As a basketball coach, Al McGuire was an original—outspoken and innovative and a winner through and through. He began his career as an assistant at Dartmouth, moved to the head job at little Belmont Abbey in North Carolina and spent the last 13 seasons at Marquette, where he was twice Coach of the Year and where he produced an NIT and an NCAA champion. He won 404 games and lost 144, but it was his flamboyant style that really set him apart. After winning the national title last spring, he retired from coaching to become vice-chairman of the board of Medalist Industries, a sporting goods conglomerate, and a color man for NBC. Recently he took time out from his work to offer predictably unorthodox views on the present and future of the college game.
SI: That was a dramatic touch, winning the NCAA championship in the last game of your career.
McGUIRE: Actually, if I had known we were going to win, I wouldn't have made plans to quit, because I don't think it's manly to leave after you win.
SI: But this way you left your successor, Hank Raymonds, with some talent.
November 28, 1977
McGUIRE: My original plan was for Hank to coach last year's team with me as athletic director. Then I would have gone to Medalist in May, Hank would have become the AD, and somebody else would have coached this season. I couldn't do it because the Medalist board didn't make its decision until the season had started. Also, Hank told me he wanted to coach more than one year. My plan might have offended him, but though I think he's a great coach, I honestly felt we'd had our Shangri-La together.
SI: Did you have someone in mind to coach this season?
McGUIRE: No. I wouldn't have gotten involved. I never even thought about it.
SI: What is your relationship with the school now?
McGUIRE: I'm gone. I said, "If you need me, call me. I'd be flattered, but otherwise I won't interfere." The only games I'll see will be the ones I'll cover for NBC. The toughest thing about all of this for me is that it means I've got to keep away from the players. Several of them have come down to my office at Medalist but I wouldn't see them. I'd love to have a beer and talk about the championship, but that's going to have to wait until they graduate. Every school in the heavyweight division has periods of crisis and dissension, and I can't let myself be the players' sounding board if they have one of those periods at Marquette.
SI: Well, you can talk to us about the championship. What did it mean to you?
McGUIRE: Obviously it was an immense pleasure, but I really only thought about it a month or so later when I was motor-biking up in Nova Scotia. I was going into Truro, and I said to myself, "Yeah, it was nice to win that."
SI: But what did you feel the night you won it?
McGUIRE: I was thinking about something else, really. When I got on the bus to go to the airport, it struck me that this would be the last time I would sit in the front seat. All my life I had wanted to sit in the front because that's where the coach always sits.
SI: While you were sitting there, what went through your mind?
McGUIRE: That it had been a nice run, a good ride. A lot of the kids I had coached flashed through my mind. And I thought about the Police Athletic League games and the fights and the early years of six guys getting into a car to play in Wilkes-Barre or Elmira. If you didn't give the crowd three fights in a game they weren't happy. The halftime always lasted an hour and a half so there could be a dance. By the time you got back to play, the floor was slippery. That's what I was thinking about. All those things, and what made them happen. Maybe because I never thought I would win a national championship.
SI: You didn't? Why not?
McGUIRE: Because of the way I coached. I didn't build for particular games or particular seasons. I built for continuity. That is not the best way to get the greatest team in sight and win the national championship. Besides, I had five or six teams better than last year's.
SI: John Wooden's UCLA teams were consistent but they also won national titles.
McGUIRE: When you talk about normal coaches and normal systems, you have to eliminate Coach Wooden. But I think Dean Smith works about the way I do. North Carolina is always good, but I don't know if this is the smart way of doing it if you want to build to a national championship. Take Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana team. Four seniors and a junior, and all dynamite. And North Carolina State when it won with David Thompson and the big white kid [Tom Burleson] underneath. San Francisco is taking its one shot now, but then there will be a drought.
SI: What makes a team a winner?
McGUIRE: I view it differently from most people. To me the important things are scheduling, referees, coaching and material—in that order.
SI: Perhaps you had better explain. You just put 200 recruiters out of work.
McGUIRE: I rank scheduling first, because that includes not just whom you play but when and where you play them. For instance, South Carolina opens this year against Minnesota and Alabama. That's Dunkirk. You're supposed to play your first game against East Cupcake.
SI: Where are the toughest places to play?
McGUIRE: DePaul is one, because it's a real pit. I always liked Notre Dame, because when you go there you must be confident, aggressive and obnoxious. Otherwise they'll blow you out. They'll give you Pat O'Brien and The Late Show and the Gipper walking across the Golden Dome. But going there is something I'll miss.
SI: You placed officials second.
McGUIRE: Officials are very good people who want to be part of the sports world, but the public doesn't understand that coaching is a livelihood and refereeing is a supplement. A referee can sit on a barstool all week, come out to a game with a hangover and his belly hanging out, and we're not supposed to say anything. I used to classify officials as rednecks or flowers. A red-neck would come back at you if you got on him; a flower would wilt.
SI: For someone who enjoyed sitting in the front of the bus so much, it's surprising you placed coaching third.
McGUIRE: I was talking the first time about coaching as a profession. It's manly and honorable. Coaches are the last of the cowboys; the last of the truly manly Americans are in coaching. But coaches must realize that they are only coffee breaks. People only talk about sports when they are away from the office. When they go back to work, they worry about their real problems—about their stomach trouble or their daughter dating a crook—not whether Jack Armstrong scored 25 points or not.
SI: What problems confront coaches?
McGUIRE: Security, mainly. Your life depends on a 19-year-old, freckle-faced player. Your unity and your whole season can be blown if the cheerleader gets pregnant. Look, I know the fears coaches have. I know how it is when you've lost five or six in a row and the flower of your youth is gone and you're worrying about what you can do next. I know what it's like when the student body is booing and the papers are writing bad things.
SI: Would it help if coaches had tenure?
McGUIRE: Yes. When a school hires a coach, it should give him a five-year contract. Then if it rehires him, the school marries him. They sleep together.
SI: What if he turns sour and starts to lose? Can't the school divorce him?
McGUIRE: Yes, but at least he would have a guarantee of doing something else, teaching or raising funds.
SI: Let's get specific. Who are the best coaches in basketball now?
McGUIRE: The true coaching is in high school where you take the kid with the underwear hanging out. There you're a teacher, but on the college level you get what you want and then you mold.
SI: If you were an AD looking for a coach, whom would you want to hire?
McGUIRE: A lot of them. I have a Will Rogers philosophy about coaches.
SI: Come on now, there are good and bad coaches, just like in any other job.
McGUIRE: There are coaches who coach material, and there are others who can coach better when they don't have material. Gene Bartow does better without material. I mean that as a compliment, but with five blue-chip players he has a problem getting them to the tournament. He's more of a technical coach. Guy Lewis at Houston does better when he has material. I was a material coach, too.
SI: How else do you account for your success?
McGUIRE: I was a good bench coach. And there is no doubt that I was a black coach, although I never said "hey, man" or gave out any of those Knights of Columbus handshakes. And in all the years I coached no one ever realized that the most disciplined team—not in the United States, but in the world—was Marquette. All people saw was the carnival atmosphere, the fancy uniforms, me kicking and yelling and the players yelling back. But, hey, there was no hanky-panky on the court.
SI: Would you like to be remembered with the Ibas, Rupps and Woodens?
McGUIRE: It would be nice. But if I'd won as often as Wooden, you'd need four guys to carry my head around.
SI: What about Bobby Knight? He has been up and down the last two years.
McGUIRE: Bobby is an excellent coach. If you want to have a successful program over a long period, he's your man.
SI: Oh, so as AD, you would hire him?
McGUIRE: Well, I'd hire Dean Smith, too, but here you're talking apples and oranges. Dean adjusts to things a little more. Bobby is still a General Patton type—you know, into machine guns.
SI: Getting back to your list of ingredients, you put material last. Why?
McGUIRE: I guess that's counter to the whole universe, but to me material is only No. 4, because you can have the best talent in the world and still lose if the other three aren't set properly. There are 500 great high school players every year. The key is getting the maximum effort and eliminating all the dissension.
SI: What about the illegal recruiting that sometimes occurs in getting those first-rate players?
McGUIRE: When the scandals happen, they're the result of the fears and pressures I was talking about before. A coach thinks a certain player can make him highly representative. It's not very smart, though, and it's pretty tough to get away with.
SI: Did the NCAA ever investigate Marquette?
McGUIRE: They started to before Bernard Toone came to school two years ago. A few questions arose, and we told the NCAA we wouldn't take him if there was going to be a problem. But nothing serious came up.
SI: Are you aware of any alumnus giving a player favors after he arrived?
McGUIRE: I'm going to answer your question with a question. How does a player from a poor family fly home when his mother or father dies?
SI: Did you ever answer that question?
McGUIRE: Well, the kid's got to get home.
SI: Do you think the NCAA exercises proper authority in its investigative and enforcement procedures?
McGUIRE: My main problem with the NCAA is that it has no respect for coaches. If a coach went to a leper colony, they wouldn't send him five dollars. The guys on the investigating crew will all be conference commissioners someday, and the infractions committee is composed of six guys who get into games for free. I just wish the whole organization would be more concerned about the coaches and athletes, and forget about trying to control the whole athletic world.
SI: What, specifically, should it do?
McGUIRE: The main thing they should change is the way they blackmail a school on probation into releasing its coach. You shouldn't take a man's livelihood away from him. There are certain things that cannot be done, even if the person is worse than John Dillinger. The NCAA does it like Pontius Pilate; it pretends to be washing its hands, when what it's really saying is "crucify that guy." I have no super love for Jerry Tarkanian, but they had bounty hunters out after him in Las Vegas. It was like they had made a contract in New York for a hit man, a button man.
SI: Should the NCAA have the authority to declare an athlete ineligible?
McGUIRE: Not under any conditions. The young person doesn't know what's going on.
SI: He knows what's illegal.
McGUIRE: Hey, coaches are hypnotists. When we bring high school kids in to visit, we've got bridle paths that we walk them on. We push a button and the lights go on. You put me with a 17-year-old kid, pal, and I'll leave him in a tailspin. Now you're going to turn around and tell him he flew out to this school twice so he's ineligible for the next two years? What are you talking about? You can't crush his life and his career because of what professionals tell him.
SI: What are some of the changes you anticipate in the future?
McGUIRE: I'm not wacked out but I think that in a few years the students will pick the coach, and the athletes will sue the coach if they think they are not getting enough playing time to help their professional chances. I think that the lane will be made wider and that anything that happens around the basket while a player is in the air will be legal. I believe that after an offensive rebound the ball should be passed once before it can be shot again. And I think you're going to see a rule that will restrict a team's combined height on the court at any one time to maybe—this is a guess—32 feet.
SI: That would drive coaches crazy who substitute freely.
McGUIRE: Don't be thinking about now. Think about the future. Eventually the officials' whistle will be tied in with the clock so it will start and stop at the right instant. I also think there should be a 24-or 30-second shot clock in the last five minutes of the game. Something I'm not in favor of that will probably happen is the use of instant replay to review an official's call. But if the official is correct there should be a severe penalty—like foul shots or loss of ball—slapped on the protesting team.
SI: Perhaps we'd better return to the present. Are you going to miss not coaching this year?
McGUIRE: Yes, but I'll play tricks on myself. Maybe read a lot and take a trip to New Zealand before the TV job starts. This will be the first time in 35 years or more than I won't be involved in short pants in the winter. You know, I don't know how to ice-skate or what Christmas morning is like without a game three days away. Once the season began I could never really appreciate things.
SI: Do you think you'll ever want to come back?
McGUIRE: No way. I've got to move on to other things. It will be difficult, of course, because I had smoke rings blown at me all those years. I was fortunate, because I won.
SI: All right, before you go, what will you miss most?
McGUIRE: The dance at halftime. I thought that was the best thing of all.
Something you should not miss is this season's college preview beginning on the next page. It starts with a look at the game's best shooters and moves on to scouting reports on the Top 20, the Best of the Rest, the small colleges and the women's teams.