During a game he sits and watches the action reflectively, his head tilted to rest on his left hand as though he were studying rather than coaching the University of South Carolina basketball team. Of course, events sometimes bring him to his feet to shout instructions to one of his players or to protest an official's call; it's just that there is so much less to get excited about these days for Frank McGuire.
Now in his 30th year as a college coach, McGuire is on his way out with a mediocre team that must struggle to achieve a winning season. Rivals do not thrill to confront the 66- year-old master anymore, nor do fans flock to arenas to see him or see his teams play. Instead McGuire, who will retire as the Gamecocks' coach after this season, is treated to polite ovations and a spate of testimonials wherever he goes.
It's a bittersweet ending to a career in which a street-smart native of New York's Greenwich Village had compiled the second most victories (537) among active coaches entering the 1979-80 season, first at his alma mater, St. John's, then at the Universities of North and South Carolina. During that span, McGuire brought a national championship to the University of North Carolina in 1957 with a team that went 32-0 and, according to him, "started all the rivalry" that pervades Atlantic Coast Conference basketball to this day.
Between college assignments, McGuire spent 1961-62 coaching the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA and a cantankerous young center named Wilt Chamberlain, who listened well enough to average 50 points per game under Frank's tutelage. (Ironically, it was Wilt's Kansas team that North Carolina had upset for the NCAA crown five years earlier.)
Back in the college ranks at South Carolina by 1964, McGuire again used his New York connections to build an also-ran into a national power, piloting a team led by All- Americas John Roche and Tom Owens to a 70- 16 record from 1969 through 1971.
but even as McGuire was leading the Gamecocks to the heights of the basketball world, becoming a South Carolina folk hero in the process, the sands of Gamecock athletic power were shifting under his feet. In 1971, South Carolina withdrew from the ACC to become an independent, a move expected to ease recruiting and scheduling without jeopardizing the school's newfound athletic stature and fan support. It didn't work out that way, to McGuire's unending regret. Attendance began to slump without the intense media attention, the competition, and rivalries present in the ACC. By 1975, McGuire was lobbying to return to the conference.
Leaving the ACC wound up hurting McGuire's recruiting, as did the internecine warfare between the Gamecocks' football and basketball programs. (One result of the tension is that South Carolina is one of the few schools with separate publicity departments for football and basketball.) Unfortunately for McGuire, the head football coaches -- Paul Dietzel, followed by incumbent Jim Carlen -- doubled as athletic director, and various attempts were made to kick the redhead upstairs as athletic director for the university's regional campuses, to retire him at age 65, and finally to fire him outright. That move came just before this season, but was thwarted by a groundswell of fan support and by a unanimous declaration of support from the basketball team. "He's meant a lot to us," said Jim Graziano, one of seven seniors on the Gamecocks' 13-man squad. "We just decided to all get behind him."
It was eventually agreed that this will be McGuire's last year as head coach; he will be paid $100,000 a year for the next four years to notm coach.
McGuire speaks openly of the conflicts, his bitterness laced with humor and a survivor's pride. He says that "rumors out of South Carolina" regarding his status and abilities undercut him as he recruited in recent years, thus explaining the big ones that got away. "[Mike] Gminski [Duke All-America from Monroe, Conn.] and [Mike] O'Koren [North Carolina All-America from Jersey City, N.J.] are the kinds of players I used to recruit," McGuire insisted. "I was talking to Gminski before anyone ever heard of him. I haven't changed. My contacts are still the best."
But times and situations do change, and McGuire, who has also been a football and baseball coach at times, said this is his last fling at coaching. There have been offers, he said, including several from pro basketball teams, but "coaching takes too much energy."
What he will do next remains uncertain. "I'm not even thinking about anything beyond this season," he said. "I want to finish this job here," a task that has him struggling to instill oncourt discipline on a team that, for all its veteran players, often performs with a glaring lack of patience and control.
His competitive fire, his enjoyment of the game, may appear to others to be as muted and fading as the red of his hair, but McGuire professes "the same enthusiasm" for coaching, for basketball, that he always had.
"Right now," he confided after a recent Gamecock victory, "I couldn't feel any better if you gave me a Mercedes. That may sound stupid for a guy my age, but you're born a coach. Either you love it or you don't."