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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
McGuire used humor to entertain and enlighten
By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com
We laughed when Michigan State coach Tom Izzo bunched his drawers over the Spartans' efforts and execution in their 72-68 win over the Harlem Globetrotters back in November.
We were supposed to laugh about it. We'd been taught to do so by watching Al McGuire all these years.
Michigan State broke the 'Trotters' 1,270-game winning streak, for God's sake. Never mind that, though. Michigan State scheduled the 'Trotters. How can you not laugh?
For this, and about a thousand other reasons over the years, we owe the debt of laughter to McGuire.
College basketball became far too serious a business after he left the sidelines. You may not remember the squawks of protest when he designed the uniform jerseys for the 1977 national championship team that weren't supposed to be tucked inside the shorts. He laughed then, too. Too much worry about too little, and not enough interest in the game and its players.
That was the essence of Al McGuire, both as coach and as talking head. True, he must be faulted for midwifing the concept of the "good" time out into broadcasting, but he really believed it when he said it, because he lived the game every time he saw one. He wanted the coach to call that time out, damn it, and when he got it, he was happy.
That, in essence, was McGuire. He was never too busy to talk about the game and the characters therein, because he was one of its best. He was New York smart, New York funny, but not New York overbearing. His accent legitimized him because it was genuine. He talked with exclamation points when he was excited, not because it was his developed persona, and he didn't mind when some people seemed bothered by it. He didn't sweat the small stuff as a coach, and he didn't as a broadcaster.
Indeed, McGuire the coach was a template for those who followed him. Like John Madden, he made and enforced only those rules he needed to enforce to insure harmony and success. He didn't play the martinet at a time when martinets were the order of the day. He listened to his players on subjects coaches didn't normally pay much mind to. He won their loyalty and their best efforts.
That's how his '77 Marquette team won -- by trusting in themselves and in McGuire's faith in them. He made them laugh and trust, and they in turn made themselves work. The ultimate victory, 77-69 over North Carolina seemed like more of an upset than it actually was because Carolina even then was, well, Carolina.
And in the end, their championship photo in the NCAA Tournament Guide said everything you need to know about their style, and about McGuire's as well. While the other 61 champions are all wearing their business clothes, the Warriors were dressed in tuxedos and standing on a classic white convertible runabout.
It wasn't a finger in the eye of the traditionalists. Rather, it was proof that there is more than one way to pull a piano up a flight of stairs. McGuire's way was not Dean Smith's, or Bob Knight's, or John Wooden's, but his methods still led to their results.
As a result, McGuire is remembered and celebrated, albeit to a lesser extent, for his successes just as Smith, Knight or Wooden. And, if truth be told rather than hinted at, he did his best work as a coach. Not his best-known work, mind you; television's tyranny is complete that way. But his best work.
Ask Jerome Whitehead, the big name from his national championship team. Ask Rick Majerus, who coached at Marquette. Ask the people of Milwaukee who are older than 30, or the coaches he beat with a smile on his face all those years.
And then you can ask the viewers he entertained while educating. Yes, even while they covered their ears when he started in on all those "good" time outs.
They'd be the ones laughing about Tom Izzo's discomfort that November night when his team beat the ghosts of Meadowlark Lemon, but didn't beat them well enough. They'd be the ones who can still hear Al McGuire laughing about it, too.
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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