In Al McGuire's office at Marquette, images of sad clowns abound. Pictures, all over the place, of sad clowns. Everybody must ask him about them. McGuire is touted to be a con, so the sad clowns have got to be a setup. Right away, commit yourself to those sad clowns, you're coming down his street. Hey, buddy, why do you have a banana in your ear? Because I couldn't find a carrot. Zap, like that. And yet, how strange an affectation: sad clowns. Obviously, they must mean something. It cannot be the sadness, though. Of all the things this fascinating man is—and clown is one—he is not sad.
Another thing he is is street smart. McGuire has grown up and left the pavement for the boardrooms, so now when he spots this quality in others, he calls it "credit-card-wise." One time in a nightclub, when the band played Unchained Melody, all the 40-year-olds in the place suddenly got up and packed the floor, cheek to cheek. Nostalgia ran rampant. Right away, Al said, "Summer song. This was a summer song when it came out. Always more memories with summer songs."
Perfect. He got it. Right on the button. Of course, this is a small thing. A completely insignificant thing. But the point is, he got it just right. And this is a gift. It is McGuire's seminal gift, for all his success flows from it. The best ballplayers see things on the court. McGuire lacked this ability as an athlete, but he owns it in life. Most people play defense in life, others "token it" (as Al says), but there are few scorers, and even fewer playmakers, guys who see things about to open up and can take advantage. McGuire is one of life's playmakers. He perceives. He should be locked in a bicentennial time capsule so that generations yet unborn will understand what this time was really like. There will be all the computers and radar ovens and Instamatics, and McGuire will pop out from among them in 2176 and say. "If the waitress has dirty ankles, the chili will be good." And, "Every obnoxious fan has a wife home who dominates him." And, "If a guy takes off his wristwatch before he fights, he means business." And, "Blacks will have arrived only when we start seeing black receptionists who aren't good looking."
Words tumble from his mouth. He's a lyrical Marshall McLuhan. Often as not, thoughts are bracketed by the name of the person he is addressing, giving a sense of urgency to even mundane observations: "Tommy, you're going to make the turn here, Tommy." "Howie, how many of these go out, Howie?" And likewise, suddenly, late at night, apropos of nothing, unprompted, spoken in some awe and much gratitude: "Frank, what a great life I've had, Frank."
November 29, 1976
This starts to get us back to the sad clowns. The key to understanding McGuire is to appreciate his unqualified love of life, of what's going on around him. e.e. cummings: "I was marvelously lucky to touch and seize a rising and striving world; a reckless world, filled with the curiosity of life herself; a vivid and violent world welcoming every challenge; a world hating and adoring and fighting and forgiving; in brief, a world which was a world." Al McGuire: "Welcome to my world." With him everything is naturally vivid and nearly everything is naturally contradictory, the way it must be in crowded, excited worlds.
So with the clowns. It is not the sadness that matters, or even the clownishness. It is the sad clown, a contradiction. By definition, can there be such a thing as a sad clown? Or a wise coach? "Sports is a coffee break," McGuire says. And Eugene McCarthy once observed, "Coaching is like politics. You have to be smart enough to know how to do it, but dumb enough to think it is important."
Now, if all of the foregoing has tumbled and twisted and gone in fits and spurts, that's what it is like being around Al McGuire. His business, making money (it includes coaching as a necessary evil), comes ordered and neat, hermetic—to use his word, calculated—but everything else veers off in different directions, at changing speeds, ricocheting. Actually, all of that is calculated, too, only we cannot always fathom to what purpose. For example, later on here McGuire is going to expound at length on how he is not only sick of coaching but how he no longer applies himself to the task, and how Marquette could be virtually unbeatable if he just worked harder. Now, these remarks were made thoughtfully and have been repeated and embellished on other occasions. Obviously, they are going to come back to haunt him. Other recruiters are going to repeat them to prospects. If Marquette loses a couple of games back-to-back, the press and the alumni and the students and even those warm and wonderful fans who don't have shrews for wives are going to throw this admission back in his face. And he knows this, knew it when he spoke. So maybe you can figure out why he said what he did. Probably it has something to do with tar babies. Somehow he figures that other people who slug it out with him in his world are going to get stuck.
People are dazzled by McGuire, by his colorful language and by the colorful things he does—riding motorcycles at his age, which is 48, or going off on solitary trips to the four corners of the globe. That stuff is all out front, hanging out there with the clown pictures, so people seize upon it and dwell on this "character." They miss the man. First off, he is a clever entrepreneur, a promoter, a shrewd businessman, an active executive of a large sports equipment company (vice-president of Medalist Industries). This interests him much more than the baskets. "And I have an advantage," he says, "because people have a false impression from reading about me. They expect one thing and suddenly find themselves dealing with a very calculating person. I scare them. I want to skip the French pastry and get right down to the numbers."
The fans and the press think of McGuire as the berserk hothead who drew two technicals in an NCAA championship game, or the uncommonly handsome, dapper sharpie, pacing, spitting, playing to the crowd, cursing his players, themselves attired in madcap uniforms resembling the chorus line in The Wiz. The fans and the press overlook the fact that McGuire's Marquette teams have made the NCAA or the NIT 10 years in a row, averaging 25 wins a season the last nine, and they got there by concentrating on defense, ice-picking out victories by a few points a game. As a coach, you can't much control an offense: They just weren't going in for us tonight. A defense is a constant, seldom fluctuating, always commanding. Just because people see Al McGuire's body on the bench, they assume that is he, carrying on. You want to see Al McGuire, look out on the court, look at the way his team plays, calculating. McGuire will play gin rummy against anybody; he won't play the horses or a wheel in Vegas; he won't play the house. You play him, his game, his world. "People say it's all an act, and maybe it is," he says. "Not all of it—but I don't know myself anymore whether I'm acting. Not anymore. I don't know. I just know it pleases me."
The motorcycle, for example, gets involved here. McGuire adores motorcycling. Most mornings at home in Milwaukee, he rises at seven and tools around for a couple of hours on his Kawasaki. Before the regionals in Louisiana last year, he rented a bike and went to a leper hospital. So the motorcycle business is for real. Also, it is French pastry. Let us look at McGuire vis-√†-vis more important things; for example, cars and women.
Now, most coaches adore automobiles and have no rapport with women. That is not to say that they don't like sex; it is to say that they tolerate women because women provide sex. But they don't enjoy the company of women. They don't like them around. This is what upsets them about women's athletics, not the money it's going to take from men's sports. Just that they're going to be around. On the other hand, American coaches are nuts about cars. Cars count. The most important thing to coaches is to get a courtesy car to drive around town in. This is the sign of being a successful coach. Almost any American coach will sign for $10,000 less if you give him the use of a $6,500 car.
Naturally, being one of the most famous and successful basketball coaches in the land, Al McGuire has a courtesy car. It is a Thunderbird. He gets a fresh one every two years. But, unlike other coaches, he has no relationship with his car. It doesn't mean anything to him. Last February, after a whole winter of driving the thing, 3,200 miles worth, he still didn't have any idea how to turn on the heat. He had to be shown. And while he can whip around on his motorcycle, he is nearly incompetent as an automobile driver. While driving, he can become oblivious to the fact that he is driving. Sometimes he hunches over the wheel, sort of embracing it, and lets the car carry him and his country music along. Other times he takes both hands off the wheel to properly gesticulate. As a rule, he stops at all stop signs, including those that face down the other road of an intersection. This leads to some confusion in the cars behind the courtesy Thunderbird. Or sometimes, when a topic especially involves him, the car will sort of drift to a halt as he is talking. Just kind of peter out by the side of the road.
But as he does not fraternize with cars, so is he the rare coach who enjoys and appreciates women. This is not telling tales out of school. This has nothing to do with his marriage, which is going on 27 years. This has to do with women generically. "I get along with women better than I do with men," Al says, simply enough. Whenever he talks to a woman he knows, he takes her hands gently in his and confides in her. But understand, the consummate calculator doesn't flash those green eyes just to be friendly. There are many ways to be credit-card-wise. "I've always believed that if you get women involved in anything, it will be a success," McGuire says. "Frank, most men in America are dominated by women, Frank."
He is not. He and Pat McGuire share a marriage that is not unlike the way he coaches. They do not crowd one another. In the 26 years he has been married, he has never used a house key. When he comes home, Pat must let him in. When it is late, which it often is, she is inclined to say, "Where have you been?" He replies, "Pat, were there any calls for me, Pat?" When Marquette is on the road, McGuire never sits in the game bus waiting for it to leave. He waits in a bar for the manager to come in and tell him everyone is aboard. Then, if someone was late, he doesn't know. "A lot of coaching is what you choose not to do, not to see," McGuire says. "That is hypocritical, of course, but it is also true."
This, however, is not to suggest that Pat McGuire puts up with him completely. Like her husband, she is not crazy about all kinds of surprises. This leads to the Al McGuire First Rule of Marriage: when you have something unsettling to tell your wife, advise her thereof just before you go into the bathroom. Thus, when Al decides to take off for Greece or the Yukon or any place where "I can get away from credit cards and free tickets," he announces the trip to Pat as he walks down the hall. "Yes?" she answers. "I'm going to Greece tomorrow for two weeks," he calls out. "What?" she says, afraid she has heard him correctly again. She has. Then he repeats the message and closes the bathroom door. This has worked, more or less, for 26 years. Is it at all surprising that his unorthodoxy has succeeded so well at Marquette for a mere 12?
Now that you are more than somewhat confused, let us go back to his beginning. Al McGuire is influenced by his family and his heritage. He was born on Sept. 7, 1928 in the Bronx but grew up in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, where his family ran a workingman's bar. It was a club, a phone, a bank; they cashed paychecks. There were 56 saloons in seven blocks, meaning a) the McGuires had a lot of competition, but b) they were in the right business for that particular constituency. Al was named for Al Smith, then running as the first major Catholic presidential candidate. Al Smith was the quintessential New Yorker. He was fervently opposed to Prohibition, he wore a derby hat and said such strange words as "raddio," for what brought us Amos 'n' Andy. The namesake McGuire, removed from New York for two decades now, first in North Carolina, then in Milwaukee, still honors the other Al by talking Noo Yawkese. The rs in the middle of many words evaporate. Thus, the fowuds play in the conner, from whence they participate in pattuns. And there is the occasional awreddy and youse and den (for then), and the missing prepositions so reminiscent of that disappearing subway culture: down Miami; graduated high school.
McGuire also claims to have enriched the language. It was his interest in the stock market, he says, that brought the term "blue chip" into sports ("But I wasn't famous enough at the time to get credit for it"). Likewise, "uptick," for when a stock/team advances. Gambling, a familiar pursuit of his father's, an illness for his legendary older brother John, provided "the minus pool" (for losers), "a push" (a standoff) and "numbers," the word McGuire invariably uses for dollars. "What are the numbers?" is a common McGuire expression. Then, from the old sod, there are the adages: "Never undress until you die" (Always save something, or, "Squirrel some nuts away"). "Congratulate the temporary" (Live for the moment, or, "Go barefoot in the wet grass"). He has recently developed an interest in antiques, which he hunts down on his motorcycle forays, and promises us new terms from antiquing soon.
But it is his imagery, original and borrowed, that is the most vivid McGuire. Seashells and balloons: happiness, victory. Yellow ribbons and medals: success in recruiting. Memos and pipes: academia. Hot bread and gay waiters: guaranteed, a top restaurant. A straw hat in a blizzard: what some people, like the NCAA, will provide you with. Even a whale comes up for a blow sometimes: advice to players who can't get their minds off women. Hot lunch for orphans: a giveaway, some sort of PR venture. French pastry: anything showy or extraneous, such as small talk or white players. Keepers: good-looking broads (you don't throw them back). Closers: people who get by the French pastry and complete a deal, e.g., yours truly, Al McGuire. Guys who charge up the hill into a machine gun: most X-and-O coaches; see also "Brooks Brothers types" and "First Communion guys." Welcome to my world: come uptown with me.
Moreover, McGuire has begun more and more to turn nouns into verbs. Thus, to "rumor it out" is what a smart executive does when he keeps his ear to the ground. And: "Guys like Chones and Meminger magnet kids for us." Or: "You've got to break up cliques or you'll find players husband-and-wifing it out on the court." Or: "If you haven't broken your nose in basketball, you haven't really played. You've just tokened it."
It is the custom at Marquette to let teammates fight, to encourage fights, for that matter, until the day the season opens. McGuire lets them go a minute. One day he stood there, biting his lip for the required time while an older player beat his son Allie, a pretty fair guard, all to hell. This policy is calculated to let frustrations out, draw the team together. Calculated. For he has no stomach for it. McGuire has seen all he would ever want of fighting.
It was an old Irish thing. His father, John Sr., delighted in it. What more could a man want than to sip a beer and watch his boys mix it up? If not large for a basketball player—6'3"—McGuire was a big kid in a saloon, and he worked behind the bar from an early age. It was the bartender's job to break up fights. If you hired a bouncer, the trouble was he was liable to start fights himself; otherwise, he couldn't justify his job. So, fight started, the barkeep had to come over the bar. Feet first. Always come feet first. Or, if the action was slack, a slow Tuesday or whatnot, old John McGuire might drum up a fight for one of his own boys, and they would "go outside" to settle things.
Al McGuire played ball the same way. His older brother Dick, now a Knick scout, was the consummate Noo Yawk player for St. John's and the Knicks—a slick ball handler and passer. Al was what he himself calls a dance-hall player. He was good enough to star as a college player, at St. John's, but as a pro could only hang on as an enforcer for three seasons with the Knicks. Once he grabbed Sid Borgia, the famous official, in what was described by horrified observers as "a boa constrictor grip." Counting two technicals, he got eight fouls in less than a quarter in one game. He boasted that he could "stop" Bob Cousy in his heyday, which he could, after a fashion, halting the action by fouling Cousy or the guy who set picks for him. It was McGuire's big mouth that first sold out the Boston Garden for the Celtics. They paid to see the brash Irishman try to stop their Celtic. In the off-season McGuire would go back to Rockaway, tend bar and go outside when his father asked for such divertissement.
"We all thought it was so romantic," he says, "so exciting, but, Frank, looking back, it wasn't, Frank." Not long ago McGuire was in a joint in Greenwich Village. A few tables over, there was an argument. The guy took off his watch. It took six, seven guys to subdue him. McGuire turned to the businessman he was with. "He'll be back," he said. He had seen it so many times. Sure enough, in a little while the guy was back, and there was another mess. The next morning, at breakfast, McGuire began thinking about the previous night's incident, and just like that, he threw up. "Maybe it was the orange juice," he says, "but I don't think so. It was what that fight made me remember. It scared me. I don't want those memories."
One time, when he was about 24 or 25, his father got him to go outside with a guy. "I was handling him, but I couldn't put him away," McGuire says, "and I knew I couldn't get away with this." He was very relieved when the cops came and broke it up. Al went back into the bar and told his father, "Dad, that's it, Dad. I'm never gonna go outside again." And he never did. His father sulked for a month or more. It was not long after that that Al decided all of a sudden he could be very successful in life at large.
But money, or the lack of it, has influenced Al McGuire more than taking guys outside. Some people who grew up in the Depression are that way. The McGuires had food on the table; they weren't on the dole. Still, money was a concern. Of the sons, John, now 52, was considered the clever one. And he was, except for the gambling. He has adapted well; he runs a gay bar now. Dick, 50, was considered the bright one. At an early age he could do The New York Times crossword. Al, the youngest, was dismissed as a glib scuffler. Everybody, himself included, figured he would become an Irish cop, an FBI man if he got lucky. He was scheduled to take an FBI physical one day but played golf instead. He thought he had blown a great chance in life and, remorseful, on his way home he stopped his car on the Cross Bay Bridge, got out and chucked his clubs, the cart, the whole business in the water. It was a little while later, when he was an assistant coach at Dartmouth, that he decided he could be a success, he could make money.
You see, even when nobody figured Al for anything, the family let him handle the books. The kid was at home with the numbers. And then one day at Dartmouth, where it snowed a lot, he was alone, and had time to think, and he figured out he had more talent with the numbers than with the baskets. "Since then I've never had any trouble making money," he says. "All I have to do is sit down and think. I believe I can do anything in that area."
Since then, while he has coached every year, while it is his profession, coaching has never been the ultimate. As a consequence, he is not vulnerable there. McGuire often says (indeed, he doth protest too much), "I've never blown a whistle, looked at a film, worked at a blackboard or organized a practice in my life." Which is true, and which drives other coaches up the wall. But McGuire, the anti-coach, regularly discusses land mortgages, Medalist shoulder-pad marketing and his theories on the short-range future of municipal bonds. Intellectually, temperamentally, what is the difference between a fascination with a high-post backdoor and a short-term bond yield?
And yet, McGuire is only hung up on the numbers in the abstract. The numbers: it is a euphemism, like the Victorians using "limbs" for legs. Real money doesn't mean anything to him. He carries it all scrunched up in his pocket: bills, credit cards, notes, gum wrappers, identification cards, all loose together. He takes out the whole mess and plops it on the counter. "Take what you want," he says. A credit card? Two dollars and 63 cents for breakfast? My driver's license? Take whatever you want. The Depression baby just wants to know that the money in the bank is solid and permanent. Never undress until you die.
"I must be the highest-paid coach in the country," he says. "I wanted it. I thought it would be a goose for basketball. I don't mean just what I get from Marquette. I mean all the numbers. If anybody put all the numbers together it would amaze people. But understand: it hasn't changed me. I've always lived the same. My friends are still hit-and-run types. I eat the same as ever, drink the same, clown around the same. My wife still wears Treasure Island dresses."
He is not friendly with many coaches. Hank Raymonds has been beside him on the bench all 12 years at Marquette and has never had a meal at the McGuires'. Raymonds and young Rick Majerus do the Xs and Os, the trench work. McGuire believes in "complementary" coaches, as he does in complementary players, units that support each other's efforts, not duplicate them. "I can drink enough cocktails for the whole staff," McGuire says. "I don't need another me."
His assistants (McGuire, out of respect and guilt, has taken to calling them "co-coaches") understand his soft-shoe. One asks Majerus: What is it above all about McGuire? We are so used to hearing about the originality, the insouciance, the motorcycle flake, the ability to get along with black players—what is it really with McGuire? "The one main thing," Majerus answers, "is this insecurity Al has about money. Still. I guess he'll always be that way."
There was a group with McGuire a couple of winters ago after a road game. As always, he wouldn't countenance any talk about basketball, but soon enough he brought up the subject of the numbers. Typically, it was the woman in the gathering that he turned to, confided in. Speaking softly, as he does on these occasions, he told her he thought he had things worked out O.K. for his three kids, for Pat. They were going to have enough. For a Depression baby this made him feel good, he said. But what if he accumulated more money, the woman asked him, what would you do with that?
McGuire was not prepared for the question. He thought for a moment. "A park," he said then. "With what's left, I'd like to see them build a park for poor people."
To most everybody in the business, McGuire is a nagging aberration. Listening to him lecture 500 coaches at a Medalist clinic, Chuck Daly of Penn whispers, "If the rest of us operated his way, we'd be out of business." That is the conventional wisdom. But before he said that, Daly made another observation: "Al's logic is on a different level, above everybody else's." And that is the conventional wisdom, too. So wait a minute. If McGuire wins 25 a year and he has the logic, he obviously has the right way. That is logical. Nonetheless, he remains the only coach who waits in the bar, and he stays frustrated that coaches have such low esteem and little security.
"Coaches are so scared," he says. "Every day, practice starts: gimme three lines, gimme three lines. You come out and say gimme two lines, everybody will look at you like you just split the atom. Me, whether it's business or coaching, I'm so pleased when I look like a fool. When I don't do foolish things, make foolish new suggestions, I'm not doing my job. I'm just another shiny-pants bookkeeper.
"The trouble with coaching, the prevailing image, is that coaching is like what you had in high school, because that is the last place where most people were involved with coaching. But coaching college is not pizza parties and getting the team together down at the A&W stand. People can't understand my players screaming back at me, but it's healthy. Also, I notice that the screaming always comes when we're 15, 20 ahead. When it's tied, then they're all listening very carefully to what I have to say."
Many adult coaches demand unquestioning loyalty from 20-year-old kids. As McGuire points out, some of the most successful coaches even refuse to accept kids with different philosophies, conflicting egos. "Dealing with problems, with differences—that is what coaching is," he says. "Running pattuns is not coaching." He does not believe that character can be "built" with haircuts and Marine routines and by coaches so insecure that their players can never challenge them.
Off the court, McGuire sees his players only when they come to him in distress. He would be suspicious of any college kid who wanted to be buddy-buddy with a middle-aged man, and vice versa. "I don't pamper," he says. "These guys are celebrities in their own sphere of influence—top shelf, top liquor. Everybody around them touches them with clammy hands. That's the only word: clammy. Well, they don't get that from me." Often, he doesn't even bother to learn their names. For much of last season the starting center, Jerome Whitehead, was called Chapman. Sometimes McGuire has stood up to scream at a player and then had to sink back down because he couldn't remember the kid's name.
"Look, if you're into coaching heavy, into the blackboard, if you're gonna charge up the hill into the machine guns, then you might as well stay at St. Ann's in the fifth grade," he says. "Because coaching up here is something else. You're gonna have to deal with the fifth column, the memos and pipes. And you're gonna get fired. The trouble is, every coach thinks he has the new wrinkle and is gonna last forever. Coaching is a mistress, is what it is. If a job opened up in Alaska tomorrow, 250 guys from Florida would apply, and they wouldn't even ask about the numbers, and they wouldn't ask their wife, either, like they wouldn't about any mistress.
"But to the players you ain't a love affair. You're just a passing fancy to them. It's pitiful, too, because about every coach who leaves makes better numbers on the outside."
Everyone assumes McGuire gets along with his players—especially the inner-city blacks—because of his unique personality. It counts, to be sure; every charmer is an overlay. But look past the French pastry and his calculation surfaces again—just as he promises. No con works unless the conned party figures he is the one really getting the edge. McGuire settles for a push. "They get and I get," he says. While the players don't get an uncle-coach, they get, as McGuire calls it, "a post-recruiter." He virtually forces them to get a diploma (even Jim Chones, who quit as a junior to sign with the Nets, is taking summer courses toward his degree), and he hustles them up the richest pro contracts or good jobs in business. It is surely not just a coincidence that McGuire has thrived during the years when the big-money pro war was on. He has been a cash coach in a cash-and-carry era. On one occasion the Marquette provost had to personally intercede to stop McGuire from pressuring the sports PR man about withholding unfavorable statistics that might harm a player's pro chances.
Shamelessly, McGuire promotes his seniors, a ploy that keeps a kid hustling, playing defense, giving up the ball for his first three seasons, so he will get the ball and the shots (and maybe then the big numbers) his final year. Already, in anticipation of this season, McGuire has begun to protest that Butch Lee, a junior guard, got too much publicity as the star of the Puerto Rico Olympic team. Bo Ellis, a senior, is scheduled to get the ink this time around.
The McGuire Arrangement is, basically, us-against-them—"The only two things blacks have ever dominated are basketball and poverty"—and it works because he tends bar for everybody. Nobody ever fussed with McGuire more than last year's ball handler, Lloyd Walton. "Sit down!" he would scream at his coach all through games. Says Walton, "He figures your problems are his problems. Hey, I've had a black coach in summer ball, but I never had the rapport with him I had with Al."
When McGuire learned one November night back in 1968 that revolutionaries on campus were pressuring the black players to quit because they were being "exploited," he met with the players in a motel room sometime after 2 a.m. He didn't go long on philosophy. He told them he would support their decision if they left, and gave up their scholarships, but he also reminded them that there were more where they came from—maybe not so good, but they weren't Marquette basketball. He was.
Then he faced down the radicals. The smooth-talking theorists he screamed at. The tough guys he ridiculed. He suggested to an idealistic white coed that she should take one of the black players home to her suburb for Thanksgiving. To a priest, he snarled, "Don't come after these kids from the Jesuit house. You never bought a pound of butter in your life, and you're asking them to be Kamikaze pilots." By 4:30 a.m., when Pat came to the doorbell to let him in, the revolution was dead.
The relationship between Marquette and McGuire is a curious one and, it seems, a push. Marquette is one of the few Catholic schools left—Notre Dame, St. John's and the U. of San Francisco are others—that compete, year after year, with the huge state institutions. For that matter, Marquette is the only private school of any stripe that is always right there at the top. The Warriors not only sell out for the season, they do it head to head, in the same building, against the Milwaukee Bucks, which until recently have been a first-class pro team.
Never mind the ratings: basketball pays a lot of bills at Marquette. It retired the oppressive old football debt. And McGuire must be reckoned with; for several years now he has been athletic director as well as coach. Of course, there are certain Marquette elements leery of the image of the school being filtered through the McGuire prism.
What the nation sees of Marquette University is a self-proclaimed hustler, ranting and raving at the Establishment, running a team of ghetto blacks dressed in wild uniforms. What is this, some kind of desperado vocational school? In fact, Marquette is a relatively subdued place, Jesuit, stocked for the most part by white middle-class Midwestern Catholics who end up as schoolteachers. Typically, McGuire—who sent all three of his children there—guarantees that it must be good academically or it couldn't get by charging such high tuition numbers.
While the coach and the school do share the same religion, McGuire does not get faith confused with the pattuns or the players who execute them. His only public concession to Catholicism, such as it is, is his pregame exhortation, which went like this last season, all in one breath: "All-right-let's-show-them-we're-the-No.-2-team-in-the-country-and-beat-the-bleep-out-of-them-Queen-of-Victory-pray-for-us."
Mostly the Jesuit fathers confine themselves to second-guessing the coach's substitutions rather than the morality of his antics. Says Father William Kelly, an associate professor of theology, "Al does use a few cultural expressions that some might find flippant—'Hail Mary shot,' that sort of thing—but he is not sacrilegious in the traditional faith context. He has just found congeniality in colloquialism. In fact, in terms of his ideals and his faith, he is very much a man of the Church. He is really a very conservative Catholic, if not necessarily a very good one. But Al is loyal and deep in his faith. He is competitive, but when he loses there is no blame. And he always points toward other, more important things."
Ay, there's the rub. The man has never really relished coaching, and with each succeeding season has cared for it less. When the call came, out of the blue, to interview for the Marquette opening ("They were desperate, obviously; otherwise they would have taken a First Communion guy"), he was drifting into real estate and other ventures, coaching with his left hand at little Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. He went 6-19 and 6-18 his last two years there and was preparing to leave coaching altogether.
He appears to be approaching that estate again. In many ways, as he is the first to admit, Marquette basketball survives on his reputation and the hard work of Raymonds and Majerus. McGuire deigns to make only one recruiting visit a year ("The kids know more about me now than I know about them, but even though I don't work at it, I'm the best recruiter in the world"), and, invariably—11 years out of 13—he gets his ace with his one-shot road show. He is often late for practice; sometimes he doesn't even know where the team is practicing. He gets older and smarter, but for a coach time stands still. The kids are always 19 going on 20, and most coaches and fans are one-track zombies; the Germans have the best word for them: Fachidioten—specialty idiots. McGuire would rather talk about how his new uniforms will televise than about his player prospects. When he gets to the Arena floor, the first thing he checks are the four most distant corner seats—the worst ones in the house. If they are sold, he figures he has done it again. Then, only then, does he come to life as a coach. For two hours.
"I hate everything about this job except the games," McGuire says. "Everything. I don't even get affected anymore by the winning, by the ratings, those things. The trouble is, it will sound like an excuse because we've never won the national championship, but winning just isn't all that important to me. I don't know why exactly. Maybe it's the fear, the fear of then having to repeat. You win once, then they expect you to win again.
"Wait'll you see what happens to Bobby Knight now that he's won. On the other hand, I found out when I got those two technicals in the NCAA finals that people sympathized with me for making an ass out of myself. I get 35 million people looking at me, I can't help it, I immediately become an ass. People relate to that.
"But, Frank, I'm not doing the job anymore, Frank. I never liked coaching, but at least I should be available more. I should be more courteous to my staff. I should have a more orderly process with the university. Maybe it's the repetition. You take the clinics we do for Medalist. They're almost a success, but now, just when they're getting to be that, I don't have no thrill anymore. I wonder about myself. Can I be a success in anything permanently? Anything permanent?
"I figure I'm wrong 80% of the time, but it takes too much time to be right. I won't pay that price with my life. I'm jealous of guys like Dean Smith, Bobby Knight. I'm jealous of their dedication. I wish I had it. I admire the way their teams are dressed, the way their kids handle themselves. At the regionals last year one of our kids came down to lunch barefoot. But I just don't like coaching that much to put the time in on a thing like that. It's not my world. I run my team the only way I can run it and still keep my life.
"I'm ready to get out. It's just the numbers. So many of my numbers depend on me coaching. I'm scared to get out. Fear there, too. So maybe it's time I concentrated on coaching just for one year. It's been long enough I haven't concentrated. Frank, we could have a destructive machine if I worked at it. A destructive machine, Frank."
Is he acting now? It certainly doesn't seem so. The green eyes are neither twinkling nor blazing theatrically, the way they do when they signal routines. By happenstance, McGuire has been momentarily distracted. He came to an out-of-town place under the impression it was a greasy-spoon Mexican joint, but it has turned out, instead, to be a fancy-Dan supper club. With floor show. With table linen, yet. McGuire, in his sneakers and sport shirt, wasn't figuring on this—and place, setting the stage, is very important to him.
He wants to recruit around the kitchen table. Depression babies are kitchen guys, not parlor people. When a player comes to talk to him, get him out of the office, out of Marquette; get him down into some back-alley saloon. Welcome to my world. Visitors are escorted to an oilcloth-covered dining-room table in the back of a rundown Mexican bodega for a home-cooked meal. Or he just walks with people. Nobody anymore walks along and talks except for Al McGuire. Right away, the other guy is off stride, in the minus pool. You know what it must come from? From the going outside to fight guys. The meanness is out of it, but it's the same principle, same game. O.K., let's you and me go outside. Let's go in here. Let's drive out to this lake I know. Let's go to this guy's apartment. Let's go to this little Chinese place. Let's take a walk.
Everybody makes such a to-do about Al McGuire's exotic travels. Big deal: New Zealand. What is that? Anybody can go to New Zealand. That is the diversion, his escape, the smoke screen. Look at his world. That is the truly exotic one. How could a guy so Noo Yawk fit in so well in Milwaukee, or in Carolina before that? It's easy. Wherever McGuire is, he constructs a whole universe out of selected bars and restaurants, places to walk, acquaintances, teddy bears and zanies, places to drive, back rooms and penthouses, motorcycles and country-music jukeboxes. Tall guys with broken noses are also a part of this community. There is a cast and there are sets—everything but a zip code.
Nobody else is permitted to see it all. He tells his secretaries when he hires them: two years. After two years, no matter how good you are—especially if you're good—out. It's 3 a.m., where have you been? Pat, any calls for me, Pat? The only person who lives in Al McGuireland is Al McGuire. Cynics and the jealous take a look at the characters who pass through and they check out his con and whisper that he is really an ice-cold man who surrounds himself with bootlickers and sycophants. But that is not true. On the contrary. Sure, they all play up to McGuire—remember now, charmers are an overlay—but he has a need for them, too. Not just the players and the coaches, but all the people and places in Al McGuireland are complementary. Like his players, all retain their individuality and integrity. That's the whole point: otherwise they're no good to him. Lloyd Walton screaming back is the Lloyd Walton that McGuire wants, in the same way that sometimes he selects a fleabag hotel precisely because he wants a fleabag hotel.
The one permanent thing is the numbers. They are distant and bland, to be sure, but they provide permanency. The other things—the people and the places and the basketball games—are vivid and dear, but they consume too much of him to be sustained. And critics say it is all an act. McGuire wonders himself. But, no, he is not acting. He is directing all the time. Al, you're a director, Al. You're always running pattuns.