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Philadelphia U's Magee has made victory routine

The sun isn't up, the morning news isn't even on, but Herb Magee won't sleep. He never does, not past 4:45 anyway. He has things to do, beginning with easing his wife, Geri, into consciousness so they can walk a few miles around a quiet subdivision in nearby Wayne before most sane people are awake.

The sun isn't up, the morning news isn't even on, but Herb Magee won't sleep. He never does, not past 4:45 anyway. He has things to do, beginning with easing his wife, Geri, into consciousness so they can walk a few miles around a quiet subdivision in nearby Wayne before most sane people are awake.

Geri's not a morning person, but Herb, he thrives within the familiar constraints of a routine. He walks the same route, shops at the same grocery store, has the same breakfast of bran cereal, blueberries, and an English muffin today as he did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

His commitment to consistency doesn't make Magee unique in his chosen profession of college basketball coach, but the longevity of that commitment does. Magee is the lifer to beat all lifers. He went to Philadelphia Textile - now Philadelphia University - in 1959, and he never left. He entered the university as a boy with a basketball and a sweet shot, and 50 years later, Magee has two daughters, two granddaughters, and 902 wins.

With a 70-67 victory yesterday at Post University in Waterbury, Conn., Magee tied Bob Knight for the NCAA career-wins record. With a win Tuesday night at home against Goldey-Beacom College of Wilmington, he will surpass the legendary coach and own one of college basketball's holiest records. Adolph Rupp held it once at 876. Dean Smith parked at 879. Knight has had it for but a blink at 902. And soon, it will be Magee's at 903. And counting.

That Magee has done it in the relative obscurity of Division II might dilute the achievement for some. Knight, Smith, and Rupp were titans in Division I, where big budgets and top recruits translated into annual national title aspirations, while Magee has operated with small budgets against much smaller schools. Still, those in the profession who know Magee swear he would be successful at any level.

The achievement?

"I don't think about it," Magee said after Win No. 901, Wednesday night in a tiny gym in West Philly.

He might not, but lots of other people are thinking about it, like those at the university, and those who are basketball historians, and those in the media, and those who love him, like Geri.

Besides, with all this snow on the ground, there's an extra hour in the day to think about wins and losses and legacies, because those walks, they're not happening as regularly, at least not right now. It's too cold and too treacherous to walk four miles.

Geri still can't sleep, though. The weather hasn't totally disturbed her husband's morning ritual. Like he has ever since they got married 14 years ago, Magee still flicks on the television at 4:45 a.m. and mutes the volume until he can wake Geri up at 5.

A routine, after all, is a routine, and why mess with success?

Just win, baby

Herb Magee is not happy, and it's not because what was supposed to be Win No. 901 is slipping away. Well, it is and it isn't. Magee wants Win No. 901 but not because it's No. 901. He wants it because it's a game, and he wants to win them all, whether it's H-O-R-S-E, a round of golf, or another in an endless stream of college basketball games.

On this night, Magee wants to beat the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and it's not going well. Magee has a strong team, with four senior starters and two talented freshmen, that has won 21 of 27 games this season, but in the first half they're all struggling against USP's zone defense. They're getting outrebounded, particularly on the offensive glass, and they're missing outside shots and free throws, and not hustling.

It's too much to bear, particularly for a detail-driven purist who, legend has it, has never missed two shots in a row.

"You're standing around staring at the basketball," Magee barks at his players during a time-out midway through the first half, with Philadelphia University trailing, 21-9. "What's the matter with you? C'mon. That's about their seventh offensive rebound."

At halftime, the Rams trail, 31-22, and Magee walks off the court yelling something at an official who didn't call a foul even though one of Magee's freshmen, Eddie DiRugeris, was knocked to the floor while attempting a three-pointer.

"What's the score?" Temple coach Fran Dunphy said over the phone while riding a bus with his team up to St. Bonaventure. Dunphy had called, coincidentally at halftime, to talk about his friend. Told the Rams were losing, Dunphy said, "I'm sure Coach Magee will figure it out, and they'll be victorious."

Magee has figured things out his entire life. He's had to. His mother died when he was 12 years old, his father a year later. At first, the family was going to split up Magee and his three brothers, but instead they stayed in their house at 45th and Baltimore with Uncle Joe, and Uncle Edwin, a priest at a parish in North Philly, took charge.

It was about this time that Magee began sneaking into the gym at St. Francis de Sales. The church was only a few blocks from his house, and an old, metal side door gave just enough so that Magee and his friends could squeeze in. Magee would flip on the lights and play on the green concrete floor for hours, his confidence growing with each shot through the forgiving rims.

"The only time I'd ever get thrown out was if somebody was upstairs in the auditorium or on Sunday when there was Mass," Magee said. "The priest would send somebody in to chase us out."

Magee wasn't very big, but his dreams were. He wanted to play for West Catholic High, the basketball mecca of the neighborhood. The only way Magee figured he could make the team was as a shooter, so he studied Paul Arizin, the South Philly native who essentially created the jump shot and, in 1952 playing for the Philadelphia Warriors, led the NBA in scoring.

If the Warriors played three times in a week at the old Convention Hall, Magee would be there for two of the games, either paying the $1 admission or slipping through a side door opened by a friend and using the dollar to buy a hot dog and an orange soda.

Magee would start off in the rafters, but would spend much of the game moving down to the more expensive seats so he could get a better look.

He also studied Jack George, Neil Johnston, Bob Cousy, and Bill Sharman.

"I noticed right away to look at the rotation of the ball," Magee said. "I noticed right away that all the good ones would finish. I just spent hours and hours and hours looking. And I was constantly in the gym. Constantly."

The result was a silky smooth jumper that consistently went in, and that was enough to earn Magee a coveted spot on the West Catholic freshman team, then the junior varsity, and then the varsity. By his senior year, Magee was a starter - the resident shooter - alongside Jim Lynam, Jim Boyle, John Beck, and Jim Flavin. They won the Catholic League championship in 1959 before losing to Overbrook, which was led by future NBA players Walt Hazzard and Wali Jones, in the city championship.

They were West Philly royalty.

While Lynam and Boyle ended up at St. Joseph's, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Magee wasn't recruited by any of the Big Five schools. They thought the skinny kid was too frail.

But Bucky Harris at Textile wanted him. Harris mercilessly worked on Magee's Uncle Edwin, who was sold on the idea that Magee would get a useful education.

"I went because we did everything he said," Magee said. "First, you're not going to mess around with your uncle who was your legal guardian. Plus, he was a priest."

Magee was a perfect fit for Harris' weave offense, and he had the green light to shoot and score at will, which he did. For three seasons, Magee led all city schools in scoring average, and his 29.1 points per game in 1961-62 remain a school record.

"I thought how well he'd fit into my offensive patterns at Textile," Harris told the Evening Bulletin in 1961. "But he played so well in his senior year [at West Catholic] that I never thought I'd have a chance to get him. You can imagine my surprise when none of the big schools went after him. . . . He's the finest offensive player I've ever coached."

Magee scored 2,235 points in four years at Textile, a record that stood until Randy Stover broke it with 2,369 points from 1988 to 1992. As soon as Magee's playing career was over, Textile retired his No. 4 jersey. In 1963, the Boston Celtics drafted Magee, but he wasn't interested in trying to make the team. He already had accepted a job as assistant coach at Textile with Harris.

Four years later, in 1967, the 25-year-old Magee became the head coach, and the run of victories began. His first two teams won 21 and 20 games, and each reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. But Magee's 1969-70 team was his best. Those Rams went 29-2 and stunned everybody by winning the NCAA Division II tournament with a 76-65 victory over Tennessee State.

The coach was only 28 years old.

Job offers arrived with the mail, but while his boys Boyle and Lynam each took a turn coaching St. Joe's, nothing was ever attractive enough to take Magee away from Textile. What is true now was true then.

"Coaching is important to me," Magee told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1976, "but what I do with my life is what really counts. I want to live in the Philadelphia area. My family and friends are here. I'm an associate professor. I coach the golf team, which I really enjoy. This is where I can fulfill my needs as a person."

It seems to Magee as if it were yesterday, which is why he was so irritated with his team in the first half against USP. He had taught his players to play better, and they usually did, but college players are still kids, and they don't always listen.

But in the second half, the Philadelphia University Rams came to play, as Dunphy had suggested. Senior swingman Marcus Lemon finally pulled the Rams even at 35-35 with a high, arcing three-pointer that made his coach proud. Lemon's form was textbook - good elevation, pronated wrist, perfect follow-through he held as the ball swished through the net.

With 3 minutes, 48 seconds remaining, Magee called a time-out after USP retook the lead, 48-45, on a three-pointer. He had to get Lemon, who'd been on the bench with four fouls, back in the game, and he designed a play for freshman guard Jim Connolly called Overload Jimmy. With a series of decoys and misdirections, the play usually results in an open shot for Connolly, and it did this time.

As Connolly's shot was in the air, Magee kicked out his right leg, then his left, and clapped his hands together as the ball bounced out. "Make the shot," Magee yelled at Connolly.

"This is torture," said Geri, his wife.

But it got better. With less than two minutes to go, Connolly got a three to fall when he faked, then stepped around his defender. When Lemon hit another three, the game was theirs. Magee had 901.

"The most important thing he's taught me is confidence," said Connolly, who hit the winning three-point shot yesterday as time expired. "He tells me all the time, 'When you're open, you should shoot the ball. Never think about when you pass up open shots. That hurts you.' "

About 100 people in the brightly lit gym witnessed the game. Cheerleaders. Players. Friends and family. And a smattering of students.

"He can take great satisfaction in knowing he's as good as anybody in our sport over a long, long time," Dunphy said. "He's stood the test of time. He should feel a great sense of accomplishment in that, a great satisfaction. I'm sure that it does mean something to him. He won't tell you that, but I'm sure that it means a great deal to him, as well it should."

Staying home

The Philadelphia basketball coaching community is a tight one, and everyone has a story about Herb Magee. They all come down to two things: shooting and golf.

When Jay Wright was 15, he attended Dick DeLaney's basketball camp in the Poconos. Magee was a guest speaker. The topic was Magee's specialty: the jump shot.

Magee talked to the campers for an hour, shooting baskets all the while. He missed once, maybe twice. Wright fell in love. "He was my idol," the Villanova coach said.

As a high school senior at Council Rock, Wright boiled down his college choices to Bucknell and Textile. He chose Bucknell, but it took him three days to get the guts to call and tell Magee.

"That means I did a good job recruiting him," Magee said.

"It crushed me, but he's remained a great friend ever since," Wright said. "He's helped in my coaching career probably more than any guy in Philadelphia. He's touched everybody in some way. He either recruited you, taught you how to shoot, helped you with coaching, or you've had a beer with him."

The old blue-eyed Irishman likes his Michelob Ultras.

Magee has had more than a few with his high school buddy Lynam, but that didn't stop Lynam from pulling the plug on St. Joseph's contract with Textile the day after getting the head coaching job at St. Joe's in 1978. Lynam didn't want any part of Magee's team, because Lynam knew, probably better than anyone, just how dangerous Magee was.

"I called him and said, 'I'll play you one-on-one wherever you want to go, but Textile is off the St. Joe's schedule,' " said Lynam, now an assistant with the 76ers. "I couldn't afford to lose to Textile at that time. It was a strategic move on my part, like defending the post.

"He understood. He's a big guy. It's not about friendship. It was about my job."

Magee took it as a compliment, which it was.

He taught Charles Barkley how to shoot a free throw. It was a challenge, because Barkley had the attention span of a 3-year-old, but Magee did it by mixing in enough chatter about Barkley's other love - golf.

As he did with his shot, Magee taught himself how to play golf. He's got this thing - a gift? - in which he pronounces words and names backward. For instance, Barkley became Yelkrab. In the same way Magee can see words backward, he sees tricky athletic motions in precise detail. It's as if they are in slow motion.

Not that Magee needs to talk backward. He's just fine moving forward, especially on the golf course.

"He's like an Irish goodfella," said Pat Chambers, Magee's point guard at Philadelphia University from 1990 to '94 and the school's all-time assists leader. "It's one of the funniest 18 holes in your life. You might slice one, and he's got a one-liner for you. He's just waiting for it. You might have a seven-inch putt, and he tries to get in your head."

Chambers was on Wright's Villanova staff for five years; after last season, he became head coach at Boston University. For Chambers, like so many in the coaching profession, it is a peripatetic life.

Not for Magee. He never wanted to leave here, even though he could have and no one would have blamed him. But he had his girls, Eileen and Kay - Magee is long divorced from their mother - and then Kay's daughters, Katie and Karly, and then Geri.

Magee could have been a basketball nomad. But why? He isn't driven by money or fame. His needs are simple: a couple of weeks in the summer at a house on the beach at 32d Street in Ocean City, an annual September trip to Walt Disney World, and a membership at Edgmont Country Club, where he put his 13 handicap to good use.

He wears sweats to work, gets upward of $250 to speak at clinics, runs his own camps in the summers, and at 68 still has as smooth a jumper as he did back in the day. Just ask him.

Besides, after he got win No. 829 to establish the Division II record, the school gave Magee his own parking spot in the campus garage for his black Lexus, and just last week it installed a flat-screen television in his office.

He's happy here. It suits him. Always has.

"He's got a nice life," Chambers said. "He gets to go to the beach and spend time with his daughters and granddaughters. That's the way he wants it. Maybe he's smarter than all of us. We're chasing big dreams, and maybe he has it figured out and we don't."

Maybe Magee does.

He knows this: Walking is good exercise, and bran is essential to his diet, and blueberries are all the rage. His arthritic right shoulder is better, thanks to physical therapy, and his mind is sharp. He's not going anywhere, except to maybe another lap around the subdivision, if Geri, 17 years his junior, can keep up.

"I've never wanted to move," Magee said. "This is where I belong. This is where I want to be. This is where I'm going to stay. Any opportunities that came along, they were quickly answered 'no.'

"The thing about Patrick is, and good for Patrick, good for Jay, good for Phil [Martelli], they're making a lot of money. Jay is making a fortune, and he's earning every penny. Phil is earning every penny, and Patrick will earn every penny. I'm happy for those guys, but I don't really need every penny to make me happy. I'm happy doing what I do."

How much money does Magee make? "Not as much as you think," he said. "If I made what Jay made, I'd be telling you."

Last Sunday morning, a day after notching his 900th win, Magee and Geri were drinking coffee at their home in Berwyn, reflecting on the night before spent celebrating with friends. So much had changed between Win No. 1 and Win No. 900. The game is so much faster now with the shot clock and the three-point line, and the players, well, let's just say Magee never had to tell those early teams "let's play hard" or deal with guys who were unsatisfied with their number of "touches."

"You know," Magee said to his wife, "that's a lot of wins."

"Yeah, you're right," Geri said.

"The reason it's a lot is because nobody else has done it except Bobby Knight," Magee said. "I guess that makes it a lot. But I don't think there's any ceiling on it, or any place it's going to stop, because I'm keeping going."

To see a gallery of photos of Herb Magee, go to

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