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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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His assistants ( McGuire, out of respect and guilt, has taken to calling them "co-coaches") understand his soft-shoe. One asks Majerus: What is it above all about McGuire? We are so used to hearing about the originality, the insouciance, the motorcycle flake, the ability to get along with black players—what is it really with McGuire? "The one main thing," Majerus answers, "is this insecurity Al has about money. Still. I guess he'll always be that way."

There was a group with McGuire a couple of winters ago after a road game. As always, he wouldn't countenance any talk about basketball, but soon enough he brought up the subject of the numbers. Typically, it was the woman in the gathering that he turned to, confided in. Speaking softly, as he does on these occasions, he told her he thought he had things worked out O.K. for his three kids, for Pat. They were going to have enough. For a Depression baby this made him feel good, he said. But what if he accumulated more money, the woman asked him, what would you do with that?

McGuire was not prepared for the question. He thought for a moment. "A park," he said then. "With what's left, I'd like to see them build a park for poor people."

To most everybody in the business, McGuire is a nagging aberration. Listening to him lecture 500 coaches at a Medalist clinic, Chuck Daly of Penn whispers, "If the rest of us operated his way, we'd be out of business." That is the conventional wisdom. But before he said that, Daly made another observation: "Al's logic is on a different level, above everybody else's." And that is the conventional wisdom, too. So wait a minute. If McGuire wins 25 a year and he has the logic, he obviously has the right way. That is logical. Nonetheless, he remains the only coach who waits in the bar, and he stays frustrated that coaches have such low esteem and little security.

"Coaches are so scared," he says. "Every day, practice starts: gimme three lines, gimme three lines. You come out and say gimme two lines, everybody will look at you like you just split the atom. Me, whether it's business or coaching, I'm so pleased when I look like a fool. When I don't do foolish things, make foolish new suggestions, I'm not doing my job. I'm just another shiny-pants bookkeeper.

"The trouble with coaching, the prevailing image, is that coaching is like what you had in high school, because that is the last place where most people were involved with coaching. But coaching college is not pizza parties and getting the team together down at the A&W stand. People can't understand my players screaming back at me, but it's healthy. Also, I notice that the screaming always comes when we're 15, 20 ahead. When it's tied, then they're all listening very carefully to what I have to say."

Many adult coaches demand unquestioning loyalty from 20-year-old kids. As McGuire points out, some of the most successful coaches even refuse to accept kids with different philosophies, conflicting egos. "Dealing with problems, with differences—that is what coaching is," he says. "Running pattuns is not coaching." He does not believe that character can be "built" with haircuts and Marine routines and by coaches so insecure that their players can never challenge them.

Off the court, McGuire sees his players only when they come to him in distress. He would be suspicious of any college kid who wanted to be buddy-buddy with a middle-aged man, and vice versa. "I don't pamper," he says. "These guys are celebrities in their own sphere of influence—top shelf, top liquor. Everybody around them touches them with clammy hands. That's the only word: clammy. Well, they don't get that from me." Often, he doesn't even bother to learn their names. For much of last season the starting center, Jerome Whitehead, was called Chapman. Sometimes McGuire has stood up to scream at a player and then had to sink back down because he couldn't remember the kid's name.

"Look, if you're into coaching heavy, into the blackboard, if you're gonna charge up the hill into the machine guns, then you might as well stay at St. Ann's in the fifth grade," he says. "Because coaching up here is something else. You're gonna have to deal with the fifth column, the memos and pipes. And you're gonna get fired. The trouble is, every coach thinks he has the new wrinkle and is gonna last forever. Coaching is a mistress, is what it is. If a job opened up in Alaska tomorrow, 250 guys from Florida would apply, and they wouldn't even ask about the numbers, and they wouldn't ask their wife, either, like they wouldn't about any mistress.

"But to the players you ain't a love affair. You're just a passing fancy to them. It's pitiful, too, because about every coach who leaves makes better numbers on the outside."

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