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Grant-ed, He's Very Good . . . : . . . But Having Escaped Once, Why Does He Try It Again?

December 15, 1987|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Boyd Grant quit basketball, just shy of a nervous breakdown. Well, that may be overly dramatic. But Grant, the best thing to happen to Fresno since someone figured a way to get raisins into a cereal box, was surely on some kind of downward road. Steep? It was just about free-fall.

There were the telltale signs, variously grouped under burnout, the catch-all sickness for our age:

--He once became confused trying to sign his own name to a check. Oh, yes. Boyd .

--His mind performed the visual equivalent of white space during a speech at the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Final Four. "Uh, uh, uh."

--His blood pressure was dangerously high. During a game, his own team ahead , he rushed a UC Irvine assistant coach.

And the most chilling, and finally the most persuasive, symptom of all: In 1985, Fresno State finished 15-15. Grant, had he been an introspective sort, might have read the veins on his neck as a relief map pointing the way to self-destruction.

But he wasn't particularly thoughtful that way. He needed a .500 year to save him from the destination. For a coach such as Grant, who won 194 games and a National Invitation Tournament title in nine seasons there, going .500 was kind of like doctor's orders.

His is a story perhaps all too typical. And except for the gift of a 15-15 season in a basketball hotbed, he might have continued typically. Coaching worse and worse, feeling the pressure more and more.

You know the type. Perhaps he would have eventually, and spectacularly, stroked out on the bench, the ultimate technical. Maybe he'd have gotten to that Irvine assistant next time, have been forced to retire in disgrace. More likely he'd have gone 14-16, then 9-21, and faded quietly. A lot do.

"You remember Boyd, don't you? Kind of scholarly looking, the toast of Fresno for a while, just one hell of a coach. Got old, I guess."

Before that happened, Grant got out. Just quit. These things then happened:

--His blood pressure returned to normal.

--He spent the Christmas holidays with his family and was amazed and happy at the sheer amount of time suddenly available to him.

--His legacy at Fresno State, where he turned a 7-20 team into a 21-6 conference championship team his first year, remained intact and his future in honorable administration appeared secure.

And the story ends sensibly?

A year later, Grant signed to rebuild a floundering basketball program here at Colorado State.

Grant, 54, sits at his desk in a tiny office. The Rockies loom beyond, geese settle in a pond by the football team's practice field. He is a calm man, totally disarming on this neutral and tranquilizing ground. He does not look like a man burned out, or even rekindled. He looks normal.

Yet he must answer, over and over, the central question. Did he write a suicide note when he signed his most recent contract?

Did you ever notice that sportswriting tends to the overly dramatic?

"Hey," he says quietly, "a lot of coaches go through misery. Some of them even think, if they're not miserable, they're not doing the job. That's sad, maybe, but true. It's just that it was making me more miserable."

Yeah, but it also made you quit.

Grant agrees, but points out that coaching at Fresno State might have been a unique position.

"They were so hungry for attention," he says, remembering. "They just wanted something."

Grant and his basketball team turned out to be it. He followed that 7-20 team and, with one that wasn't even fun to watch--"vomit basketball," he agrees--had the town crazy.

"By the fifth game, you couldn't buy season tickets anymore," he says. "Like I say, they were out there waiting for something."

Accommodating the talent, or scarcity thereof, Boyd designed a conservative offense-aggressive defense brand of ball that turned off everybody but the citizenry, who could appreciate success at the expense of style. His first season, Fresno State went 21-6 and became an instant power in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Basketball became Fresno's, uh, raisin d'etre.

The fans responded immediately. Wearing red--they must have looked like an angry blood clot to opponents--they enthusiastically boosted team and coach alike. After a 27-3 season in 1982, boosters came up with a $175,000 bundle, spread out over five years, to keep Grant in Fresno.

He was agreeable. The next year Fresno State won the NIT. The word was, Grant gave good value.

But at a terrible price. It was nothing sudden, or dramatic. But the anxieties, by their accumulation, began to take their toll. He was always competitive, harder on himself than anybody else could have been. The years of pressure, season in, season out, were crushing the life out of him.

It was not a pressure that anybody or thing applied. He heard zip from boosters, was treated well all done the line. But Grant got to looking at this thing he created and began to feel increasing responsibility for it.

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