Frank McGuire: Meaner than a Junkyard Dog


Frank McGuire

After doing a respectable job coaching at St. Johns for six years, young Frank McGuire landed the basketball coaching job at the University of North Carolina. When he arrived, he opened his briefcase and out jumped some of the best high school talent in New York at the time. In his baptism into the ACC McGuire emerged with a 17-10 record in 1952. Not bad for a start.

In 1957 UNC came to play at Duke with their record: 24-0. Duke trailed by 12 at the half but fought back under Coach Bradley’s leadership to a 70-69 lead with less than four minutes to play. Meanwhile, the refs were calling fouls on Duke players if they even glared at an opposing player. They were charged with 35 fouls and 5 players fouled out. Duke lost 86-72. The angry crowd littered the floor with debris at the end, and McGuire looked like he was sure to sue after being struck on the head with an apple.

McGuire had reached the five-year mark in the ACC,  and he’d achieved what was arguably the zenith of his entire coaching career. Well, that ‘57 Carolina team went undefeated, 32-0. It was undeniably a terrific team that had been coached brilliantly. They went on to the NCAA tourney, with their top wins a triple-overtime win over Michigan State and a triple overtime championship game over Kansas with their freakish talent, Wilt Chamberlain. It is possible that this perfect season contributed to the coach’s narcissistic attitude that seemed only to expand with time.

In 1958 when Carolina met Duke in Durham, they both had 10-3 ACC records. Bradley decided to go with a smaller, faster line-up. It proved a brilliant strategy. Carolina chased them doggedly the whole game. There was a brief scuffle late in the game but no violence. Player, Bobby Joe Harris, called a timeout with two seconds in the game just to rub it in a little, but the fans were not about to wait for two seconds. They rushed the court and the refs just called the game. Duke had played a great game and won it 59-46. McGuire suddenly decided his players were in mortal danger. As fans and Duke players evacuated the gymnasium, McGuire kept his guys on the bench until a police escort was brought in to usher his boys to the locker room. Bill Murray, Duke manager of operations, was outraged. He shouted, “In all my coaching experience I have never seen a more obvious exhibition. It was the most revolting act by a college coach I’ve ever witnessed. He’s created a monster…”

The following year Duke’s Bradley announced his departure and Everett Case’s star pupil, Vic Bubas, was tapped for the Duke job. Bubas didn’t know he was plunging himself into a gargantuan battle his first year. McGuire happened to be dead set on acquiring two of the finest young basketball talents in the nation—Larry Brown and Art Heyman. And they both had signed letters of intent. The summer of ’59 Bubas happened to go to a game in which Heyman was playing and he identified Heyman’s stepdad in the crowd. Every time Heyman drove for a basket, Bubas would shout, “I’ve got to have that kid at Duke.”

Weeks later, Heyman showed up at UNC with his stepdad for pre-freshman orientation. Bill Heyman, the stepdad, didn’t particularly want to meet McGuire but the coach showed up at the University Hotel one evening, after Art had gone to the movies with a Carolina player. Bill began quizzing McGuire about whether he required strict class attendance and was serious about his players getting a college degree. McGuire didn’t take to the grilling and started getting sarcastic. Before it was over, both men had to be pulled apart.  The letter of intent wasn’t yet binding so Bubas jumped into the fray feet-first and convinced the Heymans Duke was the place for Art to go. McGuire was more than livid and he never forgave the Heymans or Duke.

In 1959-60, McGuire’s team won 17 out of their first 18 games and McGuire definitely had bragging rights. He up and chartered a luxury coach for their late season trip to Maryland and Virginia. He invited friends and sportswriters on the trip gratis and paid for all meals wherever they stopped. Where he got the money for this basketball orgy was unknown and issues like this would come back to haunt him.

This was the year that Heyman had to play on the freshman team, and Duke had a very average 7-7 ACC record. However, the team lit up during tournament time, defeated Carolina 71-69  and shocked Wake Forest 71-66 in the championship game, giving Duke their first ACC title and their second NCAA appearance (they made East Regional finals before losing to NYU).

In the summer of 1960 the NCAA called McGuire onto the carpet regarding those travel expenses from the 1959 chartered bonanza to Maryland and Virginia. McGuire wouldn’t even deign to answer most of the questions and he was determined that no one could take a coach of his stature down. He commissioned assistant Dean Smith and UNC chancellor, Bill Aycock, to gather information to exonerate him and appeal the case against him in San Francisco. Smith had enough information to push the NCAA committee to review the case again.

In the Dixie Classic that year, Doug Moe held Heyman to 5 points in the final 35 minutes of the game, giving the Tar Heels a 76-71 win. Five days later McGuire was summoned for a final hearing by the NCAA committee. Their questions again got his goat and he began wisecracking. Not a good idea. They placed Carolina on probation, killing any NCAA hopes. McGuire decided to get even by pulling the team out of the ACC tournament. So the next game between Duke and UNC did not occur with peace and good will all round. McGuire was bitter about the probation, Heyman was determined to outfight Moe this time around. The Tar Heel players were still angry about Heyman and life in general. Bill Murray and the Duke crowd was still riled about McGuire treating them the previous year like a bunch of wild prison inmates.

Apparently, in the first half Tar Heel, Doug Moe, actually spit at Heyman a few times and violence was brewing. It wasn’t until the three minute point in the second half, though, that everything exploded. The story of the classic fight that started with Heyman and Brown and spread courtwide is quite familiar. And most Duke fans know that this did much to cement the rabid rivalry games still watched nationwide each year. Heyman claimed that McGuire kicked him in the melee but there is no film footage to really prove it. Players Heyman, Brown and Walsh were suspended for the remaining conference games.

Then a point shaving scandal was revealed among at least two Carolina players. Unwilling to put up with that and the other penalties and inconveniences levied by the NCAA committee, McGuire quit and went to coach Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA for a year. But the guy just could not stay out of the ACC.  The following year, he emerged as the new University of South Carolina basketball coach.

It did not take long for ACC fires to heat up again. This time it was about Mike Grosso, a 6’9” center from New Jersey. McGuire was salivating to bring Grosso to USC. However, to scholarship in the ACC in those days, a player had to score at least 800 on the SAT. Grosso fell a bit short. His family then claimed they would pay his way. Smelling something fishy, athletic directors Eddie Cameron of Duke and Chuck Erickson of UNC both complained to the ACC committee.  They investigated and ruled that Grosso had received some illegal aid for tuition, and they ruled him ineligible. McGuire was furious and he made that no secret to the media.

“This thing is being directed at me and taken out on the boy,” snarled McGuire. “I’ve never gotten into the gutter with skunks like this in my life. I’m not doing it for myself but to save a boy’s life…”

In 1966 McGuire’s Gamecocks came to play at Duke on Valentine’s Day. It was not a day for love. Duke was vulnerable that night because Bob Verga was serving the second game of a 2-game suspension for violating curfew and questioning Coach Bubas. Duke led only 26-20 at the half, primarily due to the pit bull determination of Steve Vacendak. At intermission McGuire was lecturing referee Curly White. Bubas glimpsed White nodding and he didn’t like what he saw, so he walked over to see what McGuire was up to. McGuire told him heatedly to get out and mind his own d—- business. Bubas begged to differ and the two coaching geniuses raised their voices quite a few decibels before storming to their locker rooms. Duke won the game 41-38.

The rancor became so bitter that the ACC gave Duke and UNC the option in the 1967 season to skip their regular season matches. Duke took them up on the offer.  Fate determined that Duke met USC in the ACC tourney semi-finals but the coaches were able to prevent a brawl. Duke squeaked out a win, 69-66.

The USC Gamecocks became the “House the Frank Built,” and he had an undefeated ACC regular season in 1970, an ACC Tournament championship in 1971, and three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances between ’71 and ’73.  He was undeniably a great coach, but Duke coaches Bradley, Bubas, and Foster were arguably just as good. Duke is not known for nasty, hateful relationships with either universities or coaches. Even the fierce Duke-Carolina rivalry is one of solid mutual respect and gutsy over-the-top contests.

Coach McGuire was a great coach with a large ego and a long memory, and he was just combustible enough to drive some rival coaches to distraction. May he rest in peace.


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