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McGuire gets fond farewell - 1977
By Joe Gergen
For The Sporting News

Butch Lee made eye contact with Bo Ellis and motioned toward the Marquette bench. There, in the waning seconds of the NCAA championship game, a most remarkable scene was unfolding, one that Lee didn't want Ellis or any of his teammates on the court to miss.

Al McGuire, the fast-talking, street-smart coach who had bounced through life with a quip on his lips, had been rendered speechless. What's more, he was holding his head in his hands and sobbing.

The man's background, intelligence and understanding of human nature had prepared him for almost anything. His definition of the ideal education, McGuire once said, was four years of college supplemented by a stint tending bar and another driving a cab. That was his ticket to the arena. The experience had prepared him for good times and bad, for uptown and down, for joy and sorrow. It had prepared him well.

But it had not prepared him for this. This was not a moment to which an Al McGuire should rightfully aspire. This was a moment for those few men descended from Olympus, the kind who were called heroes and were admired from afar. McGuire didn't fit that mold. He was too human, a mixture of wise man and fool, clown and tragedian, a pro and, yes, a con.

"Normally," he said, "alley fighters, street fighters like me don't end up in lace."

So what happened in Atlanta was the one thing for which McGuire was totally unprepared. His career as a college basketball coach was ending the way these things do in cheap novels and children's classics. McGuire was a detective-story kind of guy -- tough, cynical and fiercely proud of his ability to control a situation. And suddenly, there he sat, unable to control himself.

McGuire was driven to tears when the realization struck that Marquette was about to win the national title in his final game as a coach. And the tears embarrassed him. Too many people -- 16,086 at the Omni, millions more watching on television -- were witnesses to his private emotions.

While his players danced and celebrated their 67-59 triumph over North Carolina, McGuire slipped through the crowd and into the team's dressing room.

There, holding a towel to his eyes, his body shaking with the immensity of the moment, he paced back and forth, back and forth. For the longest time, not a word was spoken.

"I'm not ashamed to cry," he finally said, "it's just that I don't like to do it in front of people."

It was a side of McGuire few outside his immediate family had been privileged to see. But it was a spontaneous reaction to a stunning turn of events. Marquette had lost seven games in the 1977 season, and there was some doubt whether the Warriors would be invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Once in, they appeared to be a likely candidate for an early exit. If they were determined to give McGuire a going-away present, surely they wouldn't have lost to Wichita State at home on the day the coach was honored by the university.

McGuire undoubtedly had coached other Marquette teams that seemed more goal-oriented, better suited to take the prize. Only three teams in his previous 12 seasons at the Milwaukee school had lost as many as seven games.

Yet this team was ready for the NCAA Tournament. It gathered momentum with victories over Cincinnati, Kansas State and Wake Forest in the Midwest Regional and then edged North Carolina-Charlotte, conqueror of top-ranked Michigan in the Mideast Regional final, in the national semifinals, 51-49.

That game wasn't decided until the final three seconds. A floor-length pass by Lee skipped off Ellis' fingertips, eluded the grasp of the 49ers' Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell and plopped into the grasp of Marquette's Jerome Whitehead.

The 6-foot-l0 junior center, the son of a minister, whirled, took one step toward the basket and laid it in as the buzzer sounded. The points were his 20th and 21st of the game.

Meanwhile, North Carolina had outlasted Nevada-Las Vegas, the highest-scoring team in the country, 84-83, in the other semifinal. The Tar Heels' four-corner offense had undone the Rebels, spreading their soft defense so thin it enabled Mike O'Koren to slip undetected along the baseline, take passes from slick playmaker Phil Ford and score a series of uncontested layups. The freshman forward sank 14-of-19 shots from the field and had 31 points.

North Carolina, the team with the pedigree, was favored in the final. That distinction probably had more to do with the reputations of the coaches than the talent on the floor.

Dean Smith was acknowledged as one of the game's finest innovators and motivators, a man whose presence at a clinic would draw a crowd of his peers. He was an organizer who planned meticulously.

And McGuire? "My ability," he had said the day before the game, "is in putting people in the stands."

Yes, he was an entertainer. But he didn't just roll the balls on the court at practice. He taught defense, the same tough defense he had played against the likes of Bob Cousy during a short-lived pro career.

On offense, McGuire preached the kind of patience he rarely exhibited himself. He coached, he once said, by the seat of his pants, reacting instinctively to the spur of the moment.

His instincts sometimes betrayed him, such as in the 1974 championship game when he was hit with two technical fouls, effectively sabotaging Marquette's chances against North Carolina State.

The colorful McGuire was fire to Smith's ice.

Nevertheless, the two men were friends. When Jim Boylan decided to transfer from Assumption College, a Division II school in Massachusetts, to a big-time program, he thought of North Carolina.

Smith told the youngster he didn't accept transfers but suggested that he look into Marquette, and he recommended Boylan to McGuire. In 1977, Boylan was a starter alongside Lee in the Warriors' backcourt.

It was Boylan, in fact, who proved to be one of the deciding factors in the game with his tremendous defense on Ford, a consensus All-American who was playing with a damaged elbow and scored only six points. Boylan also scored 14 points, the same number as Ellis, and only five fewer than Lee, who received the Final Four outstanding-player award.

So inspired were the Warriors that Ellis, the senior captain, and Whitehead played much of the evening above the rim. And Lee displayed the form he exhibited the previous summer while almost single-handedly sparking Puerto Rico to the brink of an upset against the Smith-coached U.S. Olympic team.

With Marquette orchestrating the offense and dictating the tempo, the Warriors took a 39-27 halftime lead. Carolina made its run at the start of the second half, tying for the first time in the half at 41-41 on forward Walter Davis' 14-foot jump shot.

The Tar Heels then assumed a temporary lead, 45-43, on guard Tom Zaliagiris' steal and layup with 13:48 left.

McGuire had done a few minutes of what he called his "psycho act" as Carolina crept back into the game, but once the Tar Heels pulled even, he became calm.

Marquette needed the coach, and the coach was alert.

Forward Bernard Toone retied the game at 45-45 with a 16-foot basket for the Warriors. Twelve minutes, 45 seconds remained. Smith gave the signal for the four corners.

"Everybody gets psyched out by it," Boylan said. "I was dreading it."

But the Carolina coach played directly into McGuire's hands. The Tar Heels lost the momentum as Ford dribbled around for the better part of two minutes. Marquette moved out of its zone to challenge, but as soon as Ford looked to set up a basket underneath, Ellis and Whitehead dropped back to the baseline.

It happened a second time and a third time. Finally, with 9:48 showing, forward Bruce Buckley drove for a layup. He missed.

Marquette came up with the ball, and McGuire came off the bench. He wanted his own delay game. More than a minute later, with Ford reaching for the steal, Boylan reversed his direction and drove for the go-ahead basket.

McGuire ordered more of the same.

The Warriors stayed with the delay to the end, and it worked gloriously. Marquette never trailed the rest of the way. Carolina sent Boylan, Ellis and guard Gary Rosenberger to the foul line time and again in an effort to catch up, but they kept making free throws. Marquette made its last 12 attempts and 23-of-25 attempts overall in the 67-59 victory.

"We played a chess game there for a while," McGuire recalled. "I hope it was enjoyable. I know I enjoyed it."

But the magnitude of an NCAA championship left McGuire shaken on the bench in the final minute and sent him rushing to a sanctuary while celebrants flooded the court. After regaining his composure, he returned to the arena floor for the ceremonies.

The Marquette students were chanting "Al's last hurrah, Al's last hurrah" as he made his re-entrance.

By this time he was smiling broadly, with satisfaction and a measure of disbelief. Ellis walked over to McGuire and draped a souvenir net around the coach's neck.

No words were needed.

At 48, McGuire was leaving at the pinnacle of his profession. His final thoughts, he said, were of "all the wet socks and jocks, all the PAL (Police Athletic League) and CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) games, all the old gyms, all the fights when we were young, when I was obnoxious."

He smiled.

"The wildness of it all," McGuire marveled.

And so it ended with the wildest of possible endings. "This time," he said, "the numbers came up right."

And there would be no next time.


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