From the Broadcast Booth with John Cox: The Legendary Al McGuire
It is remarkable the people that you have the opportunity to meet as you travel around the world of college athletics and even more amazing how many people you discover have a connection to Southern Miss and Southern Miss athletics. Throughout the thousands of miles that I travel each year with football, basketball and baseball you wouldn't imagine some of the people that you see and meet in airports, hotels and at the athletic venues in which we compete.
Over the years we have run across our share of television and movie stars, pro wrestlers, professional athletes, coaches, sports broadcasters and politicians, who almost always will take time out to visit with our athletes, sign autographs and take pictures.
But sometimes you don't have to leave home to run into someone that is known far and wide and who can sneak in under the radar. That happened to me one night at Reed Green Coliseum when I got a chance to meet and visit with one of the icons of the game of college basketball.
In the early days of Conference USA when the Marquette Golden Eagles were a part of the league they made the trip to Reed Green Coliseum to meet the Golden Eagles in the late 1990s. Several hours before the game was to be played while I was setting up and checking out my equipment for our radio broadcast that night, and Marquette had just arrived, I glanced down the table from my broadcast location and noticed someone sitting alone at the other end of the tables. At first I wasn't sure who it was and why this distinguished looking gentlemen was sitting all by himself and was there so early before the game was to be played, then realized that it was former Marquette head basketball coach, the legendary Al McGuire.
I walked down to where Coach McGuire was sitting and introduced myself and sat down and we struck up one of the most interesting and enjoyable conversations I have ever been involved in and discovered that Coach McGuire had a connection with Southern Miss that not many people knew about.
McGuire is mostly known for the success he had at Marquette, when his team then known as the Warriors were one of the best teams in college basketball and winners of the NCAA championship in 1977 and for working for CBS on its college basketball coverage and his part of the NBC-TV telecasts of NCAA basketball with legendary announcer Dick Enberg. He was now working in several capacities with Marquette again and had flown down with the team for the basketball game in Hattiesburg.
That day as we sat in Green Coliseum I had an opportunity to pick Coach McGuire's brain about the game of basketball and about broadcasting. I knew a little about his story like how he had played college basketball at St. John's and spent a few years playing in the NBA. But he talked that night about becoming an assistant coach at Dartmouth and about getting his first head coaching job at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, where he had been lucky enough to have a great deal of success leading them to five post-season tournaments before getting the job at Marquette.
But during our conversation Coach McGuire surprised me when he said it wasn't the first time he had been in Hattiesburg and a part of a basketball match-up with Southern Miss. He had been there twice before as head coach of Belmont Abbey College when they had played a game against Coach Fred Lewis and the Southerners at the end of the 1960-61 season and again two years later at the end of the 1962-63 season against Coach Lee Floyd, just returning for his second stint as the head coach.
As McGuire reminisced that night about playing Mississippi Southern he told me that playing in the old Sports Arena on our campus might have been the toughest place he had ever played in or coached in during his long and storied career in the game.
Belmont Abbey was headed towards a date in the NCAA college division playoffs when they arrived in Hattiesburg for the regular season finale on March 3, 1961 to face a Southerner team that was 22-3 and the Southerners won 56-54. The margin of victory came when Ben Gantt made a pair of free throws with just three seconds to go.
McGuire said he remembered vividly the school's pep band sitting right behind the visitor's bench and that he couldn't remember them ever stop playing. He told me it seemed as if they had played during the entire game--during the game and even at time outs. The band as he remembered was placed strategically right behind the visitor's bench making it extremely hard to communicate with your team. At the first time out that night as he huddled with his team he said the band played so loudly and the crowd was so loud his team couldn't hear a word he said. At the next stoppage of play he took his team out to the center of the court, but that didn't solve the problem, it was still so loud in the Sports Arena that night no one could hear.
McGuire, chuckling as he told me the story, said he looked for other places he could talk to his team where it was as noisy but that finally out of desperation was forced to take his team outside of the Sports Arena to the parking lot to escape the tremendous noise.
McGuire, as he was known to do, treated the crowd to quite a show of towel chewing and arm gesturing that night. He also got in a lot of practice drop kicking imaginary paper cups. At one point McGuire charged the scorer's table to complain bitterly over the officiating. Then on his way back to the visitor's bench he calmly stopped and bought a soft drink from a vendor.
The victory that night gave the Southerners a 23-3 record on the year, while seniors Alex Delia, Don Clinton and Clyde Mills played for the final time.
The second time that McGuire brought Belmont Abbey to the Sports Arena on March 1, 1964, he remembered that it was even tougher despite the fact he knew what to expect. Once again with the crowd and the pep band making it difficult-- the game came right down to the end.
The Southerners ended their season on a winning note with an 80-77 victory that night. A pair of Jackie Laird free throws with 15 minutes left in the game gave Southern a 55-54 lead, a lead they never relinquished. Laird led the Southern attack with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Ron Dodson wound up his collegiate career with 11 points.
That night at Green Coliseum visiting with Coach McGuire was one of those nights that you wish would never have ended as the talked about how much he loved the game and how he missed coaching the game of basketball, but that the broadcasting of the games had kept him close to the game he loved.
I thanked him for letting me sit and visit with him and for all that he had done for the game of basketball as a player, coach and broadcaster and with that broad smile that he was known for, he shook my hand and I went back to work. I'm not sure if anyone else realized that night that it was the Al McGuire that was sitting there courtside, but as I glanced over several times during the game at him that night he would give me a thumbs up as the game unfolded. He was really into it and you could tell how much he loved the game.
A few years later in 2001 he died after a long bout with leukemia at the age of 72.
I will always remember that night I had a chance to sit and visit with the legendary Al McGuire, the great ambassador of the game and a man whose stories that night took me back to the old Southern Miss Sports Arena the night he patrolled the sidelines.
One of the great parts of doing what I do has always been the people you meet and never knowing who you will run into next.