Sonny Allen, a basketball pioneer who led Nevada to its first two NCAA Tournament berths, died Friday morning in Reno. He was 84.
Allen suffered for years from Parkinson's Disease with the disease worsening in recent months. Allen is survived by his wife, Donna, and four children, including his son, Billy, who played for him at Nevada, and daughters Jackie Eldrenkamp, Kelly Marcantel and Jennifer Allen. He also leaves behind step children Jimmy Warner and Tedi Holdmann. Allen is also survived by eight grandchildren and five great grandsons.
"He fought a good fight and was an awesome dad for all of us," Billy Allen told Old Dominion's website. "He's in heaven now. There's no more Parkinson's, no more suffering. Dad knew this was coming. He knew the end was near. We had great talks about this, and he was strong and faithful. He knew where he was going and that's a much better place than he was here."
Born in Moundsville, W.V., Allen was a star point guard at Marshall from 1956-60 before serving as an assistant coach for the team from 1960-65. He got his first varsity head-coaching job at Old Dominion University, where he served for a decade. He led the Monarchs to six Division II tournaments, including a national title in 1975. His team finished runner-up in 1971 and fourth nationally in 1976, with Allen setting the stage for the program's jump to Division I, which happened two years after he left for SMU. When Allen took Old Dominion's job, the school played in Division III in what amounted to high school gyms. He went 181-94 with the Monarchs.
During five seasons at SMU, Allen went 61-77, including one SWAC coach of the year honor, before leaving for Nevada, which he led from 1980-87. Taking over a program with minimal track record of winning, Allen went 114-89 over seven seasons, including four Big Sky championships in a three-year period from 1982-85. That included the school's first NCAA Tournament berths in 1984 (a first-round loss to North Carolina State) and 1985 (a first-round loss to Washington). Allen was fired after the 1986-87 season, but his legacy was intact and he was enshrined in Nevada's Hall of Fame in 2005. He and son, Billy, are one of three father-son duos in the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame. Allen was a two-time Big Sky coach of the year.
"He was an offensive innovator at ODU, SMU & Nevada," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted. "A coach’s coach. #RIP, Sonny."
After his time at Nevada, Allen was the head of the Las Vegas Silver Streaks (in the World Basketball League) and Santa Barbara Islanders (in the Continental Basketball Association) and was an assistant with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. He also assisted the WNBA's Detroit Shock before being the head coach of the Sacramento Monarchs from 1999-2001. Allen retired in Reno and was a regular at Wolf Pack games. He finished his career with a 613-383 record.
Allen was known as one of the best offensive coaches in the nation. Dubbed "The Fastbreak Coach" during his career, which spanned six decades, his teams were known for their thunderous dunks and 100-point games before that became the norm. Allen even wrote a book about fastbreak basketball in which players were numbered – No. 1 was the point guard, No. 2 the shooting guard, etc. – for the first time. He was a proponent of speeding up the game, and his advocacy helped introduce the 3-point shot, make the assist an official stat and get the jump ball taken out in favor of a possession arrow.
"Sonny's team always scares me," former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian once lamented (Allen's Wolf Pack beat UNLV twice when it was ranked top 15 in the nation).
Allen also was known for his push for integration. While at Old Dominion, Virginia was segregated, as was college basketball in the state. During the interview process at Old Dominion, he asked athletic director Bud Metheny if he could recruit African-American players. Metheny said, "Yes."
"If Bud had said no, I wouldn't have taken the job," Allen later said.
Integrating college basketball in Virginia was a difficult process with his players sometimes having to sleep in gyms because hotels were segregated. His players were often victims of racial slurs during games.
"He was ahead of his time, certainly before the word was coined, at being inclusive," Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig told the school's website. "It speaks to his character that no matter what public opinion or prevailing thought would be, he did the right thing."
Arthur "Buttons" Speakes was Allen's first African-American scholarship recruit at Old Dominion. Allen recruited Speakes from West Virginia, his home state. Speakes said he was thankful for Allen's impact on his life.
"He meant the world to me because he gave me a chance," Speakes told Old Dominion's website. "I wasn't going anywhere fast in Huntington. He gave me a chance to play ball and get my education. He kind of looked after me because I was going into strange territory as the first (black player at a predominantly white school in Virginia.) He promised my mother that he'd look out for me and he did. He was courageous. We went to some places, we played some games where he had to hold his breath. But we did all right."
Allen had a less-than-ideal upbringing. He was raised in poverty after his father left his mother when he was 3. His mom had to raise five children alone. Allen worked in a steel mill for a year after graduating high school before enrolling at Marshall, where he went from walk-on to star. A three-year starter in the late 1950s, Allen played for some of the highest-scoring teams in college basketball, which is where he got his love of the fastbreak. The Thundering Herd led the nation in scoring in 1957-58 at 88.1 points per game. At Marshall, Allen was the roommate of future NBA star Hal Greer.
“Sonny was one of first coaches I met at Marshall," Thundering Herd head coach Dan D’Antoni said in a statement. "He was the innovator of the numbered break. He was a great coach, but was an even better person. He’ll be missed."
After retiring, Allen dealt with a near-fatal bout of West Nile virus, which he contracted after being bitten by a mosquito in Louisiana in July 2006. He was hospitalized after developing meningitis and encephalitis and was in the ICU in Reno for six days.
"It's a miracle he's alive," his wife Donna said at the time. "Sonny started having seizures. He was very critical for a couple of days."
Doctors credited his healthy lifestyle with helping save his life during that period. Known as an ultimate gentleman, Allen was a Wolf Pack season-ticket holder for more than a dozen seasons and enjoyed rooting for Nevada long after he retired, often commenting about how he'd like the Wolf Pack to speed up its offense. Once a coach, always a coach.
"RIP coach Sonny Allen," former Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said via Twitter (Allen tried to recruit him to play for the Wolf Pack out of high school). "Our relationship started in 1982 when Coach was recruiting me. A true friend and mentor, I learned so much from him. Sonny played a huge role in 'coaching the coaches' and self scouting our Nevada teams. 'The Fastbreak Coach' leaves a basketball legacy."
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.