Remembering Buzz Ridl

Despite respectable showings by the University of Pittsburgh men and women's basketball teams in their respective NCAA Tournaments this season, the 1974 Pitt men are still the only Panthers basketball team to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Somehow, however, glory has escaped the head coach of that team, the late Charles "Buzz" Ridl.

While basketball often takes a back seat to other sports in Western Pennsylvania, Ridl's name somehow doesn't carry the same attention less contemporary basketball coaches such as Duquesne's Chick Davies or Dudey Moore do in Pittsburgh.

It seems awkward to even include Ridl, an unassuming man who often wore thick glasses, on a list with recent Pitt basketball coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon and their polished images.

Yet Ridl took the 1974 Panthers farther than any of those four coaches took Pitt or Duquesne in the NCAA Tournament.

I only had the chance to meet Ridl once. In 1991, I was attending Point Park College and was set to broadcast the Pioneers' basketball games at Westminster College for our student radio station.

I arrived early with a partner and, naturally, we hit the concession stand upon our arrival.

A friendly conversation with the workers staffing the stand broke out where my partner revealed that even at that young age I knew a lot about sports history.

Upon this revelation, a white-haired, senior gentleman was beckoned from his duties cooking hot dogs and asked by his fellow workers to throw a few questions at me.

First, he asked me if I knew who Larry French was, and after I successfully identified the left-handed pitcher of the 1930s for the Pirates and Cubs he followed with this stumper:

"What Pitt basketball team won the most games?"

After I correctly identified the 1974 squad, he turned to his friends, said "He's good," and went back to cooking hot dogs.

Happy that my sports knowledge was praised and I had won acceptance with the group, I then went about the business of calling the women's basketball game.

But after Point Park's 79-73 loss, the referees for the men's game failed to show- the result of being given the wrong times on their schedule.

Trying to fill up time on our broadcast during this hour long delay, I searched through the Westminster game program to find something of interest to talk about.

There I noticed the picture of the same white-haired gentleman who I had met in the concession stand.

He was listed as Westminster's golf coach, and after reading his bio underneath the picture I found that the man who had asked me the trivia question about the '74 Panthers was, in fact, the head coach of that team.

What was this guy doing cooking hot dog wieners in New Wilmington?

Naturally, I took a commercial break on the broadcast and went back to the concession stand to ask for an interview, which Ridl agreed to do just as soon as he could get a break.

Unfortunately, the game started before Ridl could get away.

But perhaps in this story the lesson of why Ridl's name isn't more prominent is revealed. Furthermore, one gets the feeling not too many of the eight head coaches in this year's regional semifinal would be comfortable spending their final coaching years at an NAIA golf program and working in a concession stand, even if it was their alma mater.

Still, perhaps no basketball coach in Western Pennsylvania history was the strategist Ridl was with his deliberate offense and amoeba defense.

The failure for Pitt to make the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament(s) has been frustrating.

But perhaps from that failure, Panthers fans can find new reverence for Ridl's legacy and learn just what a coach and humble individual he was.

NOTE- Matthew Jura, the grandson of former Pitt assistant basketball coach Fran Webster, has emailed Panther Digest with the following note about the defense the Panthers' used at that time.

My grandfather assisted under Buzz Ridl at Westminster and followed him to Pitt a year after Buzz left to help Ron Galbreath adjust to his new job as the head men's coach at "Westmini" (as we call it up here). He was apart of Pitt's elite 8 team and was a very important piece for the fact he was the man who created The Ameoba Defense and was the ONLY person who called defenses during the game for Pitt.

In fact at most games, Fran would sit up in the coach boxes like how defensive coordinators do for football games. Buzz was not a man of defense, who knew his offense very well, but trust me there was a reason he brought Franny along with him.

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