By Trey Williams
In 1992 Alan LeForce coached East Tennessee State to its first and only NCAA Tournament victory since Harley “Skeeter” Swift propelled the Buccaneers past Dave Cowens-led Florida State into the Sweet 16 in 1968.
LeForce was in his second season succeeding former boss Les Robinson when the Buccaneers capped an NCAA Tournament four-peat with an upset of third-seeded Arizona.
Despite having to replace Keith “Mister” Jennings, Alvin West and Major Geer following the 1990-91 season, the Bucs went 13-for-25 from 3-point range and got double-digit scoring from Rodney English, Calvin Talford, Jason Niblett and Trazel Silvers in the 87-80 victory. Arizona had future NBA players Damon Stoudamire, Chris Mills, Sean Rooks, Khalid Reaves and Ed Stokes.
“We’d played Arizona the year before and could’ve beaten ‘em,” said LeForce, who turned 88 on Feb. 27 and is volunteering at Furman this season.
But the Bucs had graduated the three guards and Wildcats were more worried about a potential second-round matchup with the Fab Five of Michigan.
“Lute Olson told me that spring, ‘We tried to convince our players that you all could beat us,’” LeForce said. “And he said, ‘We could never, ever convince them that you all were that good.’”
Bucs players had to convince ETSU president Ron Beller to hire LeForce when Robinson left for North Carolina State. Jennings strongly recommended LeForce at a team gathering.
“Mister said, ‘Dr. Beller, you’ve got the finest coach you’ll ever find sitting right there,’” LeForce said. “So you could imagine what that made me feel like. I could’ve cried, really.”
LeForce had been a head coach at high schools and at the College of Charleston when it was an NAIA program. But this was the top of the mountain for the poor barefoot kid who’d shot basketballs through a wheel on a tree in Wofford, Kentucky.
“Wofford was between Williamsburg and Corbin,” LeForce said. “Population, 33.”
LeForce went to the YMCA in Corbin with a cousin when he was six or seven years old. The instructor lined up the kids and noticed LeForce wasn’t wearing shoes.
“The coach said, ‘Where are your tennis shoes, son,’” LeForce said. “I said, ‘I don’t have any.’ He said, ‘What size you wear?’ I didn’t know what size I wore.”
They found LeForce some shoes that were way too big. But he was off an running.
“I remember he came over to me and rubbed me on top of the head and said, ‘Boy, you’re gonna be a good little athlete. You’ve got a lot of quickness,’” LeForce said. “And nobody’d ever said anything to me at that time – about anything. And I promise you to God, from that day forth, I always said, ‘I’m gonna be a coach.’ And I never changed my mind.”
LeForce listened to Kentucky basketball on a transistor radio.
“We had a battery radio,” he said. “Listen, I lived in a place that never had electricity until I was 17 years old. Kentucky hardly ever got beat. I’d cry when they got beat.”
LeForce got to know Robinson when he was an assistant at Furman and Robinson was an assistant at the The Citadel. They became close when Robinson was the head coach at The Citadel and LeForce was at College of Charleston. They’d often see each other multiple times a week, often at a favorite beer joint.
“One of the best players Les ever had was Rodney McKeever,” LeForce said. “Well, I was recruiting Rodney at the College and he was recruiting him. We were NAIA and they were Division I. But we recruited him because we had some good ballclubs.”
The watering hole was on the island where McKeever lived. LeForce and Robinson would occasionally visit McKeever at different times on the same day. LeForce waited at the beer joint one day for Robinson to finish with McKeever.
“It was a little beer joint that Les and I used to go to,” LeForce said. “I was parked around back there one day. Les would usually wait on me there. So one day Les said he was driving over taking Rodney home and my car was parked out back there. He said, ‘See that car.’ Rodney said, ‘Yeah.’ Les said, ‘That’s Coach LeForce’s. He’s an alcoholic.’”
LeForce laughed warmly while recalling the memory.
“Les is a people person,” LeForce said. “And he was a good guy to work for. Well, you could never work for anybody better. He gave me things to do and let you do ‘em. You know, you could make decisions. I mean, he was just super.
“We were very close friends. His wife and my wife and our families. We lived there in Charleston for 10 years. Heck, we were inseparable. We saw each other about every night or two. I’ve never been any closer to anyone than I was to Les.”
LeForce’s Bucs beat Robinson’s first North Carolina State team, which included Chris Corchiani, Rodney Monroe and Tom Gugliotta. It was the second straight year the Bucs had beaten the Wolfpack.
“We were excited and happy,” LeForce said, “but it was difficult (beating Les).”
The ETSU players of that era included Greg Dennis, Marty Story, Chad Keller and Jerry Pelphrey. LeForce agreed with Robinson that Jennings was the key to it all. He recalled watching Jennings play because he’d promised Jennings’ cousin Sharon Allen, an ETSU assistant and former Lady Bucs player, that he’d go to Culpeper, Virginia to take a look. Assistant Dave Hanners went first.
“So Dave went and about 10 o’clock that night the phone rings and he said, ‘Gosh, you’ve gotta come see this kid. He’s a pretty damn good player,’” LeForce said. “I said, ‘Who all is recruiting him?’ He said, ‘Nobody.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, hell if there’s nobody wanting him and he’s 5-foot-7, why would we want him?’
“So Les and I talked and he said, ‘Go see him.’ So all the way to Culpeper, Virginia I was mad. It’s on the other side of Charlottesville. That’s a pretty good little trip up there, and I said, ‘I’m driving all the way up there to see a 5-foot-7 player that nobody’s recruiting.’”
Jennings laughed about it 30 years later.
“I’m pretty sure he wasn’t happy about driving up there,” Jennings said.
But Jennings played well and set a district scoring record while LeForce was in attendance.
“He broke the record,” LeForce said. “When he did that, the student body ran out, picked him and carried him around on their shoulders. He was like a little king, you know. He had his fist closed. He was a heck of a little player. Gosh, he could see the floor.”
Jennings said LeForce was a stringent, old-school coach.
“He was defensive-minded,” Jennings said. “Coach LeForce wanted to shut you down.”
Jennings recalled an inspirational speech before a 90-79 win at Cincinnati when Bob Huggins was the coach. After a 76-74 loss at Chattanooga during Jennings’ senior season, LeForce obtained video of the Mocs’ postgame celebration and played it prior to the rematch. The Bucs romped, 93-70. Jennings had 26 points and eight assists, including two alley-oop lobs to Talford that made SportsCenter.
Jennings also recalled the seniors going to LeForce and requesting he back off somewhat. They had a veteran team and felt like he was riding ‘em too hard. And LeForce lightened up – somewhat.
“That group of players was a bunch of great young men,” LeForce said. “Our kids loved the community and the community loved the kids.”
LeForce’s late wife Shirley taught elementary school in Johnson City.
“My wife taught first and second grade at the schools there,” LeForce said. “I’ve coached all over the South and Johnson City was the place, I think, that we loved the most.”
Shirley died in September of 2020, some two years after their daughter Michelle died after a heart attack.
“You’re not supposed to bury your children,” LeForce said before a pause. “I lost my wife two and a half years ago. She had dementia. Boy, you pray to God your loved ones don’t get that.”
But LeForce keeps listening to sneakers squeaking on hardwood.
“I’m volunteering at Furman,” he said. “I’m just an extra set of eyes. They ask me questions sometimes.”
Furman coach Bob Richie worked at Charleston Southern for Barclay Radebaugh, who began as a graduate assistant at ETSU when Robinson and LeForce came to Johnson City.
“I went to the NCAA (Tournament) twice as an assistant and I went twice as a head coach, and I’ve been three times as a volunteer,” LeForce said. “So I told Bob, ‘Hey, if you want to go to the NCAA, you better let me volunteer.’ And we have a good chance to do it.”