To hear the television commentators tell it, the NCAA tournament is a contest among 64 clipboard-toting men in coats and ties, all of them possessing the wisdom of Solomon and the integrity of Eliot Ness. No head coach of any tournament team is doing less than an absolutely splendid job. Most of the assistant coaches are prize fellows too, and for that matter, so are the head coaches who are no longer around. In the early moments of the first-round Cal-Princeton game last Thursday, CBS color man Bill Raftery gave us two paeans to Pete Carril, who retired as Tigers coach after last season, as well as a minute's riff on his own high school coach, Joe Palermo, now an assistant at LIU.
Praising the coach is to the commentator what the temperature roundup is to the weatherman. It's something that has to be done; it's the automatic. "Give credit to Bill Musselman...," said CBS's Tim Ryan as Musselman's South Alabama team lost to Arizona in the first round. "But give credit to Lute Olson, too...," Ryan quickly added, so the Wildcats' coach wouldn't feel overlooked. Call it the double-clutch encomium.
Coaches do such a great job, in fact, that sometimes they don't even need players. "That's a nice move by [Valparaiso coach] Homer Drew to get the ball inside," said CBS's Dan Bonner during the Crusaders' first-round loss to Boston College. Drew may have diagrammed it, Dan, but he didn't make the pass.
Actually, CBS's team is relatively restrained in its praise of coaches when compared with ESPN's band of butt-smoochers. Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Dale Brown, 75% of the network's studio team, are former coaches who too often seem to think that the guys on the sidelines are the only ones worth mentioning. Phelps isn't too bad. But for Brown, South Alabama's matchup with Arizona wasn't a chance for the Jaguars to prove themselves; it was "the biggest game of Bill Musselman's life." And Boston College's win over Valparaiso wasn't a team victory; it was a personal triumph for coach Jim O'Brien. "Jim O'Brien, I love you," said Brown. "They kicked you around. Now go get yourself a big raise."
Vitale's speciality is making inappropriate comments about coaches' job prospects. "They tell me [Wake Forest coach] Davey Odom is Number 1 on the hit list at Tennessee," Vitale interjected into a discussion that was about neither Wake Forest nor Tennessee, which didn't make the NCAA field. On another occasion Vitale suddenly took out one of his screeching classifieds on behalf of former UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who was forced out of his job because he lied to college administrators about misuse of his expense account: "I just hope there's an AD out there with the guts to give Jim Harrick a chance." This NCAA tournament has myriad story lines, none of them Harrick.
After Coppin State upset South Carolina last Friday, this was Vitale's wrap-up: "Fang Mitchell—he's the star of the day." Wrong, Dick. The star of the day was not the Coppin coach but his junior guard Danny Singletary, who had 22 points, 18 in the second half. For the most part the tournament is about players, not coaches. Still, we have to say that Dean Smith fellow (page 32) is doing a great job with the program at North Carolina.
Howe Will He Do It?
If Gordie Howe's attempt at a comeback results in his actually playing in an American Hockey League game for the Syracuse Crunch this season, he will become sports' Methuselah. Howe will celebrate his 69th birthday on March 31, one day before he hopes to make his Crunch debut against the Carolina Monarchs at Onondaga War Memorial arena in Syracuse. To put this in perspective: Howe's son Mark, a fine WHA and NHL defenseman for 22 years, retired after the 1994-95 season because he was too old (40) to take the pounding.
The fact that Howe's comeback is scheduled for April Fool's Day is pure coincidence, both Howe and Crunch officials insist. Howe is working out on his own, and he, his wife, Colleen, and Crunch officials will decide whether he's ready the day of the game. Team brass, pointing out that the club routinely sells out, says this is not a gimmick to pack the house. That's not to say it isn't a publicity stunt.