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Green: Rascals or not, college coaches are characters

By Jerry Green
Dick Vitale was a hitchhiker who helped put the University of Detroit basketball program into the national spotlight.

Most of them are quaint. Some are vagabonds. A few are cheats and also vagabonds. One was a hitchhiker. One jumped hip-hop and landed stomping on the floor. Another was a card shark. One was quiet and slick and ultimately successful.

The most historically successful sat at courtside, arms folded, never animated – mouthing comments to the referees.

And another, my all-time favorite, was a chair thrower.

Basketball coaches at America's universities comprise an odd bunch.

The chair thrower displayed frequent terrible tantrums. He administered corporal punishment to his athletes. Once his pounded on his own son. But this one was honest and sincere and pushed his athletes to hit the books and to speak the truth.

They are all passionate, but not all are able to work with the talent and success of Tom Izzo.

This is not a quiz. Only the chair-thrower is immediately identifiable.

This NCAA basketball tournament will soon run out of March, but the madness sticks beyond April Fools' Day. Seemingly into eternity.

Now the basketball tournament has become an American addiction, as brackets break and fragment on the wooden floors, amid alliteration and cliché.

The wondrous Dick Vitale gets credit for this. To me, he made the sport more popular than James Naismith did with his peach baskets.

Vitale did it by fitting in with all the beautiful people who work on television. With his bald head bobbing, his arms flailing, his grating voice, his ever-present New Jersey accent, his Vitalisms that turned into basketball clichés through the decades.

"Awesome baby." "Diaper dandy." "He shoots from waaaay downtown."

Dickie was the coach who was the hitchhiker.

True story.

Thumbing it

The University of Detroit hired him to coach a pretty talented team. He arrived with limited experience. He'd coached East Rutherford High School near the garbage dumps of New Jersey and then served two years as an assistant at Rutgers.

At U of D, he worked with gimmicks and plenty of basketball savvy.

All for about 7,000 bucks a year. Sportswriters earned more.

One day the U of D team was to practice at the Catholic Central gym on the west side of Detroit.

"Can you give me a ride?" Vitale asked. "I gotta get to practice."

So I chauffeured him over to CC. Dick proceeded then to go out on the floor and demonstrate his proficiency in making free throws. He hit about 30 straight.

The Titans did quite well during Vitale's seasons, reached the NCAA tourney before he flamed out with the Pistons. And was discovered by America passing his basketball wisdom on ESPN.

And U of D never got accused of cheating.

The foot stomper was Jud Heathcote, who used to go bananas on the bench while coaching Michigan State. Jud would jump up and pound both feet — and simultaneously wave his arms and shriek. He was part acrobat.

I would write about his courtside behavior. And Jud would get ticked off.

Then both of us would laugh about it.

Jud won an NCAA championship for the Spartans. Of course, he had Earvin Johnson and State defeated Indiana State with Larry Bird in the match 36 years ago (wow). It was a game that contributed to the tournament's amazing popularity.

The card shark was Bill Frieder, who coached Michigan. Frieder was a fabulous recruiter. He secretly agreed to jump to Arizona State just before Michigan was to play in the 1989 tournament. The athletic director — a football guy named Bo Schembechler — famously ordered Frieder to scram.

"A Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man," Bo decreed, accusing Frieder of disloyalty.

Assistant Steve Fisher took over — and Michigan won its only national basketball championship.

Frieder believed in luck. Once he told me, "I want you covering our games. You're good luck."

Table master

He was known to get hot at the card tables in gambling casinos. Supposedly he ultimately was barred from the casinos, accused of having a method of remembering every card that had been played.

The most celebrated successful college basketball coach ever was John Wooden with UCLA. Wooden would sit on the bench as a wooden figure, barely moving, seldom standing — a strangely quiet man for a basketball coach. So it seemed.

But there were those who would say that Wooden was bitingly sarcastic to the officials. He would, I was told, mumble his criticism straight out toward the floor so that those in the nearby press rows could not quite catch the gist of his remarks.

Bob Knight was never quite so subtle as Coach Wooden. Knight's explosions were audible throughout the basketball arenas — and quite often visible. He threw a chair across the court, a TV shot that is repeated March staple. He popped some of his players, including his son Pat, once. He had riffs with critics — multitudes of them.

And there were few he cared for in the media.

But character, to me, matters. It is the positive that made Bob Knight a rarity among coaches. There was never any doubt about the honor of his programs at Indiana. He aimed his athletes toward graduation as well as championships. He made them better citizens.

And he won the NCAA Tournament three times with the Hoosiers. His 1976 champions were undefeated, 32-0, a mark that has been a target in this tournament.

And Knight was never shy about criticizing fellow coaches of lesser character.

Most prominent in the current tournament closing toward the Final Four climax are two of basketball's wayward slicksters.

Rick Pitino and John Calipari are eminent coaches with unsavory reputations.

They always seemed to be high in the brackets, wherever they have wandered.

Pitino worked as an assistant at Syracuse, a disciple of the currently NCAA penalized Jim Boeheim. From there, Pitino moved on to become head coach at Boston University, Providence College, Kentucky and currently at Louisville. He shuffled twice to the NBA, where he coached the Knicks and the Celtics. He won championships at Kentucky and Louisville and managed to get Providence once to the Final Four.

But way back, in 1977, Pitino was slapped by the NCAA cops for recruiting irregularities at Hawaii, where he served as an assistant coach, then interim head coach. Hawaii was placed on probation by the NCAA.

Luckier is Calipari — who twice escaped unscathed when the NCAA enforcers were lurking. Before Kentucky, and his current marvelous team, Calipari notably coached Massachusetts and Memphis into Final Fours plus an NBA sojourn with the New Jersey Nets.

Both of Calipari's UMass and Memphis teams were later cited for NCAA infractions. The NCAA, in its manner, stripped away a number of victories from the records of UMass and Memphis and eradicated their appearances in the Final Fours.

But the head coach of these teams was told by NCAA investigators that he was "not at risk."

Calipari managed to move on untouched to Kentucky — and the 2012 NCAA championship.

Untouched — free to operate his one-season Kentucky-to-the-NBA prep school.

Quaint guys, for sure. Somewhere — I hope —— in college basketball, character still matters

Oh yeah, Tom Izzo!