TOLEDO, OHIO — Sun staff writer Don Markus continues the March Madness Tour that will take him to eight conference tournaments in eight days. TOLEDO, Ohio -- The Mid-American Conference usually saves its best games and most compelling story lines for the NCAA tournament. Who can forget Ball State's run to the Sweet 16 in 1990 with a then relatively unknown coach named Rick Majerus? Or Eastern Michigan nearly making the Elite Eight the next year before succumbing to North Carolina?
It is the best conference few ever notice between November and February, the rivalries just as heated as the ones that exist in the Big Ten or ACC. It is a league that can boast three players chosen among the NBA's best 50 all-time, a league that might have as many as five players drafted later this year. But hardly anyone pays attention.
That changed in the past five days. It changed because of what has happened to Miami of Ohio since its coach, Charlie Coles, suffered a heart attack during an opening-round victory of the MAC tournament at Western Michigan and because of what Eastern Michigan guard Earl Boykins did the past two nights here at the SeaGate Centre.
"I think our conference deserves more attention than it gets," Boykins said last night after leading Eastern Michigan into the NCAA tournament with a 92-77 victory over Miami of Ohio. "It's sad, because they're a lot of great players and great coaches in the MAC."
What happened to Boykins might not have been noticed either, if not for Coles. By the time, Boykins began to heat up, the spotlight had been focused on the MAC, on the near-tragedy that turned into two inspirational victories. "Now," said Miami assistant Ray Martin, "everyone wants to know our story."
It's a compelling story about Coles, a beloved coach whose influence extends to the Eastern Michigan bench and its head coach Milton Barnes.
Barnes credits everything he has become to two men: his father, a minister back in Saginaw, Mich., and to Coles, his high school coach. When his team took the court for last night's championship game against Eastern Michigan, Coles was back in a Kalamazoo hospital room, in serious but stable condition. His son, Chris, who thought he had lost his "best friend" after he collapsed and lost consciousness for 25 minutes Saturday, took his father's seat on the bench.
"What happened Saturday is still fresh on everyone's mind," the younger Coles, a 28-year-old high school coach back in Mount Pleasant, Mich., said yesterday. "It's a tough thing for me to sit on the bench and he's not here. But he asked me to do it, so I'm here. If they get to the NCAAs, he wants to be on the bench -- probably against our wishes."
When Chris Coles was in grade school, he used to get in a black-and-gold uniform and lead the Saginaw High School team out on the court, taking the first layup and then sitting on the bench next to his father. Barnes played for Coles as a senior, only after the coach told Barnes' father that his son didn't have to practice on Sundays.
"Our relationship has evolved over the years, from player-coach to going through different stages," Barnes said in his hotel room a couple of hours before tip-off. "When we got a chance to work together [as assistants at the University of Detroit], it became more man-to-man. But any major decision I've made in my life he's been a part of."
It was Coles who consoled Barnes after the death of his brother in 1980, and his mother five years later. It was Coles who was one of the first to congratulate Barnes, then an assistant coach at Minnesota, after he got his first head coaching job at Eastern Michigan last year. And it was Coles who was in Barnes' thoughts heading into the biggest game of his life.
"When it first happened," Barnes said, speaking of Coles' heart attack, "it was difficult to focus on the game. I had to sit there and regroup. I had to think of what Coles would say. He would tell me to go out there and coach as hard as I ever had. I can relate to what the Miami players are going through because I was once just like them. I love the man and so do they."
Shortly after he received word that Coles' condition had been stabilized, assistant coach Martin said it was left up to his players whether to continue or not. They had three choices: to finish the game that night, the next day or not finish at all. The players decided to wait a few hours. The Redskins would wind up beating Western Michigan, 67-63.
"Since it happened, I see a seriousness in their eyes, a focus in their faces, a determination in their play and effort, a higher level than ever before," said Martin, whose biggest previous spotlight was as an assistant under Jim Valvano at North Carolina State that included one national championships and two ACC championships. "It would have taken the National Guard for us to lose the game against Western."