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Welcome to His World
Frank Deford
November 29, 1976
Perhaps you can figure out Al McGuire of Marquette, a basketball coach who is credit-card-wise, likes to skip the French pastry and get down to the numbers
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November 29, 1976

Welcome To His World

Perhaps you can figure out Al McGuire of Marquette, a basketball coach who is credit-card-wise, likes to skip the French pastry and get down to the numbers

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In Al McGuire's office at Marquette, images of sad clowns abound. Pictures, all over the place, of sad clowns. Everybody must ask him about them. McGuire is touted to be a con, so the sad clowns have got to be a setup. Right away, commit yourself to those sad clowns, you're coming down his street. Hey, buddy, why do you have a banana in your ear? Because I couldn't find a carrot. Zap, like that. And yet, how strange an affectation: sad clowns. Obviously, they must mean something. It cannot be the sadness, though. Of all the things this fascinating man is—and clown is one—he is not sad.

Another thing he is is street smart. McGuire has grown up and left the pavement for the boardrooms, so now when he spots this quality in others, he calls it "credit-card-wise." One time in a nightclub, when the band played Unchained Melody, all the 40-year-olds in the place suddenly got up and packed the floor, cheek to cheek. Nostalgia ran rampant. Right away, Al said, "Summer song. This was a summer song when it came out. Always more memories with summer songs."

Perfect. He got it. Right on the button. Of course, this is a small thing. A completely insignificant thing. But the point is, he got it just right. And this is a gift. It is McGuire's seminal gift, for all his success flows from it. The best ballplayers see things on the court. McGuire lacked this ability as an athlete, but he owns it in life. Most people play defense in life, others "token it" (as Al says), but there are few scorers, and even fewer playmakers, guys who see things about to open up and can take advantage. McGuire is one of life's playmakers. He perceives. He should be locked in a bicentennial time capsule so that generations yet unborn will understand what this time was really like. There will be all the computers and radar ovens and Instamatics, and McGuire will pop out from among them in 2176 and say. "If the waitress has dirty ankles, the chili will be good." And, "Every obnoxious fan has a wife home who dominates him." And, "If a guy takes off his wristwatch before he fights, he means business." And, "Blacks will have arrived only when we start seeing black receptionists who aren't good looking."

Words tumble from his mouth. He's a lyrical Marshall McLuhan. Often as not, thoughts are bracketed by the name of the person he is addressing, giving a sense of urgency to even mundane observations: "Tommy, you're going to make the turn here, Tommy." " Howie, how many of these go out, Howie?" And likewise, suddenly, late at night, apropos of nothing, unprompted, spoken in some awe and much gratitude: "Frank, what a great life I've had, Frank."

This starts to get us back to the sad clowns. The key to understanding McGuire is to appreciate his unqualified love of life, of what's going on around him. e.e. cummings: "I was marvelously lucky to touch and seize a rising and striving world; a reckless world, filled with the curiosity of life herself; a vivid and violent world welcoming every challenge; a world hating and adoring and fighting and forgiving; in brief, a world which was a world." Al McGuire: "Welcome to my world." With him everything is naturally vivid and nearly everything is naturally contradictory, the way it must be in crowded, excited worlds.

So with the clowns. It is not the sadness that matters, or even the clownishness. It is the sad clown, a contradiction. By definition, can there be such a thing as a sad clown? Or a wise coach? "Sports is a coffee break," McGuire says. And Eugene McCarthy once observed, "Coaching is like politics. You have to be smart enough to know how to do it, but dumb enough to think it is important."

Now, if all of the foregoing has tumbled and twisted and gone in fits and spurts, that's what it is like being around Al McGuire. His business, making money (it includes coaching as a necessary evil), comes ordered and neat, hermetic—to use his word, calculated—but everything else veers off in different directions, at changing speeds, ricocheting. Actually, all of that is calculated, too, only we cannot always fathom to what purpose. For example, later on here McGuire is going to expound at length on how he is not only sick of coaching but how he no longer applies himself to the task, and how Marquette could be virtually unbeatable if he just worked harder. Now, these remarks were made thoughtfully and have been repeated and embellished on other occasions. Obviously, they are going to come back to haunt him. Other recruiters are going to repeat them to prospects. If Marquette loses a couple of games back-to-back, the press and the alumni and the students and even those warm and wonderful fans who don't have shrews for wives are going to throw this admission back in his face. And he knows this, knew it when he spoke. So maybe you can figure out why he said what he did. Probably it has something to do with tar babies. Somehow he figures that other people who slug it out with him in his world are going to get stuck.

People are dazzled by McGuire, by his colorful language and by the colorful things he does—riding motorcycles at his age, which is 48, or going off on solitary trips to the four corners of the globe. That stuff is all out front, hanging out there with the clown pictures, so people seize upon it and dwell on this "character." They miss the man. First off, he is a clever entrepreneur, a promoter, a shrewd businessman, an active executive of a large sports equipment company (vice-president of Medalist Industries). This interests him much more than the baskets. "And I have an advantage," he says, "because people have a false impression from reading about me. They expect one thing and suddenly find themselves dealing with a very calculating person. I scare them. I want to skip the French pastry and get right down to the numbers."

The fans and the press think of McGuire as the berserk hothead who drew two technicals in an NCAA championship game, or the uncommonly handsome, dapper sharpie, pacing, spitting, playing to the crowd, cursing his players, themselves attired in madcap uniforms resembling the chorus line in The Wiz. The fans and the press overlook the fact that McGuire's Marquette teams have made the NCAA or the NIT 10 years in a row, averaging 25 wins a season the last nine, and they got there by concentrating on defense, ice-picking out victories by a few points a game. As a coach, you can't much control an offense: They just weren't going in for us tonight. A defense is a constant, seldom fluctuating, always commanding. Just because people see Al McGuire's body on the bench, they assume that is he, carrying on. You want to see Al McGuire, look out on the court, look at the way his team plays, calculating. McGuire will play gin rummy against anybody; he won't play the horses or a wheel in Vegas; he won't play the house. You play him, his game, his world. "People say it's all an act, and maybe it is," he says. "Not all of it—but I don't know myself anymore whether I'm acting. Not anymore. I don't know. I just know it pleases me."

The motorcycle, for example, gets involved here. McGuire adores motorcycling. Most mornings at home in Milwaukee, he rises at seven and tools around for a couple of hours on his Kawasaki. Before the regionals in Louisiana last year, he rented a bike and went to a leper hospital. So the motorcycle business is for real. Also, it is French pastry. Let us look at McGuire vis-�-vis more important things; for example, cars and women.

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