Al McGuire's Legacy Remains As Strong As Ever At Marquette
March 1, 2010
By Dan McGrath, MU '72
Buzz Williams was looking sharp for Marquette’s Jan. 26 game against Rutgers. His sport coat was Project Runway-fancy and sparked some debate along press row as to its specific color: Aqua blue? Cobalt blue? Slightly-darker-than-Carolina blue?
The coat was the approximate shade of Marquette’s road uniforms, it was finally decided, and pretty snazzy by any measure, if a bit out of character for the stocky Buzz, whose normal sideline attire runs to more conservative grays and browns.
A fashion statement? Nope, an homage. Jan. 26 was the ninth anniversary of Al McGuire’s death, and Williams was paying tribute by wearing the sort of game-night finery the stylish McGuire might have favored as he was directing Marquette on the big stage in college basketball---an aircraft-carrier program, if you will.
“There’s no question Marquette basketball wouldn’t be where it is today if not for Coach McGuire,” Williams said after the Golden Eagles’ victory. “And I’m not sure we’d be where we are as an institution.”
Indeed. Thirty-three years after he last coached a game and nine years after his death from a blood disorder, Al McGuire remains the face of Marquette basketball, more so than the two dozen All-Americans who have suited up for the Warriors/Golden Eagles or the steady stream of pro players the school has produced or any of the seven coaches who have followed him.
Williams, the seventh, didn’t know McGuire; he was 4 years old when the Marquette legend bade farewell to coaching. But he has read up on him, and he certainly knows of him, surrounded as he is by reminders of McGuire’s proud legacy.
The spiffy on-campus training/practice facility that bears his name is a prominent symbol, as is the presence of “Al” on the front of the players’ jerseys. But there’s something more, something ephemeral---a feeling imposed by history. Just as the Yankees will always be Babe Ruth’s team and the Packers Vince Lombardi’s, Marquette will always be Al McGuire’s team.
He made it fun, and he made it matter.
As Marquette celebrates Al McGuire Day, in conjunction with Tuesday’s Big East bubble battle with Louisville, we remember. And we smile.
“He was larger than life,” said Dick Vitale, the loquacious ESPN analyst whose early years coaching at Detroit overlapped with McGuire’s last few years at Marquette. “He was such a personality, so enthusiastic about what he was doing. That was the type of coach I wanted to be. The first time I met him I was in awe.”
Vitale’s Detroit Titans beat Marquette’s eventual national champions during McGuire’s final season, after McGuire had passed along a valuable lesson about motivation the year before.
“We were up on them pretty good at halftime at our place, and I was all excited in the locker room---‘We can beat these guys! I told you they’re overrated, no better than us,’ “ Vitale recalled. “That was a really good Marquette team, too, and they came out in the second half and they got us. Al told me later, ‘Dickie, you gave us one we didn’t deserve that night. We could hear you through the wall, so we just sat there and listened. I didn’t say a word to my guys. I just told them, ‘That’s what they think of us.’ You woke us up.”
McGuire knew how that worked---Marquette basketball was maybe half asleep when he was hired to replace Eddie Hickey in 1964, at age 35. So-so records, sparse crowds and a staggering debt left over from the shuttered football program were part of the inheritance. But McGuire, a New York sharpie who embodied the term “streetwise,” was known for his showmanship as much as his winning records at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, and that made him appealing to Marquette administrators.
Within three years, the Warriors were playing for the NIT championship. Shouts of “Give ‘em hell, Al” rained down from the packed stands at the Milwaukee Arena, and a feisty, tough-minded team that mirrored its iconoclast coach was about to become a player on the national stage.
“Al knew he’d be going against some established, veteran coaches---Ray Meyer at DePaul, George Ireland at Loyola---and he wasn’t going to miss a thing,” said Hank Raymonds, a Hickey-staff holdover who served alongside McGuire for 13 years and then succeeded him. “Al figured if he worked the crowd, they’d leave the players alone.”
Not to mention the officials---working the refs was a McGuire specialty.
“We had homers and roaders,” Raymonds recalled, “and believe me, we kept track.”
The enduring memory of Al McGuire is a sweet one: sitting on the bench unashamedly teary-eyed as the final seconds of Marquette’s 67-59 victory over North Carolina tick away in the 1977 NCAA tournament title game. He was going out a winner. The national championship was a fitting epitaph to a one-of-a-kind career, but surprising: Marquette lost seven games in McGuire’s farewell season, including three in a row at home after he announced he was leaving, and barely squeaked into the tournament.
Then again, unorthodox methods and unpredictable outcomes were staples of his Marquette tenure, part of what made him who he was.
# In February of 1968, McGuire took Pat Smith down to the Milwaukee lakefront and had him toss a beach ball into Lake Michigan to refute De Paul coach Ray Meyer’s grumpy assertion that the undersized center “couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean from the beach.”
# In March of 1968, McGuire refused to appear on Adolph Rupp’s TV show before the NCAA Tournament, instigating a persistent feud with the bombastic Baron of the Bluegrass. McGuire thought was Rupp was too stubbornly Old South in ways that hindered social progress … racist, in other words. Playing on their home floor, Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats bombed Marquette out of the tournament, but the Warriors avenged the loss in Madison, Wis., one year later.
# In 1970, smarting over an assignment to a distant Midwest Regional site in Texas, McGuire declined an NCAA tournament bid and took the Warriors to the NIT instead, winning it by beating UMass with Julius Erving, LSU with Pete Maravich and hometown favorite St. John’s along the way.
“Can you imagine turning down an NCAA tournament bid today?” Raymonds said. “But that was Al. He’d fight for what he thought was right.”
# In 1971, one of the best teams in Marquette history went 26-0 in the regular season, only to lose to Ohio State in the regional semifinals in Athens, Ga. In his next-to-last game as a Warrior, All-America guard Dean Meminger fouled out for the only time in his college career. The Warriors put the game officials on their all-opponent team at the season-ending banquet.
# In February of 1972, 21 games into his junior year, All-America center Jim Chones left school to sign a pro contract, with the Warriors once again unbeaten. Marquette finished 5-4, but old nemesis Kentucky was waiting in the second round of the NCAA tournament and bounced the Warriors. Despite the abysmal timing of Chones’ decision, McGuire was never critical of it, insisting the big man had a financial obligation to his family.
# In March of 1974, Marquette stormed through the NCAA tournament and reached the Final Four for the first time in school history. In the title game, an overheated McGuire drew two technical fouls from “television ref” Irv Brown as North Carolina State pulled away to a 12-point victory. He later blamed himself for losing the game.
# In March of 1976, Marquette entered the tournament ranked No. 2 in the country, with a 25-1 record and a 21-game winning streak. But the Warriors encountered unbeaten, top-ranked Indiana in the regional final, and the Hoosiers continued their run to a perfect season and coach Bob Knight’s first national championship.
# In March of 1977 … you know the story. After 13 years of unsurpassed highs and occasional devastating lows, it was seashells and balloons for the man who coined the phrase.
There was also a 295-80 record, 11 straight 20-win seasons, 11 straight postseason appearances and a Shaquille O’Neal-sized national footprint. Rick Majerus witnessed most of it as a Marquette assistant, added to the staff “because Al saw something in me” after he’d failed to crack the roster as a walk-on player. Majerus scoffs at the notion that McGuire was more overseer than coach, that Hank Raymonds was the Warriors’ basketball brain and Majerus their ace recruiter.
“Al wasn’t a classic X’s and O’s guy, but he knew the game and he had a great feel for it,” Majerus said. “He was an excellent talent evaluator---he’d recognize what a guy could do and have him do it, rather than try to make him do things he couldn’t do. He knew how the parts of a team fit together. And he was a great competitor.”
Majerus, now the coach at Saint Louis University after a decade of winning big at Utah, believes McGuire’s flamboyant sideline histrionics were really an act. Off the court he was more reserved, introspective and philosophical, observant of the world beyond basketball.
“He probably didn’t influence me on how to defend a high ball screen, but he definitely influenced me on how I coach, how I deal with players … I think about him just about every time I make a decision, in basketball or in life,” Majerus said.
McGuire’s growing distaste for recruiting was one factor in his decision to walk away at age 48. Though he never enjoyed it, he was an excellent recruiter, as a succession of high school All-Americans came to Marquette during his tenure. But there was also room for the motivated walk-on: Mark Ostrand earned minutes as a tax-auditor-tight defender, and Dave Delsman was money when it mattered at the free throw line.
“He never promised me anything, except that I’d get a degree if I stayed four years, and that’s what my mother wanted to hear,” said Bo Ellis, a four-year starter and team captain of the ’77 national champions. “He was always real with me. He said, ‘We’d love to have you and you can help us, but we’re going to win whether you come or not.’
“I loved Coach McGuire as a coach,” Ellis said, “but I loved him even more as a person.”
McGuire’s teams played up-tempo, pressure defense and methodical, ball-control offense, an unusual combination.
“It’s very hard to teach, but Al felt he could control the game that way---there was no shot clock and no three-point line,” Majerus said.
The style could be somewhat restricting for born-to-run types like Ellis and guard Lloyd Walton, “but it worked for us---I’ll take 28-2 anytime,” Ellis said.
Though he kept things under tight control on the court, McGuire welcomed free spirits and encouraged self-expression among his players. Gary Brell, a starting forward from 1969-71, lived in an off-campus commune and refused to acknowledge the American flag during the national anthem, his way of protesting the Vietnam War. McGuire and forward Bernard Toone had to be separated after a physical altercation at halftime of an NCAA tournament game. Walton, a flashy point guard from Chicago’s South Side, “wears more jewelry than Sammy Davis Jr.,” McGuire once observed.
Walton is amused by the memory. “Al was my man,” he said. “We had our moments, but I loved the guy---loved him. I felt like I could talk to him about anything.”
NBC Television executives recognized McGuire’s gift of gab and signed him as a college basketball analyst the year after he retired. The pairing with Billy Packer turned out to be brilliant, Al’s irreverent yet insightful “McGuireisms” a perfect counter to Packer’s know-it-all obsession with X’s and O’s. Play-by-play man Dick Enberg was an ideal mediator and later wrote a critically acclaimed play about McGuire that captured his essential wit and wisdom.
“No question he influenced me as a broadcaster---I thought Al was great,” Vitale said. “He obviously loved the game, and he was able to describe it so well without being overly technical---he connected with people and didn’t talk down to them. And he realized that we’re in the entertainment business.”
NBC’s coverage and the late-‘70s emergence of ESPN helped make college hoops a major attraction, prompting CBS to seize ownership of the NCAA tournament with a mega-millions bid beginning in 1982. Neal Pilson, running CBS Sports at the time, recognized the power of the NBC trio.
“The work Al McGuire did with Billy Packer and Dick Enberg definitely contributed to college basketball becoming so popular,” Pilson said. “They were great for the game.”
I concur, and I conclude with a personal note: I got to cover Al McGuire’s teams as a student reporter for the Marquette Tribune in the early ‘70s. It was an exhilarating time, and it most assuredly affected my career choice---imagine making a living at something that was so much fun. Once I moved on to the real world, it didn’t take long to realize how lucky I’d been---there weren’t many Al McGuires out there.
Not many? Not any. After all these years he’s still one of my all-time favorites. I’m grateful to have known him.
Dan McGrath, sports coordinator for the Chicago News Cooperative and former sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, has worked at newspapers all over the country since graduating from Marquette in 1972.