Written by Grid Iron
Friday, 18 July 2008
Above Photo by the GRID IRON CLUB
This Memorial is located at THE HOLMES CENTER at ASU
Appalachian Remembers Rufus Leach
|ASU's all-time single-season leader in three-pointers, Rufus Leach (ASU athletics photo)|
by David Jackson (Associate Athletics Director)
June 9, 2006 - It was a day just like this. A Friday afternoon in early June; not a lot of activity on a college campus at this time of year. Another week of summer school was in the books, student-athletes were winding up another week of training, Appalachian athletics staff members were on their way out the door early to enjoy a beautiful weekend.
I saw Rufus Leach for the final time the day he died. He stood in the lobby of Broome-Kirk Gym, completing the simple task of buying a soda. We chatted for a second, nothing major, and we went away. In hindsight, you always wish you would have said more, but then again, when do you ever really think you are speaking to someone for the last time?
The rest of that afternoon was well documented, and for many of us, tough to think about to this day . Rufus and teammate Buddy Davis broke from their summer job to cool off on an unusually hot summer day in Boone. They jumped into Watauga Lake to see who could reach a dock first. Always a competitor, you can almost see the two bound into the water, and you can almost see that look in Rufus’ eyes; I’m positive he wanted to win that race.
Upon his passing, a series of events were triggered for no particular reason. Rufus passed, Buzz Peterson left just weeks later for Tulsa, Houston Fancher was named head coach and then, less than a month into the season, dismissed Shawn Alexander and Corey Cooper for violations of team rules. A season prior, the confetti was black and gold and it was falling everywhere you looked. The second appearance in the NCAA Tournament for this program that lurks 3,000 feet above the bustle of Tobacco Road seemed more like the first trip of many. Instead, these events led to a rebuilding process. Gone were all five starters including the heart and soul of the program, as well as its head coach. Fancher was faced with picking up the pieces of a team that was in need of a beacon of hope. These times were rough.
You see a lot of coaches in the kids they recruit. Jerry Moore’s guys all seem to have that hard-nosed mentality, Adrienne Shuler’s women seem to take a smooth approach to the game and let their athleticism almost help them glide across the floor, even Chris Pollard’s baseball players seem to walk with a purpose, a place to go, just like their head coach. There was a lot of Houston Fancher in Rufus Leach, and when it was needed most, it seemed as though there was a lot of Rufus Leach in Houston Fancher.
At his press conference to announce his promotion to head coach, the second at Owens Field House in as many weeks regarding the men’s basketball program, Fancher spoke of the family atmosphere surrounding the team, and how his family hurt badly, but they would get through it because of their bond.
With two walk-ons in the starting lineup in 2001, the Mountaineers pressed on. Fancher narrowly missed out on their fourth-straight North Division title, fading away late in the year mainly from fatigue due to a thin roster. The first-year head coach of the Apps finished second in the voting for Southern Conference Coach of the Year, guiding his team to a 7-9 finish in the league standings.
It took several seasons to shake the direct impact of June 9, 2000. Some will tell you that things still are not quite the same -- and never will be. What would Rufus have imparted on the youth brought in by Fancher that first year? In a league that begged for a standout team, would Leach have pushed the Mountaineers back over the hump, like so many of his three-point buckets seemed to do the year before? What would one more year spent around one of the nicest, most sincere and genuine people done for us personally? These questions always seem to come up at this time of year.
Six years later, Houston’s got ‘em rolling again. A team that returns all five starters, with an experienced bench, and complementary newcomers will give Appalachian their best chance to return to the land they once ruled with a mighty fist.
Just know that if the Mountaineers cut down those nets in Charleston, there is a good chance that someone will swing through Maxton on the way back and hand his family a piece of the nylon. It will represent the title the Rufus Leach was working so hard toward the day he died. He was going to get his team back to the dance; that look was in his eye. Even though he may not be physically with us today, his touch will have helped in the path back to greatness.