Former Miami (Ohio) coach Charlie Coles had everything: The Xs and Os, the brains, the personality. In a perfect world, Coles would have been a millionaire with six-figure speaking fees, famous friends and a big shoe contract.
Instead he had a closet full of mock turtlenecks, the lowest salary in the Mid-American Conference -- despite a Sweet 16 appearance -- and more love and respect than any coach could dream about.
“He never asked [for more money],” said Jason Grunkemeyer, a former player and assistant under Coles. “He’d joke that he just wants to tiptoe around and ‘hope they don’t fire me.’”
Coles, who retired in 2012, passed away at his home Friday at the age of 71. No cause of death was listed, but Grunkemeyer said Coles had been suffering from a variety of health ailments, unrelated to a history of heart problems.
Coles retired as the MAC leader in league wins with 218, including a 167-109 conference record in 16 seasons at his alma mater, highlighted by that 1999 trip to the Sweet 16 behind future NBA player Wally Szczerbiak.
Coles won 355 games between Miami and Central Michigan, producing NBA players like Dan Majerle, Ira Newble and Szczerbiak.
But numbers didn’t define Coles, who was one of the great personalities in college basketball. What defined him was his love of teaching -- he taught an undergraduate course on basketball theory -- and his unique personality.
“With Charlie, people like to talk about his sense of humor, but I always talk about his intelligence,” said ESPN broadcaster and radio host Dan Dakich, who coached against Coles in the MAC from 1997-2007 while at Bowling Green. “That dude was brilliant.”
To his players, he was a father figure.
“I think the thing with him was he developed the whole person,” Grunkemeyer said in a phone conversation Friday from Muncie, Ind., where he is a basketball assistant coach at Ball State. “I think that’s the thing for all of us who played for him or coached for him would be able to say. He didn’t just care what you could do as a basketball player, he really cared about what you were as an individual. If things needed to corrected, he wasn’t afraid to go there.”
Dakich felt Coles was a kindred spirit in a league rife with animosity between coaches. When Dakich would tee off on the commissioner in meetings about the state of the league, Coles would be next to him, Dakich said, going, "'Keep going Dan, keep going.’ Because he knew what was going to happen to MAC basketball.”
One year, Dakich famously wore his sports coat backward during a winning streak, which included a win at Miami. After the streak ended, Miami traveled to Bowling Green.
“He came out with his coat backward, and I was dying laughing,” Dakich said in a phone conversation. “He said, 'You’re not stealing the mojo from me!' He was the only coach who got what this was about, me doing something stupid for my team.”
After he lost Szczerbiak to the NBA following Miami’s wild Sweet 16 ride, I remember Coles moaning about his fate at the 1999 MAC media day. Of course, that team, which had little talent, went to the MAC finals as a 9-seed. In 2001, he got to the conference finals again as an 8-seed.
I remember Coles fondly from my days as a student reporter from 1999-2001 at Ohio University. I looked forward to the Bobcats playing Miami for the chance to hear his thoughts at the postgame news conference. How many reporters look forward to a news conference? That's Charlie. And it was worth every minute. When he said he would trade for a little-known Ohio guard named Corey Reed, a few of us wanted to yell, “We’ll trade him for you!”
These conferences were more like a Bill Cosby stand-up special, full of jokes and life lessons. (Who will ever forget his memorable rant after Miami's narrow loss at Kentucky in 2009?) He would rip a question from a student reporter in a way that wasn’t nasty. He would tell long stories. He was also one of the few coaches who would compliment a team that just beat him and rave about the Corey Reeds of the world.
“When they beat his team, he always praised the other team,” Dakich said. “Some guys in the MAC were so paranoid they wouldn’t do that.”
In a 2001 column I wrote about Coles, I mentioned him teasing a former recruit, Ohio forward Jon Sanderson, if he “were on my team, he could shoot all the 3-pointers he wanted, not just in the second half. Remember ‘Wally World’ baby.”
This was during a game.
“Only he could get away with that,” Grunkemeyer said.
In recent years, Coles asked an Ohio student reporter, Will Frasure, how old he was during a news conference. When Frasure said he was 22, Coles replied, “I would smile every day if I were 22.”
Frasure said it's the best advice he's ever gotten.
Grunkemeyer played under Coles for three years, including that Sweet 16 season, and coached under him from 2007-12. He was an athletic director at the local high school in Oxford last year, so he got to spend more time with Coles. Because of this familiarity, he’s often asked for Coles stories and impressions.
“Some are appropriate, some not so appropriate,” he said with a laugh.
After some cajoling, Grunkemeyer thought of a recent story that wasn’t about basketball.
“He was telling me a couple months back that he went to the doctor, because he’s having issues, and Coach, he was probably taking one too many Vicodin. The doctor came in and,” Grunkemeyer said, going into Coles’ voice. “‘Yeah this guy is gonna tell me I got to watch my pills, watch that Vicodin and I looked at him say, sir, you know who you’re talking to. I’m 70 years old. I’ve had three open heart surgeries. I’ve got 15 specialists as my doctors and now you’re worried about me trying to feel good. I got like three weeks to live if i’m lucky!’ He was prophetic there. He’s telling the story and he’s laughing, I’m laughing. That kind of stuff. He wasn’t afraid to talk about it.”
Grunkemeyer had spent much of Friday talking to ex-teammates. The funeral hadn’t been planned yet, but he was looking forward to it as a “real celebration of his life.”
“I know I’m looking forward to crying, laughing and swapping stories,” he said. “I think that’s what he would want. That’s how he lived his life. You should send someone there. There will be a lot of great stories.”
Sounds like a dream assignment.