Jim Valvano, Louie Carnesecca, Wimp Sanderson, Jerry Tarkanian, Bobby Knight. Why college basketball misses the zany coach.
by Al Blanton
As an impressionable boy, I was awestruck by the sights emanating from my console TV, a massive Zenith flanked on all sides by hand-carved wood grain. My childhood is forever colored with the bright-yellow visions of a professional wrestler with HULKAMANIA stretched across his brow, of an outlandish, curly-headed fitness guru wearing candy-cane shorts, and a maniac comedian splitting pumpkins with a sledgehammer. I could go on and on about the madcap TV personalities of my youth, but one avatar seems to stand out above the rest: the 1980s basketball coach.
Perhaps it’s too easy to fall into the myopic line of thinking that Robert Montgomery Knight was the sole lynchpin of hysteria during this incomparable decade of roundball. After all, a chair skidding across the floor of Assembly Hall or the thrashing of a whip at a press conference leaves quite an imprint. Knight’s recognition is certainly deserved, but a brief overview of the personalities of this era will reveal that the game was chock-full of sideline panache, such that ’80s basketball was more akin to the WWF than the public library.
Allow me to jog your memory. From the Cliff Huxtable motif to the Chevron-themed wool, St. John’s’ Louie Carnesecca inspired us with his sweater art. Georgetown’s John Thompson and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian found clever uses for hand towels: Thompson preferred the towel to be slung over a shoulder, but Tarkanian nibbled on his. Hairstyles were tremendous. Gene Keady, Purdue’s coach, boasted a slick comb-over, and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins rocked the human helmet. Others, in years past, may have tinkered with the plaid sport jacket, but Alabama’s Wimp Sanderson built a program around it.
There was Lefty Driesell, Jim Valvano, Rollie Massimino, and, of course, Knight.
Rivalries were more intense, as coaches seemed to have more of a distaste for one another. In 1988, the complexion of the Atlantic 10 conference changed with the arrival of John Calipari at Massachusetts. The simmering animosity between Calipari and John Chaney at Temple eventually boiled over in 1994 when Chaney appeared at Calipari’s postgame press conference and threatened to…well, take a look:
Unlike today’s buttoned-up specimens who look like executives at Apple, the ’80’s coach could have easily been confused for a Pontiac salesman. He was flawed, vibrant, zany. His hair was perpetually askew, his necktie laxly knotted, and his sport jacket appeared to be the perpetual target of moths. His antics—crawling, thrashing, jostling, pleading, willing the ball to go into the basket with his pantomimes—bordered on lunacy. He seemed more real than the modern day widgets spit out in a plastic factory for head coaches.
He was comfortable in his own skin. He coached with passion, celebrated with passion, lost with passion. He left his guts on the floor. He wasn’t worried about being politically correct or saying something off-the-wall. He spoke freely. Writer John Akers once described this time as the “Golden Era” of college coaching, juxtaposed against the modern-day dynamic where coaches are “under little pressure to play the showman,” lacking the etre doue of his predecessors.
Gone are the days when coaches had to sweep the floors of the gym before and after practice and cobble together next year’s schedule. They now have people who do almost everything for them. Gone, too, are the days when coaches had one or two assistants and a team manager. Nowadays a college bench has more suits than a Men’s Wearhouse.
As the game has become more businesslike and coaches are subjected to wider scrutiny, personality has been left in the wake.
Sure, UNC coach Roy Williams’s striking sport jackets in a variety of Tarheel hues has added a bit of flavor to the game. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, donning the perpetual quarter-zip windbreaker, barking high-blood-pressure orders, and getting the heave-ho from Allen Fieldhouse has entertained us. Last year after the Rider-Siena matchup, a contest that concluded with a benches-emptying scrum, Siena coach Jimmy Patsos “airshaked” the hands of the Rider players and coaches, who, refusing to exhibit postgame sportsmanship, fled to the locker room. Calipari continues to enthrall, but overall college basketball lacks the zany consistency of the days of old.
Reviewing the current state of affairs in college basketball leaves only one question: Where did this guy go?
Back in the Golden Age, both the ACC and the SEC served up an array of characters that simply made college basketball a delight. Cremins, who was the skipper at Georgia Tech from 1981 to 2000, laughs when he thinks about the crazy personalities of that era.
“Valvano was something else,” Cremins said. “Jimmy went 120 miles per hour and I went about 100. Coach K was the most balanced. He’d stay within the speed limit.”
The triumvirate of Cremins, Krzyzewski, and Valvano, all arriving in the ACC in their early thirties, were referred to as the conference’s “Young Guns.” Though each of these men brought their own unique forms of enthusiasm and individuality to their respective jobs, Cremins says they collectively stood in awe of the ACC demigod, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, who seemed to be a bit stuffier and close-to-the vest than his conference counterparts.
“We didn’t understand why he was closely guarded,” Cremins said. “Coach Smith was guarded because he was The Man. He set the bar in the ACC. He was ahead of his time.”
Cremins remembers the old days at the Final Four, where coaches would collect at the hotel bar to swap stories and enjoy a cocktail. Now, because a coach has to worry about social media, cell phone cameras, and political correctness, he is encouraged to be mannerly and couth.
“Before, you could be crazy, and now if you’re crazy, somebody takes pictures and puts it on social media,” Cremins said. “If you go to a bar and have a beer, they’re gonna put that on social media. ‘Coach so-and-so’s here at the bar, having a beer.’ You’ve got to be more guarded today and watch what you say and where you go. You’ve really got to be careful.”
The SEC, a league that, historically, has garnered more prestige for its football exploits, was a rough-and-tumble division that was not for want of sideline flair. In terms of sartorial splendor, Wimp was the cock-of-the-walk, and LSU’s Dale Brown, Florida’s Norm Sloan, Georgia’s Hugh Durham, and Auburn’s Sonny Smith added their own terrific peculiarity.
Commenting on the distinctiveness of personalities, Sanderson said, “We were in competition with one another but we liked one another. Sonny Smith was funny. Hugh Durham thought he was funny. I was whatever I was. Dale Brown had all the answers to everything. He was quirky as he could be. It just kind of made basketball an interesting thing.”
At press conferences and in front of the media, coaches felt free to express themselves, put their eccentricities on full display. And the media, gathering like buzzards on road kill, lusted for the verbal zingers and one-liners.
“It just seemed like that there was a quirkiness about Sonny and a quirkiness about me and about all the other people in the league that coached that when you went to a press conference in Birmingham—we didn’t have on silk suits—but people came to listen because they weren’t sure what we were going to say,” Sanderson said. “They came to listen to Sonny cause he’s funny; they came to listen to me because they weren’t sure what I was going to say. I might say something worth writing. I’m liable to say anything.”
Durham believes these personas weren’t orchestrated, but rather flowed naturally from a coach’s ability to express himself without fear.
“I think people basically wanted to be what they were,” said Durham, who coached at Georgia from 1978-95. “What they were was a lot different than the other guy. Wimp was who he was; he just happened to wear sport coats. All of a sudden, someone paid attention and he continued to do it. I guarantee you if Wimp told you he was developing his brand, he was just saying something people say now. If you said ‘brand’ back then, someone would want to look inside your coat and see what your brand was.”
Whether or not coaches were cognizant of what exactly they were creating, the result was a frenzied environment at games—high-strung, bloodthirsty fans mirroring their coach’s flamboyance. This is not to say that fans no longer go crazy at games, but in years past, that frenzy stemmed from one thing: the wackiness of the head coach.
“[Coaches] can’t afford to do it now. The salaries are too big, the contracts are so big, the pressures are so great,” said Sonny Smith. “You’ve got to face your coaching career with a businesslike approach to cut down on the criticism or the things that come with people that say off-the-wall things. You can’t say off-the-wall things. They are interpreted so many ways because there is so much interpretation taking place right now. The way they dress…everything has changed about coaching. And with the salaries they pay, you can’t afford to be outgoing, colorful, where you take it to the next level. You can’t do that anymore.”
As the years draw by, these basketball personalities have become like cult heroes. In the ’80s, zany coaches—now a dying breed—were commonplace.
So who cares if coaches are no longer the crazed idiots who used to patrol the arenas of America? Perhaps this issue is important because it speaks to the heart of who we are as a society.
Admittedly, I am an old soul. A dinosaur of sorts. The kind of person who often yearns for the second coming of a simpler time and laments the state of the world. Something has gone terribly wrong, and college basketball is a microcosm of this wayward society.
The reason for the disappearance of the zany coach is not simply that today’s coaches lack personality. It’s that these personalities—and yes, the very game itself—have been handcuffed by the nature of our society. An overly-commercialized, overly-voyeuristic, overly-money-driven, overly-critical, overly-unmerciful, overly-impatient world. And all of this rolls up into a tightly wound ball of yawn.
We’ve lost something as a society when we no longer have the freedom to be funny. When we have to tiptoe through the tulips of life.
In the end, the disappearance of the quirky coach is not merely a happening that occurs within its own four walls.
It is a referendum on us. HA
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