MILWAUKEE — Kevin O'Neill, Marquette's basketball coach, steers his four-wheel drive through the slush of the parking lot, finds a space and then points Charlie Spoonhour toward the front door of the restaurant.
"I swear, Charlie, we'll be in and out in 15 minutes," O'Neill says to the St. Louis coach.
Spoonhour nods. He has a sore throat and the Billikens' game against Marquette starts in less than three hours. But a promise is a promise, and Spoonhour told his buddy O'Neill that he would say a few words at the weekly booster breakfast. Anyway, O'Neill could use the help. Relations between the locals and the Marquette coach are, uh, a little tense.
"Just as long as I'm back to the hotel by 11," Spoonhour says, his Arkansas drawl contrasting with O'Neill's Upstate New York accent.
So here he is, coach of the nation's unlikeliest 16th-ranked team, stuck in a German restaurant as Marquette boosters, many of them wearing little adhesive tags that read, Hello, My Name Is . . ., chow down on sausages the size of water balloons.
Midway through the pregame cholesterol fest, Spoonhour, 54, is introduced to the crowd. Forks and knives fall silent.
"Well, y'all, I'm not going to get up here and make fun of Kevin," he says.
And he doesn't. Instead, he gushes
about Marquette's tough schedule, about Marquette's many victories, about O'Neill. To listen to him, you wouldn't know that St. Louis was on its way to its first NCAA tournament appearance in nearly 40 years, or that the Billikens began the season with 14 consecutive victories, or that white-haired Charlie was one of the better kept secrets in college basketball, a coach-of-the-year candidate if ever there has been one.
"It will look like a father-son game when we get out there," Spoonhour says to the boosters, who have forgotten all about their mounds of eggs. "We got a player--Donnie Dobbs is his name--and he's a 6-3 1/2 power forward . . . which is just what everyone in America is looking for.
"Well," he says, "we got him."
Spoonhour decides to work the room a bit. So he pulls out some of the A-minus material, which means a visit to Rocky Comfort High in Missouri, where Spoonhour made his coaching debut 34 years ago.
"Rocky Comfort isn't much of a city," he says. "There's no businesses, just one big ol' school. There was an opening for a coach and I got the job. I believe it was because I was the only applicant.
"First day of school and I'm living in a 8 x 28 pink trailer by the home-ec cottage. That was part of the deal. All of a sudden I hear this banging on the door. I stagger out of bed, open the door and it's pitch black outside. The school supervisor is standing there.
"I said, 'What time is it?'
"He says, 'About 6 a.m.'
"I'm thinking, 'Six a.m.? I don't even throw up till noon.' So I ask him, 'What time does school start?'
"And he says, 'We start at 8:20, but you're driving the bus.' "
So Spoonhour drove the bus, even though he didn't know how to operate the clutch.
"People were yelling at me as I went down the road, 'Hey, Fatty, grind a pound out for me, too.' "
Some of the boosters are slapping their knees by now. This Spoonhour fellow is sort of interesting.
"Reba Westfall was the principal at Rocky Comfort," Spoonhour is saying. "Now you got to remember that the folks in Rocky Comfort weren't the most sophisticated in the world. They ate a lot of vanilla wafers and drank milk through a straw. One time Reba got one of the parents real mad at her, so the parent started saying, 'A spell . . . a spell on Reba Westfall.'
"Well, I didn't know any better, so I asked what the spell was for. Turns out Harold's momma put a spell on Reba because Reba flunked Harold in biology.
"So I ask, 'Anything happen to Reba?'
"They said, 'Not much. She limped a little.'
"So I say, 'Is Harold gonna play basketball?'
"They said, 'Prob'ly.'
"I say, 'Well, then he's a starter because I'm not fixin' to limp.' "
And with that, Spoonhour thanks the crowd, puts a final public relations plug in for O'Neill ("I hope you 'preciate what your team is doing.") and then takes a seat. A few minutes later, Spoonhour and O'Neill are quick-stepping it out the restaurant, into the four-wheeler and back to the hotel.
"Thanks, Charlie," O'Neill says.
"Don't you worry about it," Spoonhour says.
Later that day Marquette hands St. Louis its first loss of the season. Spoonhour doesn't seem too upset. He didn't figure the Billikens would go undefeated.
Truth is, he didn't figure on any of this.
Two seasons ago, the Billikens were 5-23 and finding new and exciting ways to lose games and fans. Then along came Spoonhour, fresh from a nine-year reign at Southwest Missouri State, which might not sound like much until you look at his record.
Victories: 18- 17- 24- 28- 22- 21- 22- 22- 23.
Conference championships: four.
NCAA appearances: five.
NIT appearances: two.