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AL McGUIRE / 1928-2001

'We've truly lost one of a kind'

Basketball: Legendary coach at Marquette and former broadcaster dies of unspecified blood disorder at 72.

January 27, 2001|MIKE KUPPER | SENIOR ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

Al McGuire, basketball coach and showman, philosopher and promoter, died Friday in suburban Milwaukee, surprising many who had assumed he'd live forever. He was 72.

Larger than life in life, "the Fox," as his coterie called him, now gets to put one of his axioms to the personal test: "The size of your funeral depends on the weather."

And McGuire, certainly no stranger to controversy in life, carried it over into death. He had been in a hospice since last summer and it was widely understood that he was being treated for leukemia. His family, however, said that he had died of another, unspecified, blood disorder. Marquette University, the school he'd coached for, mentioned no cause of death in a statement.

McGuire, in his typical fashion, reversed a cliche in becoming one of the most successful, best-known--certainly the most widely quoted--college basketball coaches of his era, perhaps any era. People go to New York to seek fame and fortune. McGuire found those things in Milwaukee, after leaving New York.

And, as is the case with many who rise above their peers, it wasn't so much what he did--although it was considerable--as the way he did it.

Describing himself as "part clown, part wild man," the Hall of Fame coach did it his way. And his way was like no other.

Can you imagine John Wooden getting decked by one of his players? Can you imagine Bob Knight turning an NCAA eligibility investigation at tournament time into a promotional triumph?

McGuire did those things at Marquette. And much more. He feuded with Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp when Rupp was as close to a king as ever there was in sports. He carried on a running argument with the NCAA, with periodic outbursts that were both bitter and funny. And, taking over a stagnant program in a city that never was quite sure what to make of him, he won. He won big.

Along the way, he became the unofficial national spokesman for coaches' rights, worked hard to see that his players graduated and publicly urged other coaches to do the same.

"Use basketball," he told his players. "Don't let basketball use you."

He thought he'd quit once, before the big wheel had really begun to turn, to become coach of the expansion Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA, but a stubborn Jesuit, Father John Raynor, school president, held him to his contract. McGuire apologized, went back to work and soon, with the possible exception of Wooden, was the most talked-about basketball coach in the country.

In his 13 years at Marquette, the Warriors were 295-80. Playing as an independent, Marquette had no conference championships to win, but there were tournaments, the NIT and the NCAA. McGuire and his misfits won them both.

In the spring of 1970, McGuire spurned a bid to the NCAA tournament because the NCAA had had the colossal nerve to invite the Warriors to the "wrong" regional, took his troops back to New York and won the NIT, still a big deal in those days of a 25-team NCAA tournament. On the way to the final against St. John's, McGuire's alma mater, Marquette beat Massachusetts with Julius Erving and Louisiana State with Pete Maravich.

Then in 1977, having begun the season by announcing that it would be his last, McGuire led the Warriors to the national championship, beating North Carolina and Coach Dean Smith's four-corners offense in the title game.

Marquette had also been to the national title game in '74, losing to North Carolina State in the final after McGuire had been whistled for two technical fouls--one really was on the team chaplain but McGuire took the heat--in the second half.

At the end, then, McGuire had proved what he'd set out to prove when he took over the program in the fall of 1964: "Marquette's no cupcake and my guys ain't no pineapples."

In between, he ran the most unorthodox basketball program in the country and always, well, nearly always, left 'em laughing.

At the '74 Final Four in Greensboro, N.C., for instance, the other coaches--Norm Sloan of North Carolina State, Wooden of UCLA and Ted Owens of Kansas--showed up for a news conference in coachly attire, suits or sport coats and ties. McGuire, just off the golf course, wore yellow slacks, a ratty tan sweater over a brown shirt, and sneakers with no socks.

They talked about strategy and such. He told how he'd been aiming his drives at his caddie, imagining him to be N.C. State's David Thompson.

He told his players, when success beckoned, "We'll all go uptown together." He told friends, "I'll give you the coat off my back, the shoes off my feet, but [if] I don't know you, I wouldn't give you a strawr hat in a blizzard."

He told irritating referees--and coaches he didn't like--exactly what he thought of them. He sneered at hypocrites, or those he saw as hypocrites, "Don't con a conner."

And he told the world, "If I were the president of Marquette University, I wouldn't hire me."

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