The legacy of Al McGuire and the Erie Otters
I HAVE HAD plenty of time to think in the past couple of weeks, and I couldn't help but look back at the many changes made in the sports world. And after looking back, I decided the most interesting to me was the wonderful world of college basketball, a game that I was hooked on at a very young age and stayed obsessed with until the landscape spiraled out of control in 1972 – the year freshmen became eligible to play on the varsity.
All of a sudden, college hoops became a cesspool that prepared "amateur" hoopsters for the NBA – and nothing else.
Thisis now a sport where the likes of Kentucky's John Calipari and Louisville's Rick Pitino are the faces of the sport – not the classy types of John Wooden, Dean Smith, and Al McGuire.
What a difference.
However, what really sparked my interest was a story on ESPN that blared "Cal" may have nine McDonald's All-Americans on his roster next year. Of course ESPN thought this was the greatest possibility ever. I think a bigger story would be how all nine of these high school "students" ended up in Lexington.
But we know that's never going to happen
Yet the ESPN story reminded me of a great two hours I spent with the former Marquette Coach, Al McGuire. We talked while taking a stroll in downtown Erie once when he was here to give a talk. Someone had set up a time for him to come on my radio show and he had some time to kill, so we took a two-hour stroll around lower State Street and the lower east side of Erie.
Not many knew he was an expert in the field of architecture and loved older cities, especially Erie. His knowledge of the old buildings in Erie simply amazed me.
Coach McGuire is one of the most interesting people I have ever met, and when I think back to that walk, I don't think basketball was even in his top-five topics, as he discussed a variety of subjects – aside from architecture – with great passion, including toy soldiers and motorcycles.
IT'S ALMOST impossible to discuss Al McGuire without talking about the time he applied for the Gannon University job, the Golden Knights instead hiring Jim Harding for the 1963-64 season, which was a good move at the time.
McGuire, a New York City native, had brought his Belmont Abbey College team to Erie two straight years and was building himself a national reputation at the small school.
However, while he had some supporters on the hiring committee, McGuire was considered a risk because he was a bit flamboyant and extremely colorful. McGuire then ended up getting hired at Marquette in 1974 – the school he stayed at for 14 years while winning a national title and establishing the Warriors (now Golden Eagles) as a national power. He later went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, the controversial Harding had Gannon in the national limelight for three years and then left Erie for Philadelphia LaSalle, staying one controversy-filled season with the Explorers. Harding also coached at the University of Detroit and in the pros, where he lived up to his reputation by punching the owner of the team in the mouth at a banquet.
And upon further examination, it's amazing the connections Gannon has had with Division I coaching positions.
While McGuire and Harding had their D-I connections, GU also had a hookup with Marquette, as the Golden Knights hired Bob Dukiet following his release by the Warriors; the Golden Knights also lost two coaches to Division I.
John Denny Bayer left for the University of Nevada Las Vegas and Tom Chapman accepted the Saint Bonaventure position. As a matter of fact, Bayer was replaced at UNLV by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian.
IF EVER a professional sports organization needed a great season, it was the Erie Otters. And the Otters responded with a record-breaking year.
Interest in the OHL team was at an all-time low, but that interest has done a 180 in just one year with a best single-season record and a new attendance mark. And I believe most of the success on the ice goes to Coach Kris Knoblach, with General Manager John Frey getting credit for a lot of the marketing moves.
Also, this season enables Owner Sherry Bassin to sell the team and go out near the top.
My hockey experts tell me the Otters still needed a little work on the ice, but the base is set and the future is extremely bright.
But no matter who gets the credit right now, it was refreshing not to have to listen to a bunch of rumors regarding the future of the Otters. Today, there's no doubt: Hockey is alive and well in the Big E.
And the resuscitation could not have come at a better time.
James R. LeCorchick can be contacted at JRLSportsReport@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @JRLSports.