- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

If Doug Collins, Gary Williams, Craig Esherick or any of the area's other basketball coaches feel the need for sage advice, there's a pretty good roster of ex-geniuses in these parts.
For years, Washington has qualified as a hotbed of basketball talent at all levels except, usually, the NBA. Now it also has become a haven for retired coaches who have done more than most of the current set could ever hope to accomplish.
Let's see: Georgetown's John Thompson lay down his scowl and towel four years ago and has been joined in the last two months by DeMatha High School's Morgan Wootten and Georgia State's Lefty Driesell. (Because the Lefthander plans to relocate from Atlanta to his native Tidewater, he makes our list of regional retired experts.)
And then there's longtime Washingtonian Red Auerbach, who lit his last victory cigar with the Boston Celtics in 1966. When and if these guys get together, it might be the biggest collection of brainpower in D.C. since, to steal a felicitous phrase from President John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson dined alone. All these guys except Lefty occupy space in the Basketball Hall of Fame; he should have joined them long ago and undoubtedly soon will.
The departure of Wootten and Driesell, who worked a couple of miles apart off U.S. Route 1 in Prince George's County for many years, should make all of us feel older. After all, Morgan began turning out prep powerhouses at DeMatha in 1956, and Lefty commenced stomping college sidelines five years later at Davidson.
Both retired at 71, which almost makes Auerbach and Thompson seem like dropouts. Red was just 48 and Big John 57 when they found other things to do with their lives. (In Thompson's case, conduct a pallid talk radio show during which he inanely and incessantly refers to a partner in crime as "Smokin'" Al Koken.)
Obviously, the understanding that it's time to hit the road comes to coaches at different times. The unquestioned poster boy for coaching and managing longevity remains Connie Mack, who directed the old Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years until he was 87 and had endured 17 last-place finishes. It helped that Connie also owned the ballclub.
It's tough for team leaders to surrender power, particularly at the college level, where they often establish little fiefdoms. Yet every coach realizes sooner or later or should that the hour has come. For some, the decision is reached gradually. For others it arrives as a stroke of lightning, or perhaps enlightening. Driesell, for one, woke up New Year's Day and told his wife, in effect, "I feel lousy, and I don't want to do this anymore."
Said DeMatha's Wootten: "I remember talking to Coach [John] Wooden about his retiring. He told me it came to him after UCLA had won in the semifinals of the Final Four [in 1975]. He was being escorted to the interview room to meet the media when he suddenly realized, 'I don't want to go there.' He went to the locker room instead and told his players, 'I know you'll do well in the championship game Monday night. And you are the last team I'll ever coach.'"
Wootten said he began thinking about retirement after the liver transplant that saved his life in 1996. That crisis provided him with a new goal at the age of 65 to prove he could coach and win again. But after last season, he said, "we had so many seniors and such a great team and that 18-game winning streak, and it just seemed the perfect time to go like the stars were aligned right."
So Wootten pulled a Wooden and now the most successful high school and college coaches of all time are counting their basketball blessings in presumably blissful retirement.
Less accomplished coaches sometimes jump before they are pushed when the losses start to come more frequently. Asked last fall if he had considered retiring, Florida State football icon Bobby Bowden, 74, replied, "Why should I? I love what I do. Of course, if we started losing I couldn't stand that."
Geriatric coaches, however, are nothing new. Phog Allen was 66 when he won the NCAA basketball tournament with Kansas in 1952. Dick Vermeil admitted to being 63 when he won the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams three Januarys ago. Casey Stengel (1958) and George Halas (1963) won a World Series and NFL title, respectively, at 68. (Casey, of course, authored the greatest age-related sports quote of all time after being fired by the New York Yankees in 1960: "I'll never make the mistake of turning 70 again.") And the San Francisco Giants were striking a blow for senior citizens everywhere recently when they anointed Felipe Alou, 67, as their latest skipper.
Ultimately, each man must decide for himself when he's had enough of the constant pressure that accompanies coaching or managing a highly visible sports team. Some age quickly under the burden; others throw off the years and cares like another foolish question from a rookie reporter.
In other words, big-time coaches are just like the rest of us mere mortals and just as vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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