Remembering College Basketball’s Most Unconventional Coach

Al McGuire and Dick Enberg with the author circa 1980-something.

Forty-two years ago, on March 28, 1977, Marquette University Basketball Coach Al McGuire had a date with destiny. Three months earlier he had thrown the college basketball world a curveball, announcing his retirement, effective at the end of the season. Now the final game of that season was at hand and his team was in it. The Al McGuire story was poised for a Hollywood ending. Cue the orchestra.

I’ll never forget the game. I was a senior in college, watching it on TV in Stevens Point, WI. Marquette’s opponent was North Carolina and its legendary coach, Dean Smith. The Tarheel’s stars were Walter Davis and Mike O’Koren. Butch Lee, Bo Ellis, and Jerome Whitehead formed the nucleus of what could best be described as a juggernaut for Marquette. It was a team with A-list talent and Al McGuire in their heads and heart.

The Warriors (Marquette’s pre-political correctness nickname) beat North Carolina 67–59. The last indelible image I have from that game is of tears flowing down McGuire’s cheeks. He was overcome with emotion as the clock ticked away the final seconds of his 20-year coaching career. It was a jumble of feelings; the joy of victory and the sadness of its finality.

There was no phony baloney with Al McGuire. No putting on airs. What you saw was what you got. Al never tried to fit in. Sometimes he stood out like a bright blue suit at a funeral. But that was fine by him. He was who he was. No apologies.

Al was the Pied Piper of college basketball coaches — a free spirit, who shunned the traditional trappings of his profession. No whistle. No whiteboard. No film projector. He coached basketball the way a maestro conducts an orchestra — by feel.

McGuire wasn’t a perfect human being. Far from it. He knew that, accepted it, and never apologized for being himself. He was comfortable in his own skin, and in spite of his bravado, Al was keenly aware of his limitations. He chose assistant coaches who could fill those voids. But, McGuire was gifted with super-human instincts. He understood the unique individuality of people and what made them tick. To him, the game was always more psychological than technical. It was never about the “X’s and O’s.” It was always about emotion and heart.

But before Al won the national championship in 1977, he lost one in 1974. Marquette’s opponent in the final game, North Carolina State, scored 9 unanswered points after McGuire received two technical fouls in the second half. The Wolfpack won the game 76–64.

That summer I had the opportunity to interview Al for a radio station I was working at. I asked him about the technical fouls he received in the game. He told me the first technical foul was an intentional move on his part. But, the second one was not planned. It got away from him. He admitted blowing the game, but added, “they wouldn’t have been there without me.”

How many coaches, or people for that matter, would be so brutally honest, so blunt, so arrogant? Call it what you will. He took responsibility for his blunder and put it in perspective in a single sentence. No excuses. No gaslighting. No sarcasm. No temper tantrum. He wasn’t mean-spirited, demeaning, vulgar, or bitter. He gave me a direct, candid answer, which I remember verbatim forty-years later.

Al McGuire was a character unlike any other. He is likely the most quoted college basketball coach of all time. But unlike the other oft-quoted coach, UCLA’s John Wooden, McGuire’s musings were poetic, humorous, esoteric.

“The only mystery in life is why kamikaze pilots wore helmets.”

“I think the world is run by C-students.”

“Dean Meminger was quicker than 11:15 Mass at a seaside resort.”

“I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cab driver. Then they would really be educated.”

“A team should be an extension of a coach’s personality. My teams are arrogant and obnoxious.”

McGuire had his own unique vocabulary. “Seashells and balloons” was the

phrase he used to describe the state of bliss. A big center was an “aircraft carrier.” An easy opponent was a “cupcake.” A close ballgame was a “white knuckler,” an axiom that could also describe his personality.

McGuire scrapped his way through early life to become a college basketball star at St. John’s in his hometown of Queens, NY. But, his NBA career as a defensive specialist lasted just four seasons. Now what? He could always work as a bartender. But Al resisted the shot-and-a-beer allure of his father’s occupation in favor of coaching. It was without a doubt his true calling. But he didn’t disappoint in his second career as a college basketball TV analyst either.

He first graced the television airwaves in 1978, teaming with Billy Packer and Dick Enberg to become the most entertaining, if not cantankerous, broadcast trio in college basketball history. But the act was short-lived. After just four seasons of the Al, Dick, and Billy show, CBS acquired the NCAA tournament rights and hired Packer away from NBC. McGuire and Enberg remained at the Peacock Network and worked together for another fourteen years.

Enberg was the gentlemanly wordsmith with a Ph.D. He was amused and tickled by McGuire, the ostentatious alter ego Enberg could never be. Both had heart, a love of the game, and a love for each other. Their teamwork was pure magic. But they were as different as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Pinot Noir.

Since I also worked in TV sports, I’d see Al once or twice a basketball season. He never remembered my name. Names weren’t his strong suit. In fact, he’d usually ask me to help him remember the names of the players he was watching. Some days he would be thoroughly engaging, but every now and again he would become introspective and quietly retreat into his own little world. He didn’t feel a need to be constantly “on” like so many other media personalities. The Wisconsin kid in me just loved being with him and taking in the essence of this iconic man.

Al’s TV avocation lasted 23 years. It was a good run, but he contracted leukemia and was forced to retire in 2001. He died ten months later, at the age of 72.

Oh, how I’d love to turn on the NCAA Tournament and see the lanky frame and flowing mane of McGuire stalking the sidelines again or hear his arcane, outlandish comments on a game telecast.

Yes, Al McGuire was a diamond in the rough, a poet in a land of hacks, Sinatra in an era of rap. He was an original, a one and only, and just thinking of him makes me smile. Big Al followed his own mantra and lived each day like it was Saturday night.

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