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Al McGuire: A Man Who Left His Mark on the NCAA Championship Game

Tonight’s NCAA Championship Game between mighty North Carolina and the little school that could, Gonzaga, will mark the 40th anniversary of the last game Al McQuire ever coached – and the last game he ever coached was the 1977 NCAA Championship Game, won by his Marquette team over Dean Smith’s North Carolina five, 67-59.

The next year Al McGuire returned to the title game, but this time as an analyst for CBS Sports, joining Dick Enberg and Billy Packer, in what would become the best basketball broadcasting trio in March Madness history (Jim Nantz is terrific, but his bench isn’t comparable).

Having breakfast with Dick Enberg Friday in La Jolla, he told me Al McGuire is the most unforgettable human being he has ever known – and he can’t tell you who’s second.

Indeed, so “unforgettable” that Enberg wrote a play called, “McGuire”; a play that just finished a historic run at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, one that sold out all eight weeks it was performed – and they’re bringing it back this summer. (And raising the question, with its huge success in Milwaukee, why hasn’t the Old Globe or La Jolla Rep stepped up and featured “McGuire?” Could snootiness or ignorance, or maybe both, be the cause?)

Of McGuire and Packer:

It was thought the two did not like one another. Not true, Enberg says. They were were very different personalities — very — but they had a great relationship.

Packer was one of the best prepared analysts in the age of college basketball on television; the guy who could name you, Enberg says, the starting five for the University of Alaska Anchorage, whereas McGuire would just show up; but his brilliance about the game and insights made him a natural, and the two of them with Enberg made for memorable broadcasts, no matter what was happening on the floor – whether blowouts or last second shots for the win.

Of their differing makeups, McGuire would say, “Billy’s the kind of guy who steps out of the shower to take a leak,” whereas the kid from the mean streets of NYC, felt no such inclination.

In an interview with Matt Velasquez of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Enberg said:

“Those who had the good fortune to rub shoulders with Coach McGuire know exactly what I mean when I say once he touched you, you thought about him — I think about him every day. He gave me so much during the course of our 20 years together as broadcast partners…

“Frankly, I didn’t like the son of a gun when I first met him. He was rude and cantankerous and evasive…I went from that feeling about Al to learning to love the man and (him) having an influence on my life with his street genius, the wit and wisdom of his character, complex as it was.”

One of the things few people knew about the charming and handsome McGuire is he read at a seventh grade level, due to a reading disability. Pre-game material prepared by CBS’ staff, for instance, went unread – McGuire could not read what he had been handed.

Coach McGuire told Enberg that when he coached at Belmont Abbey, a small NAIA School in North Carolina, he also taught a class in personal hygiene. On the first day of class he asked students to open their books. He then asked one student to read the text aloud from chapter one – all of chapter one. When the student finished, class was over, until the next time, when a second student was asked to read chapter two.

That’s how the semester went, the book being read aloud, chapter by chapter, student by student, until the last day of class, when professor McGuire, holding their term papers in hand, opened the window and threw their papers out, telling students the first five who could find their papers and bring them to him would get A’s.

McGuire told Enberg it made for a heck of a scramble. He only wished his defense had played that tough.

Five got A’s.

The rest, B’s.

McGuire had not read their terms papers.

He couldn’t.

If you are lucky enough to spend time with Dick Enberg, this Hall of Fame broadcaster who’s known the great sports figures of our time and broadcasted their wins and losses, one thing is unmistakable: his admiration for and love of Al McGuire is touching.

Remembering his friend, occasioned by the anniversary of Al McGuire’s last game, is emotional for Enberg; it becomes that for you, his listener.

Indeed, walking away from breakfast Friday, I couldn’t escape a palpable feeling of regret – I never knew Al McGuire.