Good Knight

Like a certain controversial Texas Tech coach, Philadelphia U's Herb Magee is about to set a wins record. That's about all the two have in common
December 25, 2006

IRONIC FOR a guy who spends the better part of games standing and yelling the word motion, Herb Magee is a testament to the virtue of immobility. In 1967 he was offered the job of head basketball coach at Philadelphia Textile, a small Division II school tucked into the leafy Germantown neighborhood. In the four decades since, the school has been renamed—it's now Philadelphia University—but the coach has remained. Now in his 40th season Magee is on the verge of winning his 829th game, which would move him past Clarence (Big House) Gaines as the most successful D-II coach of all time. "I didn't get into this to be here for 40 years or win 800 games," says Magee. "I got into this because I wanted to coach. The rest just sort of happened."

In a profession filled with nakedly ambitious careerists who talk openly of "stepping-stone" jobs and have Allied Van Lines on speed-dial, Magee's loyalty is as much an aberration as his uncoiffed hair. Oh, he's had plenty of opportunities to move to a bigger program—the kind that, say, can afford to pay assistant coaches or fly the head coach on a recruiting trip. Magee has also had offers to become an assistant coach on an NBA bench. Each time, he's found it impossible to justify the move. "This is where I live, where my kids are, my family, my roots," says Magee, a Philly native who graduated from Textile in 1963 as the school's leading scorer. "Coaching is coaching. Being where you're comfortable is more important to me than millions of dollars."

John Nash, a longtime NBA executive and childhood friend, once called Magee late at night asking why he wasn't more interested in ascending the ladder.

"What are you doing right now, John?" Magee asked.

"Watching film," said Nash.

"Me too," Magee responded. "Mine's called Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Magee's aversion to change means that he's passed up incalculable amounts of money. But by staying at Philadelphia U, he's also passed up recruiting wars, street agents, glad-handing boosters, call-in shows, reality-deprived expectations, nonstop travel and websites devoted to his firing. And the compensation comes in other ways. Over 40 years Magee, a two-time national coach of the year, still requires only one hand to count the players who have failed to get a degree. The Rams, who have won at least 20 games 26 times in his tenure, play their home games on Herb Magee Court. He's gathered plenty of moss, so his players always know where to find him. Hardly a week goes by when he isn't invited to a wedding or a kid's baptism.

Perhaps above all, he can run his own program, unencumbered by meddling administrators and a relentless pressure to win. A few years ago a recruit wanted to know how many "touches" he could expect to get. "Touches?" Magee said, incredulously. "My stats say we miss half the shots we take. You want touches? Feel free to touch as many of those rebounds as you want." Another recent recruit asked Magee if he could see the team's locker room. The coach declined. "If you're basing your decision to come here on how nice the locker room is, we're going to have issues." (Epilogue: The kid came to the school anyway, graduated and served as an assistant coach.)

The Division II lifestyle also affords Magee the chance to moonlight as a "shot doctor." Patients have included Charles Barkley, Celtics guard Sebastian Telfair and Knicks forward Malik Rose—"His teaching allowed me to extend my career," Rose, 32, says flatly—but Magee also makes house calls to gyms throughout the Philly area. "It's all mechanics," he says. "There's a right way to shoot."

An impossibly young-looking 65-year-old, Magee teaches by example. How many jumpers from the top of the key could he make in 50 attempts? "Now? In street clothes?" he says, running a hand through his full head of brown hair. "I'd say 49. Less than 48, and I'd be upset."

When Bob Knight inevitably overtakes Dean Smith for the most career coaching wins in Division I, the milestone will be met with the same polarization and "yes, but" ambivalence that has shrouded Barry Bonds's pursuit of Hank Aaron. In Magee's case the new record will be met with unqualified applause. When he won his 800th game last season, a raft of former players, teammates and other coaches from Philadelphia's Big Five programs was in the bleachers. "He's one of those coaches who's so much more than a coach," says Tayron Thomas, the best player on last year's 20--11 team, who's now in the NBDL.

Win No. 817 came with more difficulty than the coach would've preferred. The Rams needed overtime to slip past Holy Family University at a recent home game. As the players changed out of their uniforms in a classroom off to the side of the court, the coach slapped five with them and bellowed, "Now that's a good win!" With no postgame coaches' show, no media beast in need of feeding, no boosters to schmooze, Magee left the gym soon afterward. "Going home," he announced. He hadn't seen his wife all day.

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ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)