In the second of an ongoing series, long-time collector Tim Gallagher takes over the Editor’s Blog to share stories from 50+ years of chasing basketball autographs.
An early morning visit with legendary coach and broadcaster Al McGuire after a sports talk radio interview more than 25 years ago led to my friends and I getting the strangest signed “collectable” in all our years in the hobby.
The Untucked Story of Al McGuire
How do I begin to explain colorful and eccentric Hall of Fame Coach Al McGuire? Where UCLA Coach John Wooden was the master of structure, organization and precision, McGuire was on the other end of the scale, relying more on instinct, improvisation and charisma. As “buttoned up” as Coach Wooden’s philosophies and teams were, McGuire was much more “untucked.” In fact, a 2014 short film documentary about McGuire, his Marquette University teams, their success, flamboyance and style, especially their game uniforms, was titled “Untucked.”
Before becoming a coach, McGuire had been a rough and tumble basketball player at St. John’s University and for the New York Knicks in the pioneer days of the NBA. Al did not have the talent and pro hoops longevity of his older brother, Dick McGuire, who was a Hall of Fame player and was one of the early passing wizards of the game.
McGuire’s Marquette Greatness
Al became Marquette’s head coach in 1964. I first became aware of Marquette through occasional national or regional TV broadcasts in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I knew of special players with interesting nicknames like Ric “Elevator Man” Cobb, George “Brute Force” Thompson and Dean “The Dream” Meminger. I had heard McGuire controversially turned down an NCAA tournament bid in 1970 to play in his hometown New York City’s then-very prestigious NIT, beating teams like Pistol Pete Maravich’s LSU Tigers along the way to the title at Madison Square Garden.
However, I was really introduced to Coach McGuire and Marquette hoops when they visited my hometown’s University of Dayton Arena for NCAA tournament games in both the 1972 and 1973 seasons. I had fallen in love with basketball some years before and was an impressionable teenager, an aspiring high school player, when Marquette rolled into my city for those “March Madness” games. Being in attendance for those games I noticed there was just something different about the way the Marquette team carried themselves, their confidence and the super cool “racing stripe” or “bumble bee” uniforms they wore.
Coach McGuire seemed to have a chaotic style on the sidelines, restless and chirping at his players and the officials. Yet in contrast to Al’s antics his teams on the floor played with focus, discipline, toughness and almost always won. I had the layout of UD Arena down, so was able to get Coach McGuire and Marquette players autographs on various photos and index cards on their visits. I was especially excited to get the beautiful February 21, 1972 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover signed, which featured Coach Al’s son Allie, the team’s skilled point guard. From that point on I followed Marquette basketball much more closely.
Notable was their 1974 Final Four appearance with Maurice Lucas and Earl Tatum, losing to NC State and the great David Thompson in the championship game. Then the Butch Lee and Bo Ellis-led 1977 NCAA title team in Coach Al’s final season was the crowning achievement to his 13 year career at the Milwaukee school, where he won 79% of his games.
The Transition From Coach to Broadcaster and Motivational Speaker
After retiring from the sidelines as a coach, McGuire transitioned to the basketball broadcast table where he famously teamed with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer to form a special trio that was instrumental in growing the popularity of college basketball. Al’s quick mind and New York City accent led to a lexicon of Al-ism’s like cupcakes (easy opponents), aircraft carriers (big centers), white knucklers (close games), zebras (referees) and countless other quips that became part of the mainstream basketball vocabulary.
My next in-person encounter with McGuire came in the late 1980’s when he was a keynote speaker at a corporate sales event at the Dana Point Resort in Orange County, CA. I was not a member of the company or an official invited guest, but some basketball friends were part of the event planning, knew of my fascination with Coach McGuire, so snuck me in. Over my business career I had seen quite a few motivational speakers but had never seen a speaker with no notes or no slides captivate a ballroom full of people, many who did know who McGuire was before that night.
Al spoke from the heart and from his personal experiences. Messages like after you get a college degree, then work as a bartender or cab driver to get a real education on people and life. He also talked about the importance of having great people around you, like his trusted Marquette assistant coaches Hank Raymonds and Rick Majerus, so on those days when Al felt the whim to explore the Wisconsin countryside on his motorcycle rather than go into campus and run a practice, he knew the dedicated and highly organized Hank and Rick would take care of business. While still a broadcasting icon for college basketball, in 1992 Coach Al McGuire was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Putting His Name “On the Spot”
Several years later my friends and I attended the 1995 Final Four in Seattle. We were excited to learn that early on the Monday morning of the championship game Al McGuire would be a guest on a KJR 950 sports talk radio show broadcasting from a sports bar in downtown Seattle. And it was open to the public! Surprisingly very few fans were on hand, perhaps due to the early hour. So even better when Al finished his on-air segments there were just a handful of us there for a “meet and greet.”
We are very experienced collectors, so we had several magazine photos and cards of McGuire for him to autograph. As Al was signing for us his long-time personal assistant, a woman that we quickly learned was just as eccentric as Al, walked over and noticed the items we had. She commented how impressed she was with our preparation. We thanked her, said goodbye to McGuire, and made our way to the exit.
As we were almost out the door Al’s assistant hustled over to us and said to hold on, that since we were such true fans, she had something “very special” in the back for us. To just wait a moment, and she would be right back. While she briefly stepped away, we chatted among ourselves, anticipating maybe a nice signed Al McGuire basketball, or at least a mini-ball, signed in bold marker. Or we imagined a sweet 8 x 10 of Al coaching or broadcasting, signed nicely in Sharpie.
When she returned a few minutes later she had several Al McGuire-signed… toy Oscar Mayer Wienermobiles!!?? Yes, that is what I said. Wienermobiles. Like a small toy a kid would play with, although signed by Al in black marker right on the hot dog. I guess if a hot dog had a “sweet spot” Al signed right on it! We didn’t quite know what to think but thanked her for the strange “gift” and once again made our way to the door.
Like before, just as we were almost out of sight Al’s assistant beckoned us again. This time she was a little more frantic. She said she was so sorry, that she had just learned that Al had already promised those Wienermobiles to someone else, and she would have to ask for them back. Could this really be happening? Well, it is safe to say we had not grown too attached to our Wienermobiles in the minute we had them, so we handed them over without a fight. She was very apologetic and said not to worry, that there was another special goody she could get for us, also in the back, so to hold on for a minute more.
Our minds were now quite curious what could compare with a Wienermobile? However, she soon emerged with several small Al McGuire-signed rubber 7 Up “Spots.” Yes, I mean the small red dot, complete with little arms and legs, the sunglass-wearing hip advertising “mascot” for the soft drink that was used in campaigns from 1987 to 1997. These toy Spots can fit in the palm of your hand, but somehow Al had inked them in black marker. I mean, I have had keychains that were bigger than this Spot! What could we say to that? We took our Spots and walked out of the sports bar.
On the way back to our hotel we discussed and laughed about our strange encounter. We could only figure that over the years of doing corporate speaking engagements for firms like Oscar Mayer and the 7 Up Bottling Company, Al McGuire and his assistant must have gathered up the leftover tchotchkes at those events and re-purposed them later to well-wishers like us. All these 26 years later I still have my 7 Up “Spot” from that Seattle morning. It certainly qualifies as the most peculiar piece of memorabilia in my collection. The autograph has long-since faded, but the memories have not.