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Gerry Friel has a spring in his step, a smile on his face and hope in his heart as he walks across the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham on a spectacular fall afternoon. "Great day to be alive," he exults. On the eve of his 20th season as New Hampshire's basketball coach, Friel has the air of a man heading straight for the Final Four.
He's not. In fact Friel, 45, is the losingest active Division I basketball coach. By a landslide. Friel's career record of 184-313, amassed entirely at New Hampshire, computes to a winning percentage of .370. In 1986-87 his Wildcats went 4-24; last year they were 4-25. Those two years taught the New Hampshire athletic department something, says sports information director Mike Bruckner: "You can have a better record if you play fewer games."
No. 2 on the active losers' list—of those coaches who have coached more than 10 years and more than 200 games—is Rider coach John Carpenter, and his record is a far better 287-305, for a winning percentage of .485. "I last because I have good rapport with the athletic director," Carpenter says. Carpenter is the athletic director.
Friel is not his own boss, but he too has lasted—for two decades. An emotional coach who "gives 200 percent blood and guts every game," according to his mentor, Bob Cousy, Friel has stayed on the job because he has his values in order. "If you don't win, you haven't lost it all," he says. "The lessons learned from losing allow you to survive against greater odds in life. I believe in playing for the experience and for the sport. I coach because I know it is worthwhile. I am a dreamer, and maybe a little bit unrealistic. But I do know what's important is to give a kid the opportunity to be in the arena."
And happily for Friel, the administration at New Hampshire has supported that attitude ever since the Wildcats started playing basketball in 1902. Unhappily, that may all be about to change.
Friel and the University of New Hampshire—a classy but not flashy school with bedrock New England values—have combined to provide a textbook example of how basketball and books can coexist. After serving as an assistant to Cousy at Boston College, Friel took over the Wildcats in 1969. Since then, he has had 59 scholarship players; an impressive 42 of those graduated. Most of the others left in good standing; only five flunked out. That's a graduation rate (not counting players who subsequently graduated elsewhere) of 71.2%, compared with a national average of 33.3%.
What Friel has done is take students and try to develop them as basketball players rather than take basketball players and try to develop them as students. Says Buck Buchanan, a member of the university board of trustees, "What Gerry does is turn out gentlemen and graduates, and that's the name of the game."
However, the name of the game in college basketball is getting topflight players, the majority of whom are black, and Buchanan concedes that "our program is inherently weak because we can't get many blacks. This isn't prejudice or bigotry. It's just true." Rural New Hampshire's small population of 920,000 is only 0.4% black, and the composition of the university reflects that small percentage.
Derek Counts, the Wildcats' leading scorer last season, with 14.6 points per game, is black; he found his way to Durham from New York's Lower East Side via a government "fresh air" program that sends inner-city kids to rural schools. At high school in Vassalboro, Maine, Counts did well in the classroom, excelled on the court and, though only 5'9", became one of Friel's prime recruits. "I've second-guessed myself about coming here," says Counts, a senior liberal arts major, "but it could have been a lot worse. I could have gone where nobody cared."
To New Hampshire's credit, the school's spokesmen are not sanctimonious on the subject of academic standards for basketball players. Stan Fish, the admissions director, says that the average SAT verbal score for entering freshmen in 1986 was 494, while the six scholarship basketball players admitted that year averaged 408; the overall math average was 550, the players' was 496. It's a bend-but-not-break policy.