When Al McGuire Said Yes

Having worked in the real world for a few years after graduating from Marquette University in 1980, I was surprised that no book had ever been written about Al McGuire. Sure, there were plenty of newspaper and magazine stories, but no books. Here was one of the most colorful characters in the history of college basketball, if not all of sports, and there was no book.

The idea to write a book began percolating in my head during the summer of 1984. I took the afternoon off from the weekly newspaper I was working for in Highland Park, Illinois, at the time and visited the sports information department at Marquette, which at that time was located in the 1212 Building on Wisconsin Avenue.

I made Xerox copies of every Al McGuire story in the archives files.

“You Can Call Me Al” was not the original title of the book. Initially I wanted to go with “Seashells & Balloons: The Life and Times of Al McGuire.”

The book would contain 13 chapters, representing the number of years McGuire coached at Marquette. Each chapter would be named for a particular McGuireism. For example, Dance Hall Player was about his playing days. Whistle Blower covered his early coaching days at Dartmouth College. All of the Xerox copies were organized into manila file folders labeled with the appropriate McGuire chapter name.

My research continued as I read anything and everything I could find about Al McGuire. I also talked to anyone who knew Al, including Hank Raymonds, who offered numerous stories and perspectives on Al the coach and Al the man. After such interviews, I tucked the notes into the appropriate file folder.

I put my research on hold while earning my master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. However, Al McGuire was not out of sight or out of mind during my hiatus.

After graduate school, I began working as an editor at Chicago area trade publications. During my evenings and weekends, I resumed my research into Al’s life and career. Quite a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays were spent poring over yearbooks and newspaper clippings of each of the Marquette basketball seasons during the Eddie Hickey and Al McGuire eras.

In 1987, most of Al’s 1977 National Championship team returned to Milwaukee for a reunion and old timer’s game. I contracted with The Sporting News to write a “where are they now” feature for the magazine. I interviewed Hank and Rick Majerus, in addition to a number of the former players. While Al did not attend the reunion, we talked for 45 minutes by phone. I was able to glean quite a bit during our conversation, much more than I had anticipated.

The full-page feature was placed opposite The Sporting News’s game story of Kansas’s win over Oklahoma in the 1988 National Championship. When I brought copies of the feature to Al’s office in Mequon, Wisconsin, I asked his secretary what Al thought. “He said it wasn’t long enough.” Then I asked if anyone had ever approached him about writing a book. “Get in line,” she replied. “Everyone wants to write his book.”

In 1990, I was put in touch with Al’s youngest son, Robbie, who produced many of Al’s television specials during his broadcast career. When I related my interest in writing a book, Robbie invited me to a basketball luncheon prior to an upcoming DePaul-UCLA game, at which Al was the featured speaker.

After the luncheon, Robbie introduced us and I told Al what I had in mind. “Call my secretary in Wisconsin and she will send you all of the tapes of my speeches and interviews.” Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised. I could not wait to get started.

Several weeks later, however, I received a package in the mail from Al McGuire Enterprises. Thinking it was the first batch of tapes, I could not wait to open the package. To my great disappointment, it contained two Al’s Run tee shirts and a note from Al: “I know I said you could do the book, but I’ve decided to pull back. Coach McGuire.”

This did not deter me. I was determined to go ahead and not give up the book project, even if it meant going the unauthorized route. I knew there were others who had wanted to write Al’s book, including Roger Jaynes of The Milwaukee Journal, Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, Dick Enberg, Jimmy Breslin and John Feinstein of The Washington Post. Also, I knew Al was in the fall of his years and I could not wait forever.

I then called George Reedy who was my advisor during my senior year at Marquette. He had also served as dean of Marquette’s Journalism School and before that was President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary in the mid-1960s. Reedy also wanted to write Al’s book and had set up a luncheon with his agent, Michael Hambilburg, and Al during the early 1970s.

Al never showed up.

Reedy never pursued the book with Al after that.

Reedy warned me that if I did go the unauthorized route that I should be prepared to have a lot of doors slammed in my face. “Al’s friends are very loyal,” he cautioned.

I decided to go ahead and begin talking to those who knew Al from his formative years in Rockaway Beach, New York, and his head coaching days at Belmont Abbey College.

Norman Ochs, who grew up with Al and was a lifelong friend, put me in touch with Jim Lytle, one of Al’s captains at Belmont Abbey, which was located in Belmont, North Carolina. During our phone conversation, Jim regaled me with humorous stories and memories of Al and how he brought New York and New Jersey wise guys down to Baptist Belmont. Stories I had never heard before. He also put me in touch with a number of his New York teammates.

On a Friday morning of Labor Day weekend 1994, I received a phone call in my office. “Joe, this is Coach. I haven’t tried to keep you from doing this book, but I’m not sure you know the right way to go about it. I know this is serious when I get a call from Jimmy Ly-TELL (McGuire pronunciation), and when Jimmy calls me, I know it’s serious.

“I’m gettin’ on a plane Tuesday morning to West Lafayette, Indiana. There’s an extra seat on the plane if you want to join me and we can talk.”

Due to my work schedule I could not go, but I offered to meet him at his office the next day (Saturday). He agreed.

When I arrived the next day, he was by himself in a small matchbox of an office. We sat and talked for three hours.

“I know you are doing a lot of research at Marquette, but I think you’re going about it in a theoretical way,” he said. I replied that when putting together someone’s life, it is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and it takes a while to find all of those pieces.” The puzzle imagery seemed to strike a chord with McGuire as he listened to my pitch.

“But Joe, you really don’t know me,” he countered. “I have traveled all over with Roger Jaynes on road trips, garage sales, restaurants, tournaments.” He did not sound convinced that I was the man for the job. After all, I was going to be holding Al McGuire’s life in my hands.

After some thought, he added: “To do this right, you have to end each chapter with a good story, to tie it up in a neat bow. And if you do this, you have to have something in there about the original flower child.”

When we finished, he began rummaging through some boxes on shelves and took out an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. He signed it, “To Joe, Al McGuire. Good Life ’94.”

I thanked him as we walked outside his office. We drove our cars to a little diner not far from his Pewaukee, Wisconsin, office. Al ordered pancakes and I had coffee. Afterward, Al uncharacteristically reached for the check. Since he was paying, I left a dollar for Al and a dollar for me on the table. As we started to walk away, Al said: “Joe, put one of those dollars back in your pocket. You’re not obligated. NEVER OVER TIP!”

As we said our goodbyes, Al said: “This is your book. This is your baby. You do whatever you want. You talk to whoever you want, including my family. But I’m not going to be involved.” What he meant was that he was not going to do any public relations to promote the book, including radio or tv or book signings. Al was someone who disliked being a shill, which was why he was very selective about what products he would endorse and for how long. “I like to get in and get out within two years, tops.”

As I look back on it, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time of Al McGuire’s life. The fact that I was straightforward with him about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to handle his biography, in addition to being a Marquette graduate, stood me in good stead.

It took 10 years to get the green light from Al, but those doors to people in his life started to open. The first was then-Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight, who wrote the foreword for the book. Then Dean Smith, Coach K and Louie Carnesecca, who wrote the cover quotes for “You Can Call Me Al,” which is the title I chose after hearing the Paul Simon hit of the same name. The song – and title – resonated much better with Marquette and casual sports fans.

I had to be just as persistent in order to find a publisher. After a family friend in the business helped me put together a book proposal, I waited patiently to see what interest there was from publishers big and small. After numerous rejections, I asked another family friend if her brother – Rev. Andrew Greeley of Chicago – would take a look at my book proposal. He thought the book was a great idea. “If there can be a book about Howard Cosell, why not a book about Al McGuire?” He put me in touch with his agent, Nat Sobel of Sobel, Weber and Associates of New York. Sobel stated that if I could get Al McGuire to make it his book, including doing radio and tv interviews and book signings, Sobel could get me a publisher.

Al said no. And when he said no, he meant it. He never went back on his word.

Finally, in 1997, a small sports publisher in Madison, Wisconsin, Prairie Oak Press, took a chance on an unknown writer and first-time author. George Reedy had his agent Mike Hamilburg negotiate my first contract, and the first edition of “You Can Call Me Al: The Colorful Journey of College Basketball’s Original Flower Child, Al McGuire,” was published in time for the 1999 Final Four.

This Centennial Edition of “You Can Call Me Al” (fifth edition) includes an Introduction that covers the beginnings of the Marquette basketball program during the 1916-17 season, when Ralph Risch coached his one and only season of college basketball, leading the Marquette Hilltoppers to an 8-3 record.

The Introduction takes the reader from that inaugural season all the way through the Eddie Hickey Era, before Al McGuire took over the program and brought it to new heights. The book also includes a photo page of every Marquette head coach, from Risch all the way to Steve Wojciechowski. Pictures of Coach McGuire’s 2001 funeral were also added to this special edition.

As a Marquette graduate, I feel privileged that Al McGuire gave me the opportunity of a lifetime for which I will always be grateful.

Joseph Declan Moran, author/publisher
JDM Press
Arlington Heights, IL

February 2019