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Column: Finishing on Top

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Watching Marquette beat the favored Miami Hurricanes in Thursday night’s East regional semifinal game brought fond memories of a basketball icon in my own backyard.

For those of us who lived in the Milwaukee market between 1964 and 1977, mention of the word “Al” was enough to understand that the conversation was about the colorful Marquette basketball coach.

When you catch a glimpse of the uniforms worn by Marquette University players in this year’s NCAA Tournament, 12 years after coach Al McGuire’s death, you could reach the same conclusion today. Centered above the “Marquette” name, stitched on the front of player jerseys, is the single-word tribute, “AL.”

There have been plenty of coaches who have won more games — although 404, including 295 at Marquette, is nothing to sneeze at. But few did it with more style.

Let’s start with his blazers.

The wavy-haired Irishman worked the sidelines — and the refs — wearing sport coats that reflected his showmanship. Let’s say he had a loud presence, and not necessarily from raising his voice, although he did that, too. Just ask the refs. He waved that jacket over his head at a few of them.

Speaking of sport jackets, the coach was known to change his coat at halftime of the year’s final game. Too much perspiration? No. When Al switched jackets at the half, it was a wink to diehard fans in Milwaukee that the Warriors — as they were known before becoming the Golden Eagles in 1994 — had been invited to the NCAA tournament.

Tournament bids back then were offered to schools, which accepted them before the announcements were made public. It’s a sharp contrast to the current format of the Sunday night selection show, where selections are live.

Al, being Al, had the audacity in 1970 to actually say “no” when told that Marquette — unaffiliated with a basketball conference — would have to travel to a distant Midwest regional site in Fort Worth, Texas, to participate as an independent. Notre Dame — also an independent — got the more favorable Mideast tournament assignment that year in Dayton, Ohio, where Al expected his team to go.

So Al and the Warriors thumbed their noses at the NCAA and instead went to the National Invitational Tournament, played in the native New Yorker’s backyard of Madison Square Garden and won the 16-team tournament.

The idea of rejecting a bid to the NCAA tournament today is unheard of. Truth be told, it was unheard of when Al did it the first time. No one has done it since.

But Al stood for what he believed.

When he decided to retire at the relatively young age of 48, tired of the rigors of recruiting, he made his announcement late in the 1977 season. Today’s coaches, with multimillion-dollar contracts, wouldn’t think of such a thing. But Al marched to a different drum, one with a pulsating Warrior beat.

Although Marquette lost three late-season home games after McGuire announced Dec. 17, 1976, that he would step down after the season, the team stepped up in the NCAA tournament, and Marquette marched into the 1977 championship game.

His final win as coach came against another coaching icon, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, who would win 879 games before retiring — but not this one. As the seconds ticked down to a 67-59 Marquette victory, Al’s left hand covered most of his face while seated on the bench, shielding fans and cameras from seeing the actual tears streaming down.

Rebroadcasting that video clip in the final moments of Marquette’s 71-59 victory over Miami on Thursday night, CBS announcer Verne Lundquist referred to McGuire as “one of the most beloved figures, I think, in the history of basketball.”

When the good Lord made Alfred James McGuire, he threw away the mold. And when he called his name on Jan. 26, 2011, at the age of 72, it was our turn to shed a tear.

Tom Jekel is editor of The Republic. His column appears each Sunday. You may reach him by phone at 379-5665 or by email at

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