What Would Al Do?

 

 

Courtesy of Marquette University Archives
photo courtesy Marquette University Archives

With charisma and class, Al McGuire won more games than any coach in Marquette men’s basketball history and in 1977 led his Warriors to the school’s only national championship victory. In accordance with the testimonialsof former players, coaches and friends, McGuire didn’t just win games, he put a small Jesuit school on the national map.


Al McGuire is in that class of celebrated sports figures who made a legacy out of not just winning, but speaking in a quotable tongue. Sports fans are suckers for those guys. The quotables are the guys that give sports fans material, they give sports an identity, they provide platforms and language used in team’s rallying cries year after year.

But I would bet few of them are ever going to use a McGuire quote. McGuire quotes are of a different breed, so quirky and ambiguous, they don’t even have value for most sports fans, and understandably so. I can’t imagine any sports fans telling their friends that “sports is a coffee break” (one of McGuire’s more straight-forward quotes).

Everyone who knew McGuire understood that was the way he talked — in a trademarked lexicon of metaphor and color. His quirky tongue was his mode of operation. After his passing in 2001, The New York Times called him a “TV analyst and character.”

I have no real reason to be attracted to the guy other than he has garnered sainthood at my university and is no doubt the most celebrated coach in Marquette University basketball history. I always had a hunch that McGuire did more than just win. Wins can only get you so much recognition. McGuire has more than that. Former standout guard Bo Ellis, who won a national championship under McGuire in 1977, said he remembers McGuire canceling practice a few times a year and making his players visit children in the children’s hospital on Wisconsin Avenue. I guess he did do more than win.

I wonder how many coaches today do things like that. I wonder how many coaches do things like that because they know McGuire did. It’s the reason Ellis made his Chicago State University players do the same every Christmas when he was head coach.

“Because Al always made us do it,” Ellis said. “So I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Those are the types of memories players have of McGuire: hardly ever what he did on the court, but always what he did off of it.

If you ask Tom Flynn what Marquette’s record was in 1964 (Al McGuire’s first season) he can tell you as if it just happened two months ago. He can tell you that Marquette beat Wisconsin twice. He can tell you they beat a ranked St. John’s team and beat Loyola in overtime. He was the team captain after all. Flynn was a junior when McGuire took the job as Marquette’s head coach.

“I remember right off the bat thinking that this is one of those guys where when you sit in a room with him, you are automatically attracted to him,” Flynn said. “He was just charismatic, but at the same time you always wondered what the heck he was thinking.”

It’s the exact dilemma that gripped Flynn in 1964 when McGuire stopped the team bus on its way to a road game in Iowa. McGuire along with his players, stepped off the bus and walked the rest of the way.

“We barely even made it to the game on time,” Flynn said. “We ran onto the court, and we weren’t even ready.”

Finally, something Flynn can’t remember.

“I don’t remember the final score. I just know we lost,” he said.

Flynn calls McGuire a bartender street psychologist: the charisma of a bartender, with street smarts, who was all about the psychology of the game. Flynn said McGuire would walk out before every game and give a good look up and down the opposing coach, seeing how he could get an edge on his counterpart. “They would stand out there and chat, just like a bartender and his customer,” Flynn said. “And Al was always the bartender.”

Earl Tatum was one of McGuire’s prized recruits, a standout in his four years. In 1972, he was named high school player of the year by the New York State Sportswriters Association, he was a professional baseball and basketball recruit, and his reason for playing at Marquette is as unconventional as any.

“Al McGuire ate off my plate,” Tatum said.

It was in the Holiday Inn’s hotel restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue. Tatum was supposed to meet McGuire for breakfast. McGuire was running late, so Tatum ate without him.

“It still to this day is the biggest breakfast I ever had,” Tatum said. “Plate after plate and I was finishing up when Coach walked in.”

McGuire introduced himself, sat down in the booth across from Tatum, reached across the table, and ate the scraps Tatum had left. Tatum can’t hold back laughter when he tells the story.

“It’s goofy and I don’t even want to know what Bob Knight (then head coach at Indiana who was recruiting Tatum) would have thought if he knew that was why I made my decision,” Tatum said. “But it was. I will never forget that and I will never forget just thinking ‘I really like this guy.’”

It’s a story Tatum tells to anyone who asks about McGuire, “because that’s the kind of guy he was. It didn’t matter who you were or what you looked like. To him you were always like family.”

And the value of family is one that Tatum says he didn’t know until he met McGuire.

“While I played for him and long after when I would talk to him, his first question was always, ‘how’s the family?’ That’s when I realized how important family is,” Tatum said.

“And those teams were family to me.”

Just like others who played for McGuire, Tatum is quick to admit that he owes a lot to his former coach.

“He taught me so much. He taught me how to be a better basketball player, he taught me how to be a better person,” Tatum said. “And the thing I loved the most was that he knew how important it was for me to get my degree.”

Tatum said that was the goal with all of McGuire’s players: you learned to be a better person, and you got a degree. Winning basketball games was just part of the fun. Tatum doesn’t like to talk about the wins though. To him, it’s not that important and he never won the game that he wanted to the most. He was one year short.

Instead, it was Bo Ellis, another one of McGuire’s top-tier recruits, who led the 1977 team to a national championship. Like Tatum, Ellis didn’t forget the way McGuire stood out among the other college coaches vying for his talents as a high school senior.

“Every coach was telling me how great of a basketball player I was, but McGuire was the only coach who said to me ‘the most important thing is that you get a degree from Marquette.’”

Ellis would get his degree, while winning more games in a four-year span than any other Marquette basketball player. But McGuire taught Ellis that it wasn’t all about the wins.

“He was a philosopher more than he was a coach. Coaching was just his job, it wasn’t who he was,” Ellis said.

As a coach, after his playing days, Ellis said he took a lot of lessons from his years of playing with McGuire.

“As a coach, I pretty much did the same things he did,” Ellis said. “Playing for Al, I realized that coaching is all about the system, it’s all about life. Every time you coach, you are touching a kid’s life.”

Ellis said he would talk on the phone with McGuire at least once a week while Ellis was the head coach at Chicago State. Despite his struggles as a coach, Ellis would always look forward to that call. Like clockwork, the calls would always come in the morning, before McGuire would take blood transfusions to fight his leukemia.

“He was so weak at that time in his life, he was dying,” Ellis said. “But he always found time to call me and see how I was doing. To give me advice.”

As for the degree that McGuire promised Ellis when he was a senior in high school? Ellis stayed all four years at Marquette instead of going pro early. He got his degree.

Rick Majerus also admired McGuire’s dedication to education. Majerus was an assistant for McGuire from 1971 to 1977 and continued as an assistant and eventual head coach at Marquette after McGuire retired.

“That was one of his big things; Al’s players always got degrees,” Majerus said.

Over the years, as Majerus worked as McGuire’s assistant, they developed a close friendship. The stories they have together could fill a 300-page book. Majerus rolls one story into the next. They all have that same oddness and authentic style that McGuire was beloved for.

Majerus and McGuire have called a recruit at 3 a.m. from Real Chili. They once commanded their players to do leapfrogs during a practice before the NCAA tournament where 2,000 spectators watched in confusion. And they vowed to never recruit a player who has a lawn in his front yard.

“Al always said he didn’t want those guys. He liked the guys who grew up in the city, who grew up in the rough neighborhoods,” Majerus said. “He always liked guys like that.”

Despite the sometimes absurd nature of their relationship, Majerus, now with 500 wins as a head coach, must have learned something.

“I owe a lot of that success to Al,” Majerus said. “He taught me about coaching. I got two degrees from Marquette and Al McGuire was no doubt one of the top three teachers I ever had.”

Majerus said he thinks a lot about his years at Marquette and his friendship with McGuire.

“I think about Al all the time,” Majerus said. “Every time I’m faced with a big decision as a head coach or just as a person, I think about Al. I think about what Al would do.”

In Majerus’s case, that meant going to Disneyland.

In November 2011, Majerus, now head coach of St. Louis University’s men’s basketball team, said an early season tournament in California offered each team the chance to go to Disneyland for the day.

“It’s a promotional thing, no matter where you are, you get a chance to take your team somewhere for the day,” Majerus said. “And most coaches just look at it as a distraction.”

According to Majerus, all the teams but one turned down the Disneyland trip.

“I wanted my players to go to Disneyland,” Majerus said. “That’s all part of the deal. That’s all part of growing up. There’s a lot to be said for having fun.”

Would Al have taken his team to Disneyland?

“No doubt,” Majerus said.