I spent the majority of 2019 researching and writing a biography of a man that some call “the best coach that no one has ever heard of”—longtime Fork Union Military Academy basketball coach Fletcher Arritt. But less than a week after my book was launched, Arritt’s name was released on a list of candidates for 2020 induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Friends and admirers of Arritt’s no less prominent than Roy Williams, Rick Barnes, Leonard Hamilton and Dave Odom have long maintained that his impact on the game of basketball is so profound that he should be enshrined in the sport’s most hallowed hall. One former player and current documentary filmmaker, Phil Wall, is currently producing a film about Arritt and played an integral part in keeping his name in front of the decision-makers who selected the candidates.
Many basketball fans who perused the list the week before Christmas undoubtedly skimmed over Arritt’s name because it didn’t ring a bell as a coach who had collected national titles, or Final Fours, or prominent media profiles. But his inclusion is gratifying for those of us who understand the effect he has had on hundreds of lives since 1970, and it also raises an important question about halls of fame and the values they celebrate.
Arritt’s win-loss record of 890-283 is exemplary at any level, but the singular nature of his 42-year coaching campaign means that he can’t be measured by the same standards as most Naismith Hall of Fame candidates. Arritt’s impact should instead be quantified through something much more enduring than statistics—altered lives.
From 1970 to 2012 at Fork Union, Arritt led a dozen new athletes every year. Since players only compete at the postgrad level for the year between high school and college, each spring Arritt had to select twelve new players. Multiplied over 42 years, that means he coached more than 500 young men in his career. Given the fact that the typical high school or college coach keeps his players for three or four years, it’s a safe pronouncement that no coach has had the opportunity to impact as many young men through the game of basketball as Fletcher Arritt.
Never has an institution so perfectly matched a coach’s values, and his firm belief in the standards of Fork Union meant that he never accepted serious offers to coach in more high-profile settings. But even from a small gym on the campus of a remote Virginia military school, his effect on young men, and on the game of basketball, was unmistakable. The men who played for him, and the coaches who traveled the rural roads of central Virginia to woo his players, understand that no coach in the last half century has led with such a powerful mix of discipline, faith, conviction and love. There’s certainly a place in basketball’s most prominent hall of fame for coaches who are, in every modern sense of the word, famous. But a sport’s honorific misses something significant when name recognition and statistics alone are considered in lieu of the effects on young men that, while harder to quantify, turn teenage athletes into men of integrity.