There's only one man for the Chicago Bulls' job. There's only one man to settle the NBA lockout. There's only one man to clean up the mess in Washington. Naturally, that man is... Gil Thorp.
O.K., O.K., he's a little two-dimensional, and his haircut is by Floyd of Mayberry, and, true, he stills says stuff like "Holy crow!" and "What in blazes?" and "I know you'll make the right decision, Billy!" but doggone it, that's what we need right now, isn't it?
People who say there are no heroes on the sports page anymore aren't reading Gil Thorp. Across America—from San Diego to Buffalo—Coach Thorp has been sports' comic-strip hero for almost half a century. How retro cool is this guy? He should be in his 70s, but he still looks 38, with a glorious full head of hair and a jaw so square you could open an industrial-sized can of Van Camp's Pork & Beans with it. Better than that, he has U-Hauls full of morals and sticks by them. In short, he gives you this gnawing suspicion that he's everything you're not.
Six mornings a week we get to go to the most perfect place in sports—Thorp's Milford High—where everybody is bright-eyed and high-cheekboned, where you can count on people eventually doing the right thing and where "cagers" and "gridders" get their letter jackets through hard work, not J. Crew.
Not that it's a fairyland. You wouldn't believe the kind of stuff the young athletes at Milford get into—steroids, pregnancy, gangs, bookies, loan sharks—yet every single time, Thorp helps them work it out. And in working it out, guess what? We all learn a little something. O.K.?
One time his best football player, Lenny Hull, purposely knocked the other team's quarterback out of the game with a cheap shot. Thorp, who reminds you of Ward Cleaver, glared at him square in the eye and said, "Lenny, winning without sportsmanship is losing! You better remember that!" And Lenny went on to become chancellor of Germany! (No.)
That's how Thorp is. He still looks, sounds and acts as if he just dropped out of the 1950s, which figures, since that's when a former World War II aerial photographer and gunner named Jack Berrill began drawing him. For 38 years Berrill never missed a day. In fact on the day he died in 1996, at 72, Berrill finished the panel giving Thorp his eighth state basketball title. What do you know? Two guys who like to see a job through.
Now the strip is written by Jerry Jenkins and drawn by Ray Bums, but nothing's changed. Thorp is still the greatest high school coach in history. According to an obsessive but very real person named Matt Shaughnessy, who keeps track of these things, Thorp has won 70% of his football games, 56% of his baseball games, 70% of his basketball games—1,374 wins in all. He also has 759 losses, but not once has he blamed the refs, the press or the food on the charter.
Thorp has solved countless personal crises for his athletes, influenced countless lives for the better and ended countless sentences with an exclamation point. He's benched kids and even kicked them off the team-usually his best players—for smoking, drinking, swearing, not hustling and, just recently, talking to a girl in the stands. Is Phil Jackson listening?
Thorp is so completely out, he's actually in again. There's a Web site (www.gilthorp.com), and on it there's a poll asking who should play Thorp if there were a movie. (Is Hugh Beaumont still alive?) A few people even want him to wrestle Rodzilla.