Henning: Gus Ganakas never let a bitter moment sully a glorious life
How do you knock 92 years when every day of that life was celebrated with the verve and cheer Gus Ganakas brought to a surrounding world?
Philosophically, you don’t. Personally, you wince and groan and ache that a gentleman so endlessly decent and even radiant no longer is with us.
Ganakas died Friday almost 43 years to the month after he was fired as Michigan State’s basketball coach.
That awful firing isn’t by itself a man's story. Gus and his personality and humor and individual gifts transcended anything that might have happened professionally during his long and blessed years.
It’s also important to know that most people familiar with Ganakas came to know him as a basketball sage without understanding the coaching expertise that made him a wise radio analyst and voice during Tom Izzo’s grand era in East Lansing.
Many more people — forget basketball — knew him as that ebullient, silver-haired, ever-warm, always-humorous, jewel of a man.
The richness he brought for decades to East Lansing can’t today erase some personal sadness that has pooled within for 43 years. It’s the memory of that Monday afternoon in March 1976 when word came Ganakas was out as Spartans basketball coach.
“Perils of the profession,” he said when a quick follow-up phone call caught him in his office.
The call had been made more from disbelief than with any reporter’s duty in mind.
Ganakas’ dismissal in March of 1976 was the most unjust firing of a Big Ten football or basketball coach from my lifetime. It was an impulsive ouster, based mostly on an equally impulsive walkout 14 months earlier when a group of Spartan basketball players decided a freshman named Jeff Tropf didn’t belong in the starting lineup.
The players, probably a few minutes later, began to regret a tantrum that forced Ganakas to coach a team of junior varsity Spartans against Bobby Knight’s Indiana visitors.
That game, incidentally, in January 1975, went about as you might expect. It was more of a circus. Gus later forgave the mutineers in a fashion typical of his grace and in line with any rational analysis of how college kids can sometimes really be college kids.
The players, too, understood they had been closer to adolescents than adults that day and returned to a coach most of them loved (ask any who are with us yet today, right Edgar Wilson?).
But the consequences from a move rebellious and race-charged (the players were African-American, Tropf was white) ruined a man’s basketball coaching career at age 49.
Ganakas coached the next season in East Lansing. He did his usual deft job and got a boost when a sharp-shooting kid from Flint named Terry Furlow caught fire and by himself became worth a ticket to Jenison Field House.
But the public-relations gash from the previous winter’s walkout was more than the MSU Board of Trustees decided it could handle, never mind its own history of rash or dubious moves.
What remains from that 14-month sequence of MSU basketball history, which paralleled an awful time for the Spartan football team as it was walloped with three years of probation, is yet a testament to Ganakas.
He remained Good Gus.
Unfailingly, he was the man you always were happy to greet. Always merry. Always personal. Always a marvel, how he remembered names and could not go 30 seconds without making you laugh as he and that reddish Greek face glowed like 1,000 watts and as Gus cackled to the heavens.
He never coached again. Not on a significant level. This man whose basketball acumen was as heightened as his charisma never got another shot.
He was absorbed into the athletic department, which at least was a job that kept him involved with a university he somehow continued to love. And other than some early raw months when the injustice overwhelmed him, there was no bitterness.
But there was plenty of personal torture.
A year after he was fired, Magic Johnson committed to Michigan State as likely would have happened had Ganakas still been coaching. It was Jud Heathcote who harnessed Magic and won a national championship. But some of us still suspect that championship just as easily would have been Ganakas’ to savor for what proved to be a long and fruitful lifetime.
Ganakas had gotten the Spartans head coaching job as abruptly as he lost it. He was an assistant to John Benington, another of the truly sterling gentlemen MSU has known during the past 50 years. But in September 1969, in the Jenison locker room, Benington died of a heart attack. He was 47.
Gus, who was all of 43, was the new head coach.
He never had great teams during his seven years as Spartans head coach. But he had greatly entertaining teams. Ralph Simpson. Mike Robinson. Lindsay Hairston. Furlow — there was always a reason to settle into one of those balcony seats at Jenison, back when games were almost rigidly Saturday night and Monday night events.
He was the right coach for the time, his gray-white hair shimmering beneath Jenison’s lights. And if you happened to be walking past the bench during pregame warm-ups, he wasn’t so busy watching his players that he wouldn’t stop to say hi — and of course share a loud chuckle.
What a guy. What a legacy. And how grateful so many of us are that Jim Heos and the gang 20 or so years ago threw him a gala Appreciation Party at MSU.
It wasn’t that Gus that night needed the hugs and the toasts.
We needed them — from him, and for him, just to let this elegant, glorious man and friend know how much he was loved.