By Cam Huffman
For the Daily Telegraph
Mountain State University head coach and athletic director Bob Bolen planned on fighting for the school he loves so much to the very end.
He won’t get that opportunity.
Around 1:30 p.m. Monday, Bolen, in North Carolina trying to help one of his players find a place to play, received a phone call with the news that he was on the list of MSU employees being terminated as part of a 50 percent reduction in workforce announced Monday.
Like the other employees on the list, Bolden’s job will come to an end on Sept. 21, effectively closing the doors on the school’s athletic program.
“I’ve given my entire adult life to Mountain State University,” said the 48-year-old MSU coach, who won an NAIA national championship in 2004. “I kind of thought I’d be the last person on this ship while it was sinking. But I guess that’s not going to be the case.
“This place means the world to me, and this is difficult.”
Bolen — a Beckley native who came to The College of West Virginia in 1993, rebuilding a basketball program that had been terminated following the 1977 season, and watching it change its name to Mountain State University in 2001 — admitted he was crushed by the news. Not only does he have a wife, Lisa, and three kids — Katie (14), Jaysen (11) and Andrew (8) — who will be impacted by the decision, he also has a roster of 12 players that no longer have a place to showcase their skills.
Helping those players — some of the most talented in the country — find new homes will be his top priority over the next two months.
“I need to make sure that these 12 kids have scholarships,” said Bolen. “I’m tired of my phone ringing, but that’s what I’m going to have to do.
“They’re wanted. We’re one of the top teams in the country. We’ll be able to find them places to go. I’m going to be loyal to them.”
Aside from losing his job, Bolen will have to watch MSU’s ultra-successful athletic program — which included men’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s cross country, women’s volleyball and cheerleading — come to an end.
“When it’s being destroyed because of nothing we did athletically, it’s sad,” said Bolen. “A lot of coaches take jobs to get to other jobs, but this was my job. It’s what I loved doing, and for it to be taken like this is hard.”
While all of those programs have experienced success, none brought any more attention to the university than Bolen’s basketball team.
Along with the national title — a rare feat in The Mountain State, to say the least — the Cougars made the trip to the NAIA National Tournament 14 straight years from 1999-2012, including four national championship games. Last year’s team advanced to the NAIA Final Four.
Bolen was the 2004 NAIA National Coach of the Year, as well as the West Virginia AP College Coach of the Year. He was the NABC National Coach of the Year in 2010, and last January he became the all-time leader in coaching wins by a men’s basketball coach at a West Virginia college or university. He broke Joe Retton’s record with win No. 479 against Talladega.
He has 487 career wins after his team finished 26-9 last season, and over the last 12 years, MSU’s .865 winning percentage is the highest of any NCAA Division I, Division II or NAIA program.
“I thought we had the best recruiting class in the country, and we had 10 players returning from last year’s Final Four team,” said Bolen. “We were going to be ranked No. 1 in all the polls, and I was really excited.”
His task, however, changed greatly on July 10 when the Higher Learning Commission, MSU’s general accreditation body, announced that it would withdraw the school’s accreditation on Aug. 27.
With the future of the program in limbo, Bolen told his players to leave if they had another place to go, but almost all of them made the decision to ride it out with their coach.
“They wanted to fight this thing out,” he said. “But with the phone call I got (Monday), that won’t be the case. It’s sad they have to read this in the newspaper.”
As for his own future, Bolen isn’t sure what’s in store. To continue coaching, he knows he’ll have to leave the community he loves, but he resigned to the fact that such a move is the most likely outcome.
“I’ll figure it out,” he said. “I’m a pretty tough guy. I’ll go home, get our house cleaned up and get it for sale next week. That’s what’s going to have to happen.”
The timetable for such a move is hard to read.
“If we could backtrack four months ago, I could have had four different jobs,” said Bolen. “But at this point, I have no idea what’s available. It’s just really difficult.
“I have to take care of everybody else first and then see what’s left for me.”