VIRGINIA BEACH — Sonny Allen’s legacy as a basketball coach is unassailable.
He won a national championship and 181 games in 10 years at Old Dominion and set scoring records that likely never will broken, won 613 games as a head coach and invented the modern fast break and the numbering system used by hundreds of thousands of teams all over the world.
He also integrated college basketball in Virginia while at ODU when he recruited the first African Americans to play on a varsity team at a predominantly white school.
Allen was, of course, feted for all those accomplishments as he was inducted along with 11 others into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame over the weekend.
But I’m sure Sonny would agree that the more important legacy for anyone is reflected in your family, the love you showed your kids, the lessons you taught them and as a result, the kind of people they and their children became.
And judged by his family, Allen was a better person than he was a coach.
Jackie Eldrenkamp hugs former Olympian Lawrence Johnson
More than 50 family members and close friends ventured from out of town to attend the induction. And although former Major League Baseball and NFL stars and popular WAVY-TV sportscaster Bruce Rader were among the inductees, no one had as large, friendly or passionate a following as Sonny.
Former players, including Reese Neyland, who flew in from California, friends and ODU officials swelled the Allen delegation to about 75 people out of the 450 who attended the induction at the Westin Hotel in Town Center.
While the family’s focus was on Sonny, in some ways they stole the show.
From a reception held on Friday afternoon, through Sunday morning in the lobby at the Westin Hotel, they made friends with everyone. They hugged everyone.
They took photos with everyone.
And they showed the type of kindness that we don’t see enough of in the world these days.
They approached inductees, including former NFL stars Anthony Poindexter and Chris Warren, former Norfolk State basketball star Tracy Saunders and former Olympic pole vaulter Lawrence Johnson, and mingled with their families and doted over their children.
“Oh my gosh, what a crew!” said Lauren Hagans, wife of Virginia associate head football coach Marques Hagans, as they were leaving the hotel Sunday morning.
The Allens, about 15 of them, walked over and hugged her, one by one.
And they soaked in every minute of their father being accorded an honor that was long overdue.
Sonny should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame decades ago. For whatever reason he was overlooked and he died a year and a half ago, too late to learn he would finally get into the Hall of Fame.
Nick Allen, on of seven grandchildren
But there was no bitterness among family members. They came to celebrate. Among the last people they hugged were Will Driscoll, executive director of the Hall of Fame, and his wife, Katie Collett, the WAVY-TV news anchor. The evening before, family members sought out Salima Ramos, the hall’s administrative director, and hugged her.
“There is nothing but joy in our hearts,” said Billy Allen, Sonny’s son.
The family’s joy was reflected in Billy’s acceptance speech. In ten minutes and 47 seconds, the former SMU and Nevada-Reno basketball star managed to thank dozens of people, encapsulate his father’s career and tell a few stories that gave people insight into his father’s character.
Joel Rubin, who has worked with the Sports Hall of Fame, and is a former sportscaster and a local public relations guru, said the speech “blew him away.”
“The stories Billy Allen told, the relationship with Paul Webb, were just amazing.
“I didn’t come to the region until 1975 so Sonny was just leaving. I didn’t realize until tonight just how special he was. He was such an important part of our sports history.
“I really felt like I got to know the Allen family.”
Carl Farris, Dennis Ellmer, Bruce Rader and Billy Allen
Billy told an endearing story from 1976, the year after Sonny left ODU to coach at SMU, when Paul Webb took the Monarchs back to the Division II Final Four in Evansville, Indiana. Allen had recruited many of the players on that team.
“On one of my last visits to Reno (Nevada), when my dad was slowing down, he shared a story with me he’d never shared with anyone,” Billy Allen said. “He told me he’d traveled to Evansville for those games. I asked him who had seen him there and asked how he got tickets.
“He’d not seen anyone, he said. He bought a general admission ticket and sat up in the top row.
“He told me this was coach Webb’s team and they had a job to do and he didn’t want to be a distraction. He said, ‘But I had to be there.'”
You can picture Sonny high up in the rafters, eating a hot dog and drinking a soft drink, and silently taking in the spectacle and rooting for his guys.
Paul Webb, also a member of the Hall of Fame, was in the audience and all these years later, had no idea Sonny had watched his team compete in the Final Four.
Both Allen and Webb had much in common, which is why they are among ODU’s most successful coaches ever. Both ran clean programs, worked hard, were soft spoken and humble. They didn’t yell at their players, they counseled them quietly.
As Billy spoke, I looked down the aisle where the Allen children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and friends and others, right down to 17-year-old high school junior Nick Allen, were all crying. There were so many tears that I wonder if the cleanup crew needed a mop.
“They were tears of thankfulness and happiness,” said Jackie Allen Eldrenkamp, one of Sonny’s daughters. “Dad would have loved it.
“All of his people, his family, his lifetime friends, his players, who always meant so much to him, were all here.”
Sonny was one of five kids who grew up in poverty in Moundsville, West Virginia. His father left the family to fend for itself when he was five, so he grew up without a father figure.
Nick, one of seven great grandchildren, also grew up without a father figure and “Papa Sonny,” as family members called him, stepped up to try to help, even though he was thousands of miles away. Sonny spent his last years in Reno. Nick, his mom, Stephanie Harrison, and youngest son, Jordan Harrison, all live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Nick plays basketball and said Papa Sonny called him after every game.
Billy Allen with former ODU center Jay Rountree
“He would want to know how many points and rebounds I had. Assists, that was always important to him. He would always ask ‘how did you guys play as a team?’ That was also very important to him.
“We would usually talk for at least 20 minutes.”
Often, Eldrenkamp, known as Nana to her grandchildren, would drive him home. Stephanie is a radiology nurse and often missed his games. Jackie treasures the memories of her dad bonding with his grandson.
“It showed me how much he cares about all of us,” Nick said. “He’s my role model.”
Sports Hall of Fame CEO Will Driscoll with Billy Allen. Photo courtesy of Will Clarke, JPixx
Nick wasn’t speaking just for himself. Over the years I’ve gotten to know some of Sonny’s grandchildren. Nick’s brother, Jordan, and Ian and Parker Collins, cousins who live a short distance from Nick, are just as passionate about Papa Sonny.
Jordan is a four-sport star. Ian and Parker are double black belts in karate.
They have enjoyed their several trips to ODU. One or two of them, I suspect, will enroll at ODU one day.
Billy told another story that struck a chord, about a card Sonny gave his youngest daughter, Kelly Marcantel, when she graduated from LSU.
It read: Congratulations on your college degree. Also on your first job as an adult.
Proud of you.
Be a Good Citizen.
Life is Good.
Have a great day.
Love you, Dad.
“Be a good citizen always brought a smile to our face,” Billy Allen said. “That was everything our dad stood for.
“After my father passed away a year and a half ago, my brothers and sisters got together and wanted in some way to carry on his legacy.
“So, we named his birthday, March 8, Sonny Allen Be a Good Citizen Day.
From left Stephanie Harrison, Bruce Rader, Melysa Collins, Billy Allen,Tony Collins
“Across the country, there are family and friends that feed the homeless, donate to charities, do all types of volunteer work where they participate, they don’t spectate.
“There’s even a Sonny Allen Good Citizen stretch of highway in North Carolina, a stretch of the most well-kept road in the country.”
That’s when the tears really began to flow.
Jennifer Allen, who was the youngest daughter until Kelly was born, looks the most like Sonny of any of his offspring, and when you tell her that, the Maine resident beams.
The Allens are known for being emotional – Billy Allen choked up twice during his speech – and again on Monday when I interviewed him.
But Jennifer has the most active tear ducts. When I asked her what the evening would have meant for her father, she tried to hide her emotions, but her eyes immediately moistened, and her face reddened.
“I think he would have been proud,” she managed to say. “He was a simple man, a humble man, and he would have talked about everyone else.
“But he would be very proud of what Billy said tonight.”
Kelly Marcantel, who still lives in Louisiana, tearfully said afterwards that the only thing missing was her father.
Kelly, who is 36, said she had so much less time with her father than her siblings.
Her 9-year-old daughter, Lily, who looks so much like Kelly that I dubbed her Kelly’s “Mini Me,” likely will only have fleeting memories of her grandfather.
“I miss him so much,” Kelly said. “And it’s such a shame he couldn’t be here to witness this. It would have made him so happy.”
When they were kids, Kelly, Stephanie Harrison and Melysa Collins would often stay with Papa Sonny in Reno.
“He had a chair in his room, near the bed, angled to watch TV,” Melysa said. “I would sit in his chair with him and cuddle. He was so good to us.
“At the time he was just grandpa. We had no idea all that he did in basketball.”
Sonny Allen’s children: Jackie Eldrenkamp, Billy Allen, Kelly Marcantel, Jennifer Allen
When she got married to Tony Collins 19 years ago, and he began to realize all that her grandfather accomplished, he told her “you undersold him just a bit.”
Eldrenkamp recently retired from American Airlines but when Sonny coached Sacramento of the WNBA, she would use her employee benefits to follow her father’s team.
“We got to meet Ticha Penicheiro,” Stephanie Harrison said of the former ODU women’s basketball star who played for Sonny. “We would travel with the team and stay in the best hotels. It was such a great experience to see Papa Sonny coach.
“I wish he was here. We all keep saying that. He would have loved it. He wanted this for a long time. He deserves it.”
Yes, he does. I wrote a column during my time at The Virginian-Pilot urging the Hall of Fame to reconsider Sonny.
It fell on deaf ears.
Sonny didn’t really care much about acclaim, but for whatever reason, really wanted to be in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. We talked about it off and on for seven years before he passed away.
It was through Sonny that I gained an appreciation of just how prestigious it is to be among the nearly 350 in the hall of fame. As Rader has often said, it’s not a place for the good. It’s a place for the great.
Shortly after I was hired by ODU in 2018, Athletic Director Wood Selig allowed me to begin a campaign to get Sonny inducted into the Hall of Fame. Working with Billy we were able to get nomination letters from a diverse group of people including Gov. Ralph Northam, crooner Bruce Hornsby, former basketball coaches Larry Brown, Paul Westhead, Dale Brown, Del Harris and George Raveling, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander and former NFL star Bruce Smith.
Sonny again failed to make the cut and alas passed away before he was finally inducted. Driscoll, who took over direction of the Hall of Fame in 2019, told me the vote was close and that he would be a candidate again in 2020.
Then the pandemic forced the cancelation of the Hall of Fame inductions for the last two years.
The needle finally moved last October when Selig penned a column in The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press that made the case for Sonny’s induction. It swayed enough board members to finally do Sonny justice.
Selig was raised in Norfolk and grew up watching Sonny’s teams. He knows what so many people who weren’t around in 1975 don’t — that Sonny built the foundation for ODU’s basketball program. Without that foundation, who knows when the Monarchs would have moved to Division I.
Sonny Allen was smiling down on Billy as he delivered a heartfelt and emotional Hall of Fame acceptance speech,” Selig said.
“Billy did an amazing job under the toughest of circumstances. He wove previously never heard before stories alone with so many individual acknowledgments and thank yous that really gave you a sense of who Sonny Allen was.
“We’re so grateful to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.”
Donna Allen, Sonny’s longtime wife, could not be there. Sonny’s kids, including stepchildren Jimmy Warner and Tedi Holdmann, sent Donna flowers. She responded by putting Sonny’s ashes next to the flowers in a chair where she watched the goings on across the country.
“I really wanted to be there,” she said. “And I really wish that Sonny was alive to witness this.”
All of Billy’s family, including wife Lisa, made the trip. His daughter, Whitney Sullivan, husband Tyson and son Smiley were there, as was daughter Alex Bell, husband Parker and children Brody and Lake. Billy’s aunt, Jackie Colin, made the trip from New Jersey.
Lisa’s brother, Brett Ball, and wife Sheri, and Lisa’s sister, Leslie Hadland, all came too.
Two of Sonny’s best friends, Tex Williams and Jack Freeman, drove from West Virginia with their wives, Kay Williams and Cecile Freeman. They were Sonny’s teammates at Marshall.
John Varlas, who was married to Sonny’s sister, Nancy, came with his son Brad Varlas, and Brad bought everyone pizza as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning in the hotel lobby.
The Allens found a group of parents from West Virginia who were in town for a girls volleyball tournament. The group joined the Allens downstairs in the lobby and the buzz continued well into the morning.
That evening, I sat next to Allen cousins Ronna Jo Newell and her daughter, Rebekah Martin, who coaches a high school girls basketball team in West Virginia. I asked Rebekah if they run the fast break.
“Yes, we do,” she said. “The Sonny Allen fast break.”
Billy paid homage earlier that evening to Charlie Woollum and Ed Hall, assistant coaches on that 1975 team, and Dick Fraim, the radio voice of the Monarchs in 1975. Dave Twardzik and his wife, Kathe; Wilson Washington, Jeff Fuhrmann, Joel Copeland, Joey Caruthers, Tony Zontini, Tim Sweeney, Neyland and former center Jay Rountree attended.
So did former ODU sports information director Carol Hudson, whom Billy praised for his long-time service to ODU, and Tony Flores, the then-student manager who along with Washington, hoisted Sonny in the air after the national championship in a photo that has become Iconic.
Former athletic director Jim Jarrett and wife, Sugie, were there and drew a shoutout from Billy. Billy also thanked ODU coach Jeff Jones, who also attended. On every trip to Norfolk, Billy said, Jones made sure that his players “knew we were a part of the ODU family.”
But my favorite moment of the weekend came Friday night, in a much less formal setting, when Billy took 10 people to dinner at the Westin’s restaurant.
It was near closing time and a harried but polite waitress took great care of us.
Afterwards, several members of the Allen family approached her and gave her a card, and by the way, they do this every time they go out to eat.
It contained a quote from Roman’s 13:1.
“Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order to live responsibly as a citizen.”
Card the Allen family handed to a waitress Friday night
They told her about Sonny, Be A Good Citizen Day and the story about how it came about. They said they honor special people and praised her, hugged her and gave her an extraordinarily large tip.
She burst into tears.
“I have a big decision coming that I have to make,” she said. “I think this was meant to be.”
I didn’t pry but assume the kindness from strangers will help her make the right choice.
And if so, that’s just another small part of Sonny’s great legacy.
Sunday evening, 24 members of the Allen family drove to a gigantic house in Sandbridge for six days of fun. Monday evening, a massive wooden, long table was filled with Allens who played cards and exchanged stories.
At times the buzz was so loud it was difficult to hear each other. It was chaotic and overwhelming and beautiful.
Nearby, the Hall of Fame trophy sat on top of a tall table, surrounded by programs from the induction ceremony.
It’s clear that the Allen family is nothing but grateful to Hall of Fame officials. They spoke glowingly about Driscoll and how he saved the organization from going bankrupt when he took over several years ago.
Half a dozen family members plan to return for next year’s induction ceremony.
Brad Varlas, the guy who bought pizzas Saturday night, committed to buying ads in the induction ceremony program the next three years that pay homage to Sonny.
It’s clear this wasn’t a one-off event, that the family intends to continue honoring their dad in Virginia Beach for years to come.
“Let’s keep it going,” Billy Allen said.
Yes, Sonny would be so proud.