Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: In trying season, Roanoke College coach Moir still loves job

His best friend's ghost spoke through the computer.

"Page," the voice said. "This is Bob Johnson."

This happened Wednesday. Roanoke College basketball coach Page Moir had been talking about his career, about the eventuality of breaking a basketball record, when the conversation had turned to Bob Johnson -- the man he soon will catch on the all-time ODAC wins list.

"He's a good kid," the voice on the computer said. "You can see how hard he plays."

Moir forced a smile.

"This call came about a month before he died," Moir said.

Moir saved the message on his computer, just so he could hear the voice. It was the voice of a man he emulated, a man he loved. In this message -- the last of many Moir got from Johnson -- the voice hoped to get one of Johnson's former Emory & Henry College players a job.

"I think he'd be a good hire," the voice said. "If anything, I'd love to talk to you about it, OK?"

The voice paused, struggling for breath, slowed by cancer. Then it continued.

"Hope you're doing really well," the voice said. "I'm bobbing and weaving, but I think I'm making an upward bob here now. All right? So you got a second, you give me a call. I really hope you'll consider this kid with a job interview. Hope I talk to you soon, pal."


"Adios!" the voice said.

The voice stopped. Moir looked down and spoke softly.

"Adios," he said.

Adios. Goodbye to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference game that once was.

It's different now. Gone are the Bob Johnsons and the Bill Leathermans and the Hal Nunnallys that ruled the league when Moir arrived two decades ago, replaced by a new wave of coaches who take recruiting seriously and run ball screens all night long.

Still, the march continues. With two more league wins, Moir will match Johnson for the record of 230 ODAC victories. The irony is that it's likely to happen this year -- perhaps Moir's most difficult in 21 seasons at Roanoke.

"This is a challenge," Moir said in his office Wednesday, hours before his Maroons lost an overtime heartbreaker to Randolph. They would fall again to heavyweight Virginia Wesleyan 77-63 on Saturday to drop to 6-12, 3-6 in the ODAC. "That's why you do this. If we're going into a big game, it's an opportunity to prove ourselves. That's why you coach. You don't coach to beat up on the patsies."

And you don't coach at the Division III level to break records, either. Moir's final message from Johnson -- who retired from coaching in 2007 and succumbed to kidney cancer last August -- is emblematic of the D-3 philosophy. The relationships you build far outweigh the results you get on the court in importance.

Moir has relationships galore. Many of his former players have gotten into coaching, including Hilliary Scott, who now steers ODAC rival Lynchburg College. Moir's had four doctors and two lawyers -- including one in the Marine Corps JAG -- compete for him.

When he bought a new house five years ago, Moir secured the home loan from a former player.

His first season here, Moir purchased 100 baby shirts that said "Roanoke Basketball" on them. Whenever one of his former players became a father, Moir sent him a shirt.

"I ran out this summer, actually," Moir said with a smile.

"When I came here, I'd been at [Virginia] Tech for four years. I'd been at Cincinnati," said Moir, 49, a former assistant at both places. "I'd seen the goods and bads of that level. I knew pretty quickly that this was where I wanted to be. I love this place. I really have not looked hard at anything else in 21 years.

"My dreams -- I didn't lessen them, they just changed. I look at this wall every day at my alums and I talk to a good bit of them pretty consistently. This is fun coaching."

Well, usually it is. Moir admits that this year has been his most challenging since those first few seasons when he was still trying to prove himself.

Back then, Moir would recruit at summer tournaments and rarely see another Division III coach there. Now, it's common for a half-dozen or more ODAC teams to be represented. Moir has stepped up his recruiting efforts in response.

He's also evolved schematically. Moir added some dribble-drive elements to his fast-paced offense this year, hoping to mitigate his team's lack of size.

"It didn't bear as much fruit as I thought it would," he said.

But that doesn't mean he'll stop trying. He often listens to a tape of inspirational quotes before going to practice, searching for the right words to tell his team.

An avid reader, Moir lined his office shelves with books about coaching. Lou Holtz. Marv Levy. Bill Walsh. He likes to discover parallels between issues their teams faced and his.

"I've drawn a lot on John Chaney this year," Moir said. "He says, 'You can't get emotionally drunk.' "

As we all know, Chaney had some emotional intoxication issues near the end of his 24-year run at Temple. But he also coached until he was 74 years old.

That's something Moir doesn't plan to do. But he also doesn't plan to leave anytime soon, which should put some distance between himself and his late mentor on the ODAC wins list.

"I think Bob wouldn't mind, and I'm not going to mind when somebody comes along and breaks this record," Moir said. "It's more of a longevity record, but I think longevity is something I wanted to accomplish. I love what I do and love who I do it with and where I do it."

Even in a rare difficult season.

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