Three for the Road
As an aw-shucks immortal named Dean Smith strolled into a Carolina blue sunset last week (page 60), it was impossible not to notice the difference between his resignation and the recent getaways of three other major college basketball coaches, departures that left programs scrambling just days before the start of practice. At Michigan, South Alabama and Arizona State there were no paeans to the exiting master, no seamless transition to the succeeding administration. Indeed, each of the coaches had at least one fatal flaw that cast a cloud over his leave-taking:
•Michigan's Steve Fisher, who was fired last Friday, was praised by his players for being a father figure, but he apparently couldn't keep his boosters at arm's length, especially one Eddie Martin. A 63-year-old retired autoworker, Martin has allegedly violated NCAA rules by giving cash and gifts to Michigan players. Fisher told a law firm conducting an in-house investigation that he was responsible for only a few of the 32 complimentary tickets Martin received over three years. Investigators found, however, that Fisher made out 16 passes in his own name and on at least five other occasions forged the initials PW to give the impression that assistant Perry Watson had left the ducats for Martin. On Monday, Fisher admitted to writing Watson's initials but denied that doing so was improper.
•South Alabama's Bill Musselman stole away to an assistant's job with the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 7, just days after pledging fealty to a Jaguars team that he had led to the NCAA tournament last season. Musselman was a master of X's and O's. He just didn't care enough about the job's peripheral responsibilities—the recruiting and the schmoozing with faculty and administrators. "I don't think he liked college basketball," says senior point guard Rusty Yoder. "He'd come to practices and games, and that would be the only time we'd see him."
•Arizona State's Bill Frieder, who resigned under pressure last month, was a shambling guy who showed up sockless at press conferences and was in some ways a delightful antithesis to his buttoned-down peers. Apparently, though, he should have been more buttoned-down when it came to choosing players. He left his job hounded by an FBI investigation into point shaving by at least three former Sun Devils.
While Fisher left Michigan angry but unbowed, both Musselman ("The pressure on a college coach is nonstop") and Frieder ("This is a tough business. You're very vulnerable as a coach") sounded over-whelmed by the dual burdens of winning on the court and trying to run a clean program off it. But, fellas, that's what you're supposed to do. It's what Dean Smith did for 36 years.
Head Coach Material
Craig MacTavish played bareheaded for all of his 17-year career as an NHL center, and when he retired after last season he had been the only helmetless player in the league for nearly four years. Now MacTavish is an assistant coach of the New York Rangers. In his first game behind the bench a puck thwacked him on the side of the head. "I didn't get much sympathy from the guys," MacTavish says. "They were doubled over in laughter."
Taking a Bath in Memphis
The Tennessee Oilers needed to sell 28,000 tickets to their home game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday just to cover the standard visitor's cut of the gate. But the Oilers attracted only 17,071 fans to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, the NFL's smallest crowd of the week, thus failing to generate enough cash to pay Cincinnati the standard $542,000 visitor's guarantee. In Tennessee's three regular-season home games, this has happened twice.
The Oilers, who plan to move to Nashville (the stadium, unnamed, is under construction) for the 1999 season, pay rent of just one dollar per ticket sold at the Liberty Bowl. Yet because they have little income other than their $44 million share of the NFL's TV package, they could lose as much as $10 million this season. (To make certain Tennessee's opponents are compensated for the low turnout, the Oilers and the NFL agreed to set aside $5 million, which will be divvied up at the end of the season. Teams that don't receive at least $542,000 for a game at the Liberty Bowl are assured a share of the pot later.) It's enough to make the Oilers miss Houston. Their average attendance at the Astrodome may have been a league-worst 31,825 in '96, bottoming out at a Memphis-esque 15,131 finale against the Bengals, but a game against the San Francisco 49ers did draw 53,664—more than the two best totals at the Liberty Bowl this year combined.