by Colin Powers
Tomorrow night, Coach Herb Magee has a chance to break the all-time NCAA wins record in men’s college basketball. Number 903 for the long-time coach of Division II power Philadelphia University will take Magee to the historical pinnacle of the sport that has shaped his life seemingly since the cradle (as a player he was drafted by the Celtics before injuries derailed him and kick-started his coaching career). That said, since day one, Coach has never measured or defined himself in the oversimplified, barebone language of wins and losses, and don’t expect him to now. Indeed, one of his defining traits, and one that may help explain his incredible success and longevity, is his unbelievable ability to stay in the present at all times. He still approaches every practice, film session, summer camp, shooting clinic, and game as an independent entity deserving of all his attention without any of the trappings of ego or grandeur. He still coaches the game simply because he loves teaching and interacting with young men and women just as he did when he first started.
As Coach sees it, you dance with the girl you took to the prom, and leapfrogging old friend Bobby Knight doesn’t change anything about the way he will continue to do business. “We’re still in the game by game mode, all the games we play now. The last 12 are conference games. And it’s important for us to finish first so that we get a home game in the first round. We’re trying to win all the games now actually, so that if we don’t win the conference tournament, we could get an at large bid to the NCAA’s. I’m thinking about the next game, the next practice every day. The only time I think about it (the wins record) is when folks like yourself call me and ask me.”
Philadelphia University fans certainly don’t need to worry about Coach getting caught up admiring his work. Indeed, while the enormity of becoming the all-time winningest Coach in men’s NCAA history is staggering, perhaps even more staggering is the humility and consistency with which Coach Magee has reached this point. And don’t expect him to change any time soon. Just as he doesn’t let a subjective number like 903 change the way he does his job, he also won’t let a subjective number like 68 (his age) dictate anything going forward. While many other baby boomers are thinking retirement and worrying about their pension in the current economic climate, leaving the day-job isn’t even on Coach Magee’s mind. As he said, “I’ve never given any thought to retiring because I don’t think I’m gonna hang it up. I’ve been doing it 41 years at the same school but I don’t think about retirement. I’m healthy, the only thing that would stop me is my health. I work out, good diet…This is what I do and I’ll do it as long as my body allows me.” Coach Magee, one of the few men who have truly come to embody the game of basketball for generations of players dating back to the Nixon era will keep on keepin’ on. He’ll still be waking up at 5:30 a.m. for his four-mile walk with wife Geri, making the summer circuit of camps and clinics, and coaching and recruiting Philadelphia University men’s basketball team for another season, hoping to add another 20 win season to his resume. He’s seemingly impelled to by his genetic make-up, his DNA marked with Xs and Os, his passion for the game fundamental to his very being. Like his contemporaries Bob Hurlie, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, this love of basketball has led Magee to impact the evolution of basketball far and wide.
Yes, Coach Magee’s basketball legacy extends way beyond the number of wins he has accumulated at Philadelphia University. One of the original “Shot Doctors” (before the title was usurped by instructors across the country with inflated senses of self), he has put in work with players at every level, from grammar school kids to the Charles Barkleys and Malik Roses of the world. And in case Coach needed any further vindication of his pedigree as a savant of shooting, even one of the all-time best marksmen in basketball history, Larry Bird, asked Magee to come in and work with his Indiana Pacers.
Then, of course, there are the stable of coaches who began as assistants under Magee and now populate the ranks of NCAA basketball, men that hold a very special place in Coach’s heart. When asked what being the all-time NCAA winningest Coach meant to him, Magee immediately redirected his answer to pass along the credit to all those Assistants who have worked with him across the years. “A lot of that credit goes to recruiting the right kids and the Assistant Coaches I’ve had. The Assistant Coaches don’t make any money, I mean, the total package for all of them is about $7,000 per year. They have to work other jobs to make sure their families are getting by. They’re almost volunteers. But I’ve been fortunate to attract really great guys, really working hard, guys that could attract and recruit the proper kids. And the reward for them is getting a better job down the road. And we’ve been very fortunate to place a lot of Head Coaches, whether at the Division 1, 2 or 3 level.” True to his word, disciples of Coach Magee are almost comparable to the great Chapel Hill bloodline of Dean Smith. Holy Cross Coach Sean Kearney, Navy Coach Billy Lange, BU Coach Pat Chambers, and Steve Donahue of Cornell University are just a few of the names who trace their lineage to the grand patriarch Herb Magee.
Right now, though, you can tell Coach is still a little hesitant to talk about legacy and history and his footprint on the game. After all, he is a man who lives in the now, and the now means his team still has that season long bulls-eye on its back after being the pre-season pick to win the conference. The now means he’s hoping to find a way for his 22-6 team to continue to improve, meshing together his two preseason All-Americans with the young talent on campus in hopes of everything clicking just right, and who knows, maybe another National Championship. The National Chip of course is the Holy Grail for all who practice their craft in the NCAA, and something Coach Magee knows quite well, leading Philadelphia University to the title in 1970. Luckily for me, that topic helped egg Coach on to reflect a little bit on some of his past achievements. In truth, to single out any particular memory or try to establish a hierarchy across such a massive body of work is impossible, but in a lifetime full of great times, there are some that do stick out. Looking back, Coach Magee commented, “The most rewarding coaching experience is the National Championship my third year. I don’t know if they were the best team I ever coached, but they just gelled at the right time. I have tremendous amount of respect for anyone that wins championships in basketball, because all it takes is one bump in the road, one lucky shot, one turnover, and you’re out. I can’t say which team was the best, but that team was the most gratifying.”
And what of Philadelphia University itself, the place that has played host to the immense lifework of Coach Magee? What has it been about this institution that has kept him there despite the offers and opportunities with bigger fish and bigger money? “Something inside me always told me each and every time I had an offer that I should stay. I couldn’t point out the reason, but it’s something like a gut check. My gut told me that I always wanted to live here because of family and friends. This place was home. But also, the university has always given me the opportunity to run the program as I want to. Never any interference. We can recruit and win here. We have a new facility. And every time something came a long, I’d think about it, but Philadelphia University would stay in my gut as the place I’m supposed to be.” In the modern NCAA era, a period of time perhaps most defined by the careerism of coaches like Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban, the loyalty of Magee to his hometown University is all the more impressive. He serves as a reminder of a time when coaches felt a real responsibility and fidelity to their community and institution. And though those days are long gone, Coach Magee will continue putting up the good fight as teacher and leader of men. He’ll continue to lead the Philadelphia University men’s basketball team, he’ll continue working on instructional shooting DVD’s with his daughter Kay, he’ll continue the summer circuit and driving home the necessity of the follow-through and correct placement of the guide hand for anyone who hopes to become a good shooter. This is what he does, and this is who he is. All the milestones are merely peripheral.
When prodded about what he’d like his legacy to be, Magee eventually responded, “I’d be most proud of just being a good guy. Treating people the right way. I think that’s how I’d want to be remembered.” That much is as inevitable as the presence of Coach Herb Magee patrolling the sidelines next season at Philadelphia University.