College basketball coaches: a winner and a loser

March 10, 1991|By Ann Sjoerdsma

BIG MAN ON CAMPUS:

JOHN THOMPSON AND

THE GEORGETOWN HOYAS.

Leonard Shapiro.

Henry Holt.

310 pages. $19.95.

VALVANO: THEY GAVE ME

A LIFETIME CONTRACT,

AND THEN THEY

DECLARED ME DEAD.

Jim Valvano

and Curry Kirkpatrick.

Pocket Books.

259 pages. $19.95. Reading in tandem "Big Man on Campus," the biography of Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, and "Valvano," former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano's rise-and-fall story, is telltale: In big-time college basketball, image is the sixth man.

Leonard Shapiro, a Washington Post sportswriter who has known Mr. Thompson for 20 years, attributes the coach's success to "bogarding" -- affecting a Humphrey Bogart "tough-guy, take-no-stuff-from-no-one" demeanor. Perception: in control, intimidating, powerful. Mr. Valvano, on the other hand, admits to being a wisecracking clown, a glib guy just loving life. Perception: out of control, smug, vulnerable. Not surprisingly, the Thompson book reads like an investigative report, 'Valvano" like a stand-up comedy act -- until the 13-month play-by-play that culminated in Mr. Valvano's firing.

According to "Big Man on Campus," Mr. Thompson was a learning-disabled only child whose proud, working-class parents taught him the value of hard work, education, religion and family. He bogarded his way from Washington's playgrounds to Providence College to the champion Boston Celtics to the elite ranks of college basketball coaching and the 1984 National Collegiate Athletic Association title. A dyed-in-the-wool competitor, capitalist and opportunist, Mr. Thompson plays the game on his own uncompromising terms.

Jim Valvano, an emotional Italian-American kid from Queens, grew up diving for loose balls and wanting to be a coach like his father. An athlete who triumphed over mediocrity to play at Rutgers, Mr. Valvano believes in -- and repeatedly says so -- HARD WORK, ENTHUSIASM, DREAMS, DESIRE, FUN, FUN, FUN! He stopped briefly at Johns Hopkins and Iona before ascending to North Carolina State in 1980 and taking a Cinderella team to the 1983 NCAA title.

Although his book is thoughtful, Mr. Shapiro adds little to what is public knowledge about Mr. Thompson. Since joining Georgetown in 1972, America's most visible black coach has been doggedly criticized and second-guessed. Is he a racist? Does he exploit players for his own aggrandizement? Has he compromised Georgetown's academic integrity? Did he blow the 1988 Olympics? Has he sold out to big money?

Mr. Shapiro evenhandedly tackles these tough questions and others, filling in some unflattering gaps: Mr. Thompson is no saint, but neither is he the devil. Distrustful ("Hoya paranoia"), defensive (both on- and off-court) and vindictive (feuds with DeMatha High School's Morgan Wootten, Maryland's Lefty Driesell and former friends/mentors are detailed), Mr. Thompson emerges as a scarred warrior who doesn't know when to quit fighting.

Says an embittered Craig Shelton, the late-1970s Hoyas star who left school without graduating and feels abandoned by his formercoach: "John Thompson always said, 'To err is human, to forgive is not my policy.' " There is no comment about Mr. Shelton from Mr. Thompson, because the coach, his family and most of his colleagues refused to cooperate with Mr. Shapiro, who relied on anonymous sources. When questioning Mr. Thompson's integrity, the author is fair, even sympathetic, but the coach's response is sorely lacking.

Mr. Valvano, on the other hand, gushes about his success, glossing over criticism and scandals, such as the recruitment of academically at-risk Chris Washburn, until the moment of truth: "Personal Fouls." None of the serious allegations in the book, which accused N.C. State of fixing players' grades, hiding drug-test results and operating slush funds, was substantiated, but an NCAA investigation revealed that some Wolfpack players had sold complimentary Nike sneakers and game tickets.

Later, university and state probes questioned Mr. Valvano's "misuse" of academic standards to admit student-athletes. A former player confessed that he had shaved points, another that he had accepted $65,000 from boosters. On April 6, 1990, Mr. Valvano was dismissed from a lifetime job for having lost "institutional control." He writes angrily and reflectively about the ouster, accepting some responsibility, censuring N.C. State for sacrificing him, and offering suggestions for changing NCAA rules (e.g., paying players stipends). Now an ABC-TV and ESPN commentator, Mr. Valvano is a tad wiser.

Both books play out top-20 college basketball high drama in entertaining fashion. Ironically, at N.C. State, the coach's hubris became the team's tragic flaw; at Georgetown, it is the messenger.

Ms. Sjoerdsma is an attorney and writer living in Baltimore.

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