Basketball and Life with Al McGuire

Every coach
must be himself. Here are some of the things that I feel are important in life
as well as in the game of basketball. Only take what fits your personality and
your style of coaching.

Live In the Moment

When I was 12 or 13
years old, I was down at the beach, body-riding the waves. I came home for
lunch, and my grandmother fixed me a triple sandwich of fried bread with catsup.
I loved them, and I used to eat them all the time. When I finished, there was
this big beautiful yellow banana. She said “Alfie, take the banana.” And I said
“No, Granny, I want it, but I’ll take a pass.” She said “Why?” And I said “I
want it, but if I eat the banana, I’ll have to stay out of the water for an hour
because of cramps. I rushed back to the beach. The wind kicked up, and it got
too cold to swim. I sat on the boardwalk stairs looking out at the ocean, too
young to understand what I was thinking. But I thought, it’s too cold to go
swimming; I wish I had eaten the banana. When I was 21, I thought about life and
finally said to myself, “I will eat the banana”. Live in the moment that you are
in. Make your life exciting. Do what you have to do, as long as you don’t hurt

Dream Big

Every one must dream. I don’t care what your
dreams are, but dream big. Want something. Don’t let things pass you by. Don’t
get caught in a corner. Don’t be another guy going down the street going
nowhere. Get on the top shelf. Touch the Camelot, the Shangri-La, and that type
of stuff. Live for the moment. There are two ways to travel in life One is with
the eagles in the mountains. The other is at the nauseous level of your feet;
you can play handball against curbs, you’re so small.

Fear of

Most people in our profession are afraid they might be wrong. I
can understand this. I’m wrong too, almost all the time. But I can’t wait until
the fifth time-out to make a correction. I can’t wait until they chart it or
take a picture of it. When a coach sees something, he can’t hold anything back.
Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. You’re not an executive who
can postdate a memo. What you do as a coach is out there in the open. There is
no equity in your profession. You have to accept that. It’s a very, very manly
type of pressure. When you win a national championship or a state championship
in high school, you have got one-year equity. You have one year of grace; you
can’t let it pass by.

Don’t fear failure. Get out of the shallow water.
Take the tide out. There is no problem if you go out and come back without a
fish. The only disgrace in life is not going after it. If you go out and don’t
catch the fish, what’s the difference? But you must go out. It’s a beautiful,
beautiful life.

Be Yourself

Be yourself. All the X’s and O’s are
not worth it. You’ve got to like the person you are. I always liked being Al
McGuire. I didn’t want to be Bart Starr, a Mickey Mantle, or a Joe Louis. I just
always liked my way of living. There are a lot of people who didn’t like it, but
I always enjoyed it.

Do What You Think is Right

You’re all going
to leave your profession. The moment will come when you have to gently pack
coaching away–everyone else had to do it so why not you? No one can keep it up.
Enjoy it while you’re at it. Do what you think is right. Don’t try to please the
administration. They will jump ship on you if they need to. Your loyalty should
be to your family first, your players second, and your school third.

Together in the Coaching Profession

One of the things I am most proud of
in my coaching career is that I think I started a little more love between
coaches. I remember going to a major conference tournament, and all the big-time
coaches refused to associate with each other. This has been changing, and in the
past seven or eight years, we’ve seen coaches showing much more consideration
for each other. So stay together in your profession, because it’s certain that
none of your superiors will help you. No one can help you but yourself. You are
born alone, and you die alone. Don’t try to get a better position. Do the best
you possibly can with the material you have and without fear.

Give No
Excuse–Accept No Excuse

All you have to do in life is to give no excuse
and accept no excuse. I don’t care about 106-degree temperature. I don’t care
about a sprained ankle. You either win or lose a game. And you cannot have
indecision in your program. I didn’t allow any fooling around on the court. You
talk about disciplined teams. The most disciplined team ever on the court was
Marquette University. We didn’t have a fast break all the years I was there. You
want to thrill me, do it out-of-bounds. No bad shots. No surprises. You’ve got
to be dictatorial but always pick them up before the end of

Eliminate the Fifth Column

The fifth column is the
column from within. The fifth column is internal jealousy and selfishness. This
must be eliminated. It is the cancer that destroys teams. Get that cancer out
before it grows. The competition is not the problem. the problem is from
I try to teach players in a rough way to avoid jealousy. You have to
make them work together and the only way to have teamwork is to eliminate
jealousy. Eliminating jealousy is the answer; it’s the key to the game, so
you’ve got to work on it. All I really did was work on the minds of the players
and hope that we succeeded together. If we all went uptown together, it was all
Make Five People One

All I ever did at Marquette was to
make five people one. Sometimes you have a situation on your team in which one
guy constantly throws the ball to a buddy. They come to practice together and
leave together like husband and wife. You must break up the husband and wife
act, and you must watch them closely. A lot of times this happens
subconsciously. I don’t care. They have to knock it off. If they don’t break up
this act, I let one go early or rearrange the locker room. Don’t allow your
lockers to sit the same guy going to the same spot. This is how cliques form.
It’s up to you to watch those things and take care of them.

Keep Coaching

Keep things simple. We try to get too complicated too much of the
time. I’d say to myself “keep it simple, stupid.” Don’t get complicated. You
forgot the obvious when you try to force knowledge into young people who can’t
absorb our knowledge. Give them only what they can absorb.
Are You An
Offensive or a Defensive Coach?

You must know where you are an offensive
or a defensive coach. You can’t be both, you can’t please everybody. I was a
defensive coach. My reasons were: (1) if you practice defense, you know what you
are doing; and (2) defense is like water. It finds it’s level. It is there
day-in and day-out. Plus, when I played, I couldn’t shoot, so I taught

You Must Act the Part of a Leader

You are the leader and
must set an example. Don’t let your players see you tight. They pick up on it,
then they get tight. It’s like free throws. One player misses, and they all
start to miss. The rain barrel becomes a teacup. You must set the example for
your people. As a coach you must have no indecision–none! That’s why at the end
of the game, when it’s prime time, you must have automatic moves. For 23 years,
if the opposing team call a timeout with 10 or 15 seconds left in the game, I’d
automatically go to a combination defense, such as a box-and-one or a
triangle-and-two. If the score was tied, and we were at home, we drove the
basket for the shot. If the score was tied, and we had the ball on the road, we
went for the fifteen-foot jump shot. I did that because of the subconscious of
the officials. At home, he’s not going to cal me for charging, on the road he

I have no problem knowing who the boss is. I know I am the boss. I
know when the score is 62-62, everybody will be quiet, and I will make the
decision on what to do. I am not trying to prove to anyone that I am running the
show. If you’ve got to prove you’re the boss, you’re not the boss.

Your Players

The only reason I yell at a player is because he has talent.
If I didn’t think he had talent, I wouldn’t yell at him. It would be a moral sin
if I didn’t get the talent out of a person. I had a player who was the nicest
man that I had ever met in my life. I had to hurt him. I had to hurt him because
the guy played without knowing the score. To him everything was beautiful. He
was so nice that all he wanted to do was play. That’s all right if a player
doesn’t have talent, but when a player has talent, it was my obligation to get
him to produce. Just because you have ability doesn’t mean that you are going to
produce or reach a certain level. You must study your players to know what is
best for each particular person so that you can get the most out of his talent.

Always Leave the Door Open With Your Players

Never give them an
either-or. That’s the first step to insanity. It’s like ice fishing. Always try
to leave a crack so both of you can get out of a situation with dignity.
Remember, cracks always get bigger. Don’t accept them. Only accept what you

Eliminate Surprises

You want no surprises in a game. You
tell the players “You can do what you want off the floor, but on it, I am the
discipline.” That’s why I could let a player yell at me on the sideline. When he
stepped back onto the playing court, he did what he was supposed to

Play the Game to Win

If you don’t see a fish in a poker game,
get up and leave because you’re the fish. Know yourself. Remember, you drive at
home, pull up on the road. The first think you decide in a game is whether the
official has a quick or slow whistle. There are three crucial times in a game:
1) the first three minutes, 2) the last three minutes, and (3) the first three
minutes of the second half. Always make sure your team is properly warmed up
before the game and at half.

Never Talk to a Parent

Never talk to
a parent, because it only leads to trouble. When I signed a player Id’ say to
the parents, “The next time that you will see me smile is when your son
graduates.” And that’s the way it was. A parent can only thinking of their son
or daughter. I had a player whose father was a cookie salesman. After one game,
he came up to me complaining about his son’s lack of playing time. I told him,
“I don’t sell cookies, and I don’t know anything about cookies. You don’t coach
basketball, and you don’t know anything about basketball, leave me

Coaches Are the Last of the Cowboys

A lot of us go into
coaching because we don’t grow up. Coaches are the last of the cowboys. I got
out of coaching because now to be a cowboy, you have to work at it.

Don’t Make the Game of Basketball Your Mistress

We treat coaching
as a mistress. We neglect our families. We all want to improve our station in
life. We keep trying to advance, and sometimes find ourselves running toward an
impossible goal. I did it myself. I’m not saying everyone else is wrong. I was
wrong. Moving my family down to North Carolina–why? I was running toward my
mistress. Basketball was my mistress. Basketball was my world. Be careful. It is
a beautiful thing you are building as a coach, but don’t get it all mixed up.
You have to take care of home first.

About Coach McGuire

McGuire led Marquette to the 1977 NCAA National Championship in the final game
of his coaching career. He is regarded as one of the best bench coaches of all
time. He designed the “Triangle and Two Defense” while an assistant at Dartmouth
College. He was possessed with a charismatic and engaging personality and have
multiple interests outside of basketball. He was described by his peers as
eccentric, controversial, philosophical, street smart, and candid. He also spoke
his own language using quick quips and New York street wisdom. He was elected
into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1992 and passed away on January 26, 2001. He
career coaching record was 404-144 at Marquette and Belmont Abby. He played
professionally for the New York Knicks and Baltimore Bullets. His coaching
career began as an assistant at Dartmouth and collegiately he played for St.
John’s. His brother Dick McGuire was a star player in the NBA and they are the
only brother duo (one as coach, one as player) elected to the Basketball Hall of

Note of Reference: This article first appears from a clinic posted
in the Medalist Flashback Notebook (1981).