It's time for all you ref-riding, Armani-wearing, contract-breaking, boycott-threatening, head-butting, each-other-dissing, into-the-stands-wandering clipboard jockeys to take a seat. The stage isn't yours, coaches. Not anymore. Come NCAA tournament time it belongs instead to little guys like Alvin (Pooh) Williamson and Tony Miller and Gerrod Abram; and to more familiar stars like Big Dog and Grant and Yell; and to Juwan and to Joe Smith.
After a season in which coaches stole the spotlight again and again with their boorish antics, college basketball's rightful stars seized it back over four festive days last week. The most entertaining part was the way the showstoppers sneaked up on us—after three days of relative calm—on one astonishing Sunday afternoon. The game's two alltime-winningest Goliaths, North Carolina and Kentucky, got stoned within minutes of each other by a couple of Jesuit Davids, Boston College and Marquette, respectively. And the lowest surviving seed in the tournament, Tulsa, pressed and shot its way into the Sweet 16, knocking off intrastate rival Oklahoma State right there in Oklahoma City.
By the end of the day, one coach who was in danger of losing his job (BC's Jim O'Brien), one whom no one had ever heard of (Tulsa's Tubby Smith) and another who has labored in Al McGuire's streetwise shadow (Marquette's Kevin O'Neill) were beaming while their illustrious victims, North Carolina's Dean Smith, Kentucky's Rick Pitino and Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, were left to line up golf dates. "A lot of people make a big deal about coaches," says Maryland point guard Duane Simpkins, whose 10th-seeded Terrapins are another surprising survivor of the first two rounds of the NCAAs. "But coaches can't go out there and make the baskets themselves."
Thank you, Duane. Who needs a coach when you have a point guard like Williamson? He didn't commit a single turnover while orchestrating Tulsa's 194 points in victories over UCLA and Oklahoma State. Miller, Marquette's floor leader, is a former quarterback from the Cleveland high school that produced Desmond Howard and Elvis Grbac; late in the Warriors' 75-63 upset of Kentucky, he simply shook off O'Neill's call for a timeout. In March the play's the thing. "It's just about fulfilling dreams," says Boston College's Abram, whose late free throws helped put away both Washington State, 67-64, and Carolina, 75-72. "You dream about those shots all your life."
This is not to say that the coach is useless, of course. A few hours before Boston College took on the nation's No. 1 team, O'Brien showed his players a video of the BC football team's 41-39 defeat of No. 1 Notre Dame last fall. Then and on Sunday the Eagles' success came down to the coolly drilled three-pointer. By reversing the ball on the perimeter among its three senior guards, Abram, Howard Eisley and Malcolm Huckaby, BC hoped to get the same shots little Liberty had gotten in playing Carolina tough in a first-round loss. The Eagles did indeed get those shots, squeezing off 31 three-pointers and making 12, half of them by Abram.
But it was another senior, 6'9" center Bill Curley, who scored 10 of BC's final 11 points, spinning to the basket past Eric Montross and Rasheed Wallace. The game ended on a telling note: There was Wallace, a freshman who hadn't shot a three-pointer all year, trying to make a trey to tie the game against the Eagles, whose senior sharpshooters had wrung from that shot everything they could. Wallace's effort clanged off the rim.
But this game heated up long before the end. Barely four minutes into the second half, BC freshman forward Danya Abrams clobbered Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps on a breakaway. Phelps suffered a concussion, and Tar Heel coach Dean Smith had to be restrained from charging after Abrams. On the North Carolina bench Phelps said he was O.K., but when the team doctor asked him to count backward by seven from 100 and Phelps couldn't, the Tar Heels' leader didn't play another minute. Postgame questions about the foul nettled the Eagles' coach. "We just had possibly the best basketball win in the history of Boston College, and we have to defend ourselves against a flagrant foul and rough play against that team?" O'Brien said. "Please, please—will someone please step up and give these kids a little credit?"
One Sunday earlier, Tulsa coach Tubby Smith—his real first name is Orlando—was pleading for justice too. He was literally on his knees, praying that his team would get a bid. A week later he was exultant, having watched the 12th-seeded Golden Hurricane move into the round of 16. One of 17 children, Smith got his nickname as a baby. While the svelte coach is DO longer tubby, his team's eye-it-and-fly-it style is aptly described by its Hurricane moniker. Tulsa went up on UCLA by 46-17 before coasting home 112-102. "UCLA had a reaction like, 'You guys can actually play?' " said Tulsa's Gary Collier, who dropped 34 points on the Bruins. One of UCLA's nemeses (who's also the guy who sank the three-pointer that finished off Oklahoma State 82-80) is actually named Lou Alcindor Dawkins. Just when UCLA coach Jim Harrick thought it was safe to tune back into the talk shows, he could once more feel the chill of John Wooden's shadow.
A tug from the past—specifically from echoes of Al McGuire's delightfully fractious teams of the mid-1970s—was also felt at Marquette, which is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the Warriors' 1976-77 championship season. O'Neill, like McGuire a New Yorker (albeit an upstate one), prowls the sideline. In 7'1" center Jim McIlvaine the Warriors have an old-fashioned "aircraft carrier," as McGuire liked to say. Backup center Amal McCaskill sports muttonchops that are reminiscent of '70s star Bo Ellis, who still works the Warrior bench as an assistant coach. And earlier this season Marquette's Roney Eford simply sauntered up to the scorer's table and put himself into a game while O'Neill was down the sideline, talking to another player. Says Eford, "By the time he noticed, I'd done something he was cheering for."
McGuire would love the team's rocky road to the top. Foremost among the challenges was getting players to come to Milwaukee. "If only we could have recruited the parents," says O'Neill. "I'd get on the phone with the father, and he'd say, 'Oh, Marquette, you had great teams.' Then I'd get the kid on, and he'd say, 'Willard Scott says that's the coldest place in the country.' " But after blackening the Ragin' Cajuns of Southwestern Louisiana 81-59 with a 19-0 second-half run, Marquette made a mockery of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino's complaints that his team deserved a higher seed. (Hmmmmmm: The Tennessee job is yawningly open, next week's Southeast Regional is in Knoxville, and O'Neill is an energetic and combative fast-talker who has proved he can go lapel-to-lapel with Kentucky's Baby Baron and whip his—to use a word that's trendy in the profession right now—ass. Think there'll be anyone in an orange blazer waiting to give O'Neill a ride in from the airport?)