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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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Now, most coaches adore automobiles and have no rapport with women. That is not to say that they don't like sex; it is to say that they tolerate women because women provide sex. But they don't enjoy the company of women. They don't like them around. This is what upsets them about women's athletics, not the money it's going to take from men's sports. Just that they're going to be around. On the other hand, American coaches are nuts about cars. Cars count. The most important thing to coaches is to get a courtesy car to drive around town in. This is the sign of being a successful coach. Almost any American coach will sign for $10,000 less if you give him the use of a $6,500 car.

Naturally, being one of the most famous and successful basketball coaches in the land, Al McGuire has a courtesy car. It is a Thunderbird. He gets a fresh one every two years. But, unlike other coaches, he has no relationship with his car. It doesn't mean anything to him. Last February, after a whole winter of driving the thing, 3,200 miles worth, he still didn't have any idea how to turn on the heat. He had to be shown. And while he can whip around on his motorcycle, he is nearly incompetent as an automobile driver. While driving, he can become oblivious to the fact that he is driving. Sometimes he hunches over the wheel, sort of embracing it, and lets the car carry him and his country music along. Other times he takes both hands off the wheel to properly gesticulate. As a rule, he stops at all stop signs, including those that face down the other road of an intersection. This leads to some confusion in the cars behind the courtesy Thunderbird. Or sometimes, when a topic especially involves him, the car will sort of drift to a halt as he is talking. Just kind of peter out by the side of the road.

But as he does not fraternize with cars, so is he the rare coach who enjoys and appreciates women. This is not telling tales out of school. This has nothing to do with his marriage, which is going on 27 years. This has to do with women generically. "I get along with women better than I do with men," Al says, simply enough. Whenever he talks to a woman he knows, he takes her hands gently in his and confides in her. But understand, the consummate calculator doesn't flash those green eyes just to be friendly. There are many ways to be credit-card-wise. "I've always believed that if you get women involved in anything, it will be a success," McGuire says. "Frank, most men in America are dominated by women, Frank."

He is not. He and Pat McGuire share a marriage that is not unlike the way he coaches. They do not crowd one another. In the 26 years he has been married, he has never used a house key. When he comes home, Pat must let him in. When it is late, which it often is, she is inclined to say, "Where have you been?" He replies, "Pat, were there any calls for me, Pat?" When Marquette is on the road, McGuire never sits in the game bus waiting for it to leave. He waits in a bar for the manager to come in and tell him everyone is aboard. Then, if someone was late, he doesn't know. "A lot of coaching is what you choose not to do, not to see," McGuire says. "That is hypocritical, of course, but it is also true."

This, however, is not to suggest that Pat McGuire puts up with him completely. Like her husband, she is not crazy about all kinds of surprises. This leads to the Al McGuire First Rule of Marriage: when you have something unsettling to tell your wife, advise her thereof just before you go into the bathroom. Thus, when Al decides to take off for Greece or the Yukon or any place where "I can get away from credit cards and free tickets," he announces the trip to Pat as he walks down the hall. "Yes?" she answers. "I'm going to Greece tomorrow for two weeks," he calls out. "What?" she says, afraid she has heard him correctly again. She has. Then he repeats the message and closes the bathroom door. This has worked, more or less, for 26 years. Is it at all surprising that his unorthodoxy has succeeded so well at Marquette for a mere 12?

Now that you are more than somewhat confused, let us go back to his beginning. Al McGuire is influenced by his family and his heritage. He was born on Sept. 7, 1928 in the Bronx but grew up in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, where his family ran a workingman's bar. It was a club, a phone, a bank; they cashed paychecks. There were 56 saloons in seven blocks, meaning a) the McGuires had a lot of competition, but b) they were in the right business for that particular constituency. Al was named for Al Smith, then running as the first major Catholic presidential candidate. Al Smith was the quintessential New Yorker. He was fervently opposed to Prohibition, he wore a derby hat and said such strange words as "raddio," for what brought us Amos 'n' Andy. The namesake McGuire, removed from New York for two decades now, first in North Carolina, then in Milwaukee, still honors the other Al by talking Noo Yawkese. The rs in the middle of many words evaporate. Thus, the fowuds play in the conner, from whence they participate in pattuns. And there is the occasional awreddy and youse and den (for then), and the missing prepositions so reminiscent of that disappearing subway culture: down Miami; graduated high school.

McGuire also claims to have enriched the language. It was his interest in the stock market, he says, that brought the term "blue chip" into sports ("But I wasn't famous enough at the time to get credit for it"). Likewise, "uptick," for when a stock/team advances. Gambling, a familiar pursuit of his father's, an illness for his legendary older brother John, provided "the minus pool" (for losers), "a push" (a standoff) and "numbers," the word McGuire invariably uses for dollars. "What are the numbers?" is a common McGuire expression. Then, from the old sod, there are the adages: "Never undress until you die" (Always save something, or, "Squirrel some nuts away"). "Congratulate the temporary" (Live for the moment, or, "Go barefoot in the wet grass"). He has recently developed an interest in antiques, which he hunts down on his motorcycle forays, and promises us new terms from antiquing soon.

But it is his imagery, original and borrowed, that is the most vivid McGuire. Seashells and balloons: happiness, victory. Yellow ribbons and medals: success in recruiting. Memos and pipes: academia. Hot bread and gay waiters: guaranteed, a top restaurant. A straw hat in a blizzard: what some people, like the NCAA, will provide you with. Even a whale comes up for a blow sometimes: advice to players who can't get their minds off women. Hot lunch for orphans: a giveaway, some sort of PR venture. French pastry: anything showy or extraneous, such as small talk or white players. Keepers: good-looking broads (you don't throw them back). Closers: people who get by the French pastry and complete a deal, e.g., yours truly, Al McGuire. Guys who charge up the hill into a machine gun: most X-and-O coaches; see also " Brooks Brothers types" and "First Communion guys." Welcome to my world: come uptown with me.

Moreover, McGuire has begun more and more to turn nouns into verbs. Thus, to "rumor it out" is what a smart executive does when he keeps his ear to the ground. And: "Guys like Chones and Meminger magnet kids for us." Or: "You've got to break up cliques or you'll find players husband-and-wifing it out on the court." Or: "If you haven't broken your nose in basketball, you haven't really played. You've just tokened it."

It is the custom at Marquette to let teammates fight, to encourage fights, for that matter, until the day the season opens. McGuire lets them go a minute. One day he stood there, biting his lip for the required time while an older player beat his son Allie, a pretty fair guard, all to hell. This policy is calculated to let frustrations out, draw the team together. Calculated. For he has no stomach for it. McGuire has seen all he would ever want of fighting.

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