Walking away a winner

Sitting in the Marquette locker room following his team's victory in the 1977 NCAA Championship game in Atlanta, the man they called Al gathered a towel from the floor and proceeded to bawl uncontrollably.

After a few minutes, Marquette's most famous basketball coach composed himself and delivered one of his trademark gems.

"It's not often a kid from the street touches the silk lace," he said.

Though touched by the coach's sentiment, Kevin Byrne, the team's sports information director, had a job to do, and Al sure wasn't helping.

"You need to go out and get the trophy," Byrne told the man who was wiping tears from his face.

"I'm done," the coach responded. "It's their team, not mine. My career is over."

After 13 years at Marquette, Al McGuire finally had reached college basketball coaching's mountaintop, and only one thought entered his head.

It's over. Done. Finished.

Although it appeared McGuire embraced his release from Marquette, Marquette refuses to let go of its most beloved coach.

Magnifying the split may be the fact that the men's basketball team has not won a national championship since McGuire coached his final game.

But, at the time, McGuire's retirement was noteworthy for its curious nature, the impulsiveness of the announcement befitting the coach at the microphone.

"I never knew anything like that was in the works," said Butch Lee, point guard on the 1977 team. "Everybody was pretty upset and shocked."

Well, not everyone was shocked. Ask some of the key figures in that championship run, and they'll tell you the signs were there from day one that the memorable 1977 season would be McGuire's last.

*****

Bo Ellis' mom was the first to know.

OK, well, she wasn't the first to know, but people from around her Chicago neighborhood were telling her that her son's coach was going to retire after Ellis' senior season.

This was in the fall of 1974, during Ellis' sophomore year. Mrs. Ellis went to Milwaukee to relay the news to her son, but she didn't quite get the reaction she thought she would.

"I told her she was crazy," Ellis said.

You can't really fault Ellis for that assessment, either. Marquette was coming off a runner-up finish in the 1974 NCAA tournament and was on its way to a 23-4 record and another NCAA tournament appearance.

But the signs became apparent over the course of the next two seasons. McGuire still was his eccentric self, but Ellis and the other players noticed the wear and tear with which their coach was dealing.

McGuire was, shall we say, confrontational with referees, his animated array of gesticulations drawing out passionate responses from his players and the crowd alike. It was not uncommon for the student section to chant, "Give 'em hell, Al!"

"Physically, it was taking a toll on his body," Ellis said. "When you're a physical coach, coaching takes a lot out of your body. He didn't last as long as the mild-mannered, laid-back coaches. He didn't want (his coaching style) to affect him when he was older."

*****

Byrne knew McGuire's retirement was imminent as soon as the team took its official photo on the first day of practice for the 1976-'77 season.

The coach previously had mentioned to Byrne that he was going to retire at season's end, but Byrne thought McGuire was kidding.

As it turned out, the joke was on Byrne. McGuire called Byrne the day the photo was to be taken and stated he didn't want to be in the team picture.

"We can't take it without you," Byrne remembers telling McGuire.

"No, I don't want to be there," came the response. "Take it without me."

Take a look at that famous team photo, and all you'll find are 11 players dressed to the nines surrounding a white 1934 Parker convertible. Al McGuire is nowhere to be seen.

"I knew then that he was serious about (retiring)," Byrne said. "He was divorcing himself from Marquette but saying that Marquette would always continue."

But why, then? Why would a coach who finished with a 295-80 record at Marquette, a 404-144 overall record and a 27-10 mark in 11 postseason tournaments retire at the age of 48 with many potential years of sideline pacing ahead of him?

"What I would always ask him is, 'Why leave if you love it?' " Byrne said. "And he would always give me the same answer: 'The kids stay 17, and I get a year older. I'm tired of telling a 17-year-old that I need him for my happiness. I'm tired of pimping. I'm a grown man, and I can be happy without them.' "

In Byrne's mind, it was clear – Al was leaving the profession he loved because he was tired of recruiting.

*****

The night before McGuire's retirement announcement, Jerome Whitehead had a dream.

In the dream, McGuire announced that he would not leave the team, but Whitehead, then a junior center, knew better.

"I knew it was the opposite," Whitehead said. "I knew it was his way of saying, 'I'm leaving.' "

The following day, Dec. 17, 1976, McGuire called a press conference in an anteroom at the Wisconsin Club, and Whitehead immediately knew something was up. McGuire had never done anything like that before.

McGuire announced his resignation as Marquette's athletic director and men's basketball coach, effective at the end of the season.

The news did not greet Whitehead as harshly as it did other members of his team. He saw it coming. Kind of.

But Bernard Toone was not so fortunate. The sophomore forward was surprised and hurt.

"I was mad," Toone said. "I expected to spend all my four years with him."

Toone's subsequent resentment and remorse over McGuire's retirement underscored the type of relationship the two men shared.

You see, Toone was one of those brash, young recruits who drove McGuire mad. Toone was a good player, and even worse from McGuire's perspective, Toone knew he was a good player.

"I have pure respect for (McGuire)," Toone said. "Him being who he was, and me coming in as one of the most highly recruited players ever at Marquette, he had his philosophy.

"But he admitted to me it was a little outdated. He told me he couldn't rely just on his senior star system anymore."

So despite having talented, experienced players such as Lee and Ellis on the roster, McGuire had to cede some attention in the game plan to Toone.

They would scream. They would fight. And neither cared if matters went public.

Take Marquette's NCAA tournament first-round game versus Cincinnati, for instance. The team trailed the Bearcats 31-28 at halftime, but McGuire was upset with Toone's first-half play.

After McGuire pulled Toone from the game near the end of the half, the sophomore muttered some unkind words in his coach's direction. Whether McGuire was supposed to hear those words mattered not. He had. And he was furious.

In the locker room at halftime, McGuire grabbed Toone, shoved him against the wall and told his young star never to call him those names again.

It was then that McGuire slapped Toone across the face. It was then that the Warriors rallied around each other and the goal they were after.

"The turning point was when me and Al had our physical confrontation in the first game (of the NCAA tournament)," Toone said. "That gave us a sense of purpose. After that, we settled down as a team. He left me alone, and we all just played."

*****

While McGuire was the head coach at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina during the 1960s, he met North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, and the two coaches developed a friendship ("almost close friends," according to Smith) that carried into McGuire's tenure at Marquette.

"There's only one Al McGuire," Smith said. "Some games he would stand and talk; sometimes he would sit and tell (assistant coach Hank) Raymonds what to say. He had a unique way of getting his point across."

After Marquette lost to Wichita State 75-64 on Feb. 19 in McGuire's home finale, the team's third straight loss, Smith got a call from McGuire in which all that retirement talk Smith had heard about finally was settled.

"This is it," Smith remembered McGuire telling him. "We're terrible."

Terrible might have been a stretch. Marquette was 16-6 and still had a shot to earn a berth into the NCAA tournament. The Warriors won four of their last five games, all on the road, to win that berth, and then played their way into the NCAA title game to face Smith's North Carolina squad.

By that point, the game was but a mere formality. Fate, it seemed, was ushering McGuire to the championship he so coveted. Marquette won 67-59, but the celebration (or for McGuire, the relief) started even before the clock ran out.

"When I looked up at the clock as it wound down, it was the most fulfilling moment, knowing we had accomplished what we came for," Toone said. "We were all leaving on top."

McGuire tried to keep it in, but his efforts were to no avail. The chain reaction amongst his players had begun.

"The clock was winding down, and Butch Lee came over and put his arm around me and said, 'Look,' " Ellis said. "Al was crying on the bench. It was a rare moment when we saw Coach show that kind of emotion and just let it go.

"It's one of my fondest memories of Coach McGuire and what we accomplished."

They all thought he was crying because of the elation the win had brought him. Although that may have been part of it, McGuire also was releasing an entirely different sensation.

His coaching journey finally was over.

*****

He was right, you know.

When McGuire told Byrne in that Atlanta locker room following the title win over North Carolina that it was "their team, not mine," his claim was more accurate than he knew.

"I know it sounds good if we say we won because he was going to retire, but we had a top team," Lee said. "We made it happen. We didn't come from nowhere."

But McGuire did. An Irish kid from Rockaway Beach, in Queens, N.Y., McGuire had worked his way up through the ranks to become one of college basketball's all-time coaching legends.

So maybe the win meant just a little more to him than it did to his players and the other coaches. Maybe that's why leaving on top was not so difficult for McGuire. He had reached every plateau he had set out to reach. It was time for a new challenge.

Or maybe he was just tired of scrapping. At that point in his career and in his adult life, he didn't need to anymore.

"He had always talked about how he wasn't going to be a lifer," Smith said. "Otherwise, he'd have coached till he died."

As the team was heading out to the bus following its 1977 national championship win, McGuire lingered outside, even though it was raining.

"Coach, aren't you smart enough to get out of the rain?" Byrne called out to McGuire.

"It's my last time to sit in the front row of the bus," the coach responded. "I'm going to savor the moment."

Thirty years later, Marquette fans still are savoring Al's moment.