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When once again it is time for March Madness, that frenzied phase of the college basketball season which culminates in the national championship, the sentimentalists will remember the veritable Mark Twain of the game, Al McGuire.
He lived one of the fantasy tales of sport, after all. At the climax of March Madness 25 years ago, McGuire's Marquette Warriors won the national championship in his final game as a coach. In the game's waning moments, the brash and fiery McGuire sat on the bench wiping away tears, with millions watching on TV.
McGuire won many hearts in that moment, and many more later as an offbeat network broadcaster. But he remains underappreciated for one of his lasting gifts: his words. So few sports figures were ever so quotable – on life as well as on sports – as was McGuire, who died of leukemia in January 2001 at age 72.
It was Al McGuire, after all, who offered these pearls:
“The nicest thing about coaching is that one day you feel like you can play handball against a curb, and on other days you feel like you can fly to the moon.”
“If the waitress has dirty ankles, the chili is good.”
“We rush for the stars as we crawl toward our graves.”
Given McGuire's Catholic schooling, and his having coached at Belmont Abbey College and Marquette, both Catholic institutions, it perhaps is no surprise that many of McGuire's funniest and most poignant lines invoked religion. Most of the references couldn't be described as holy, but they were quintessential Al.
“I don't believe in looking past anybody,” the coach once said of preparing for a weak opponent. "I wouldn't look past the Little Sisters of the Poor after they stayed up all night.”
Come game time, McGuire called on a higher power:
"All right, let's show them we're the No. 1 team in the country and beat the (bleep) out of them,” he'd tell his players. “Queen of Victory, pray for us!"
A fiercely independent coach, McGuire had his share of clashes with clergy, particularly at Marquette, where his success made him a national figure. Yet he seemed unfazed when his unconventional style met resistance.
“I let ballplayers yell back at me because I wasn't trying to prove I'm boss. I know I'm boss,” McGuire recalled. “And I don't care whether Father God Bless You or Sister Mary Applesauce or my wife was upset about what was happening. I had a purpose for why I was doing it.”
Some Marquette priests once urged some of McGuire's players to quit school – which they did, briefly – as part of a race protest. McGuire's response was sharp.
“Don't come after these kids from the Jesuit House,” he told the priests. “You never bought a pound of butter in your life, and you're asking them to be kamikaze pilots.”
Another time, the good Jesuits refused to release McGuire from his contract so that he could leave Marquette for a lucrative coaching job with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. “The priests at Marquette take a vow of poverty,” he said somewhat bitterly, “and they expect you to abide by it.”
And when McGuire rejected an invitation to the NCAA tournament because of where the NCAA wanted Marquette to play, a call questioning the decision came from the Marquette president's office. McGuire refused to reconsider.
“Father,” he sternly told the caller. “I don't hear confession and you don't coach this team.”
(The priest called back 15 minutes later and said, “You're right.” Marquette went to the less-prestigious NIT tournament instead and won the title.)
Despite the run-ins, McGuire respected religists. He was touched, for example, by the monks at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, where he held his first head-coaching job.
“They put a stained-glass window in me,” he said.
Most times, though, the religious references just seemed to pour out for no reason at all.
"You can always tell the Catholic schools by the length of the cheerleaders' skirts," McGuire once observed.
"Do you honor the clergy discount?" he would say to store clerks, always angling for a deal.
And Marquette player Dean Meminger, McGuire said, “was quicker than 11:15 Mass at a seaside resort.”
McGuire once told Playboy magazine that he believed God had a place in the locker room. But he never pretended to be an evangelist, saying, “I've had a hard enough job saving myself. I can't save anybody else.”
Certainly no formal, church-going man, McGuire nevertheless seemed to possess an innate understanding of the importance of a spiritual life, and he lived his in a way that inspired many people. He also never seemed to forget, even after becoming rich and famous, that all people were special.
“God didn't miss any of us,” he said.
-- by Tom Kertscher
Tom Kertscher, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, is the author of a book on Al McGuire that features more than 100 of McGuire's best quotations. It will be published in early 2003 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Kertscher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.