Over the years, for the longest time, you made late-night calls to room service, and that was what nearly killed you. After leaving your old job at Ball State for Salt Lake City, you began noticing your breath getting shorter. You attributed this to the altitude. Then came the chest pains, which you thought you could fix with a little VapoRub. Finally, six frenetic games into the '90-91 season, you went to the president of the university's Crimson Club, who happened to be a cardiologist. "Everywhere else I'd been, the head of the booster club was a condo developer or something." you say. "I'm not a big believer in divine providence, but it was fortuitous that I had this problem here."
You knew you were in trouble from the way the medical people whispered among themselves when they first got a look at your angiogram.
"Wait a second," you said. "We're not doing anything until the season ends."
"No, you wait a second," you were told. "Or there won't be any season's end."
A day later you turned your team over to your assistant, Joe Cravens, and didn't go see the Utes play again until the WAC tournament in March. You had a more pressing coaching job to do, on yourself. You jog regularly and watch your diet as best anyone can whose hobby is eating out. But there are limits. "I don't want to go the nuts-and-sprouts route totally," you say. "For a while I was eating so many oats I started counting with my foot."
You have a gift for working a sideline, for making decisions by the seat of your pants, a seat that has now been taken in considerably. You are esteemed more within the profession than without, respected as a coach's coach, all substance and no style. In Albuquerque, one of the more hostile outposts in your far-flung and underrated conference, a sportswriter describes you as "a 270-pound combination of Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Vince Lombardi and Andrew Dice Clay." More than most college coaches, you bring an NBA sensibility to the subtleties of the sport, the result of a year's apprenticeship under Don Nelson with the Milwaukee Bucks. Nellie-like, you hunt down mismatches obsessively, and exploit the bejesus out of them once they're found. Grant, one of 12 kids whose father built the family home in Salt Lake City with an indoor basketball court, allows you the latitude to do this, for he is 6'10", with a handle on the game. "If big's on him, we put him outside and run him off screens," you say. "If small's on him, we run him into the post."
Cravens, who guided the Utes to a 16-14 finish last season in your absence, is back at your side. "This is my 13th year of college coaching," he says, "and Rick makes me feel like I've been a plumber for 13 years."
You and your staff struggle to prevail upon Mormon youngsters, the ones who come up playing ward ball, the LDS equivalent of the CYO ball you know so well, to choose secular Utah over the church's own Brigham Young. "I've gone zero-for-the-religion recruiting kids out of high school," you say. "If the Eleventh Commandment was 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's players,' I'd be on my way to hell, big time."
You really wanted one local high school senior, a 6'7" forward named Justin Weidhauer, but wrote him off after you read a newspaper story in which he said he wanted to go to BYU because Cougar coach Roger Reid is his hero. Still, this made you curious. You asked an assistant to call and find out just why Reid is his hero. The assistant discovered that Weidhauer admires Reid because he has persevered despite double hip-replacement operations. "What do I have to do to become a hero?" you say. "I could have bought the farm. I mean, a guy was holding my heart in his hands for six hours. Nothing against Roger and what he's been through, but it's tougher to make it without a heart than without a hip."
Ever since your first godchild was killed in a tornado a dozen years ago, you have been fascinated by death. You have read everything on dying by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a noted psychiatrist and prolific author. You sit in on divinity school lectures about the hereafter whenever you get the chance. Every time a state executes someone, you fire off a letter to its governor saying that you oppose capital punishment.