people and all have responded positively when I've asked them to support Sonny's induction. It's a diverse group. Gov. Ralph Northam, ODU President John R. Broderick, former NFL star Bruce Smith and Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander have written letters. So have several ODU Hall of Fame members, including Twardzik and Debbie White. Even song writer, singer and pianist Bruce Hornsby supports Sonny's induction.

Bryant Stith, an ODU basketball assistant coach, is sending a letter. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame more than a decade ago. And ODU Coach Jeff Jones sent a letter earlier this week.  

I ask my good friends at the Sports Hall of Fame to look at Sonny’s full record, at not only what he did for ODU basketball but for racial progress, and grant him an honor he richly deserves.

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

Contact Virginia Sports Hall of Fame:

Will Driscoll

Executive Director

Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

249 Central Park Ave, Suite 230

Virginia Beach, VA 23462

Email: driscollw@vasportshof.com