By Neil Beldock
Words used to describe Al McGuire include feisty, brash, charismatic, quirky and unique.
He has been called a “great psychologist”.
He coined phrases such as “white knuckler” to describe a close game and “aircraft carrier” to describe a big man in the middle.
But perhaps there is no greater testament to Al McGuire than what appears on the uniforms of Marquette University basketball players. Just below the neckline are the letters “AL”.
McGuire is the only coach in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball to have his name permanently inscribed upon the teams uniform. Such is the impact McGuire had on a school and community. (Recently Providence College permanently inscribed Dave Gavitt’s initials on their uniforms upon his passing and UCLA has done the same with John Wooden’s initials).
Said legendary Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps: “People need to be refreshed on what Al McGuire was. He was the best. He did for Milwaukee in college basketball what Vince Lombardi did for Green Bay in pro football.
Al McGuire was born on September 7, 1928. He grew up in Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. His father was a saloon-keeper and the family lived behind the saloon.
Most of McGuire’s childhood was spent either on the local basketball courts with his basketball Hall-of-Fame brother Dick or helping his father in the saloon, an upbringing which would shape his personality and values forever.
He played college basketball at St. John’s University before having a short NBA career, playing with the New York Knicks from 1951-1953 and then one season (1954) with the Baltimore Bullets.
Upon retiring from professional basketball he proudly boasted that he was “the worst player in pro ball”.
But it was as the head basketball coach at Marquette University, and then as a national television broadcaster where McGuire established himself as one of the more unique and iconic characters to ever grace the college basketball landscape.
McGuire coached Marquette for 13 years, from the 1964-65 season through the 1976-77 season. After his first 2 seasons at Marquette, McGuire led his team to 11 consecutive seasons of at least 21 wins and 10 consecutive seasons of at least 23 wins.
Under McGuire’s leadership Marquette went to the NCAA or NIT post season tournament 11 consecutive seasons, including 9 trips to the NCAA Tournament. He had an overall record at Marquette of 295 wins and just 80 losses, and a winning percentage of 78.7%.
Including his first head coaching job at Belmont Abbey College from 1957-1964, McGuire’s overall coaching record is 404 wins vs. just 144 losses and a 73.77% winning percentage. He was in the top 10 winning percentages of all-time upon his retirement.
To further emphasize his accomplishments and coaching acumen, from 1969-1977 Marquette and UCLA (coached by John Wooden) were the only teams to finish in the Associated Press top 15 rankings each year.
It was during the 1977 NCAA tournament, his last season coaching, that McGuire led Marquette to the National Championship, defeating a Dean Smith led North Carolina team.
The most enduring scene from that championship game was McGuire, always an emotional person, crying on the bench as the realization of winning an NCAA title and coaching his last game was sinking in.
What made McGuire truly unique as a basketball coach was his desire to recruit and coach kids from tough, inner-city backgrounds and environments, situations which other coaches would not only shy away from, but run from.
Said McGuire of his penchant to recruit inner-city kids: “My rule was I wouldn’t recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house. That’s not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk.”.
And, in an even more telling statement as to the type person McGuire was, and why he recruited inner-city kids, McGuire said this: “Help one kid at a time. He’ll maybe go back and help a few more. In a generation you’ll have something.”
Ever quotable, other gems from the mouth of McGuire include the following:
On Dining: “I went into a restaurant one night and ordered lobster and the waiter brought me one with a claw missing. I called him over and told him about it. He told me that in the back there’s a tank they keep the lobsters in and while they’re in there they fight and sometimes one loses a claw. I told him, ‘Then bring me a winner’.”
On Education: “I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cab driver. Then they would really be educated.”
On Fighting: “When a guy takes off his coat, he’s not going to fight. When a guy takes off his wristwatch, watch out!!”
On Personality: “A team should be an extension of a coach’s personality. My teams are arrogant and obnoxious.”
On His Assistant Coach & Successor Hank Raymonds: “Hank’s a perfectionist. I’ve always said that if he was married to Raquel Welch he’d expect her to cook.”
It was this glibness which made McGuire a highly desirable television commodity upon his retirement from coaching.
During this era college basketball was just beginning to emerge as a major television product. The NCAA Tournament was becoming must-see television and, at a time when there was no cable television providing an unlimited number of college basketball games on a regular basis, the Saturday afternoon College Basketball Game-of-the-Week was gaining popularity.
In 1978, as college basketball was gaining more and more notoriety, NBC hired McGuire to be part of a three-man broadcasting team with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer.
Inarguably, the on-air relationship between these three men, mostly driven by McGuire’s feisty personality and on-air arguments with Packer, as refereed by Enberg, catapulted college basketball ratings to new heights and thrust McGuire into the public’s consciousness as no other college basketball broadcaster before him.
In many ways, the impact the team of McGuire, Packer and Enberg had in relation to advancing the popularity of college basketball on television, mirrored and emulated that which had been so successful with Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith, and how those on-air personalities impacted the popularity of professional football and the success of the Monday Night Football broadcast.
Said Rick Majerus, who played and was an assistant coach for McGuire at Marquette, and would be a highly successful coach at Marquette, the University of Utah, and St. Louis University: “Although he was a terrific coach, Al will be remembered more for his broadcasting career. That gave him more visibility. His broadcasting is what distinguishes him among basketball people. Al really enjoyed broadcasting. He spoke to the common guy. He didn’t complicate the game. He and Billy Packer usually took polarized positions and Dick Enberg was the master referee.”.
Current broadcaster Bob Costas who worked with McGuire at NBC, many years later described him as “a genuine original who came out of a time when there were real characters in sports, not packaged items”.
In 1992 McGuire was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 2006 he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Al McGuire passed away on January 26, 2001 as a result of leukemia at the way too early age of 72.
Upon his passing, former broadcast partner Dick Enberg said: “We’ve truly lost one of a kind, one of the most unique and incredible characters I’ve ever met.”
Alfred Emanuel McGuire…….Truly, one of kind………….