Coles loves coaching too much to quit

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

BY JOHN FAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Charlie Coles yells from the bench during an exhibition game last week.
(Ernest Coleman photo)

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Charlie Coles woke up in intensive care, tethered to IVs and monitors. He couldn't talk because of the breathing tube in his throat. He gestured for the nurse to get him a pen and something to write on. He scratched out a question.

"Did we win?"

Yes, he was told, you won.

Coles had coached 8 1/2 minutes of a Mid-American Conference Tournament game when he collapsed on the floor, his heart in full cardiac arrest. For 20 minutes, while a stunned crowd of 4,300 stood in total silence, he laid there on the brink of life and death, while doctors worked frantically to revive him. (March 1 story)

His Miami University basketball team went on to beat Central Michigan, but it was the coach's last game of the 1997-98 season. Now, two days before Miami opens its new season against Notre Dame, Charlie Coles is making good on a decision he made the day he woke up in that hospital bed:

He is back coaching Miami.

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Miami star Wally Szczerbiak hugs coach Charlie Coles in March after Coles got out of the hospital.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Coles is not the kind of coach you see every night on ESPN. He isn't rich or famous. But ask him and he'll tell you he has the best job in the world, in the best place in the world. Coles loves Miami. And he loves coaching because of his relationships with the players. "Just to have the guys calling me 'Coach,' " I would miss that."

Coming back was not a question for Coles.

"He decided right after he woke up," his wife, Delores, said. "It was a done deal."

"I never considered giving it up," Coles said. "I love it too much. If the doctor said it was OK, I was going to come back."

A teacher first

Coles never expected to end up coaching at Miami. That he did is a perfect ending to a fulfilling career as a teacher-coach. The ties were already there. Miami is his alma mater. He is in the school's Hall of Fame. His wife is from Oxford.

Coles grew up in Springfield, Ohio. He went to live with his grandparents in Yellow Springs after he was cut from the Springfield Junior High team.

"I originally went down there to work," he said. "I was the best dishwasher ever in the residence hall at Antioch College."

The coach at Bryan High School heard a kid who played a little basketball had moved to town. He convinced Coles to come out. His senior year, Coles led the state in scoring at 42.1 points per game, which is believed to be second-highest in Ohio high school history.

He had offers from bigger schools, but then-coach Dick Shrider sold him on Miami. "He was a phenomenal recruiter," Coles said. "I could have gone to bigger schools, but Miami was my first choice."

Coles thrived at Miami, averaging in double figures all three of his varsity years. It was there he met Delores.

"We met through a friend," she said. "He had a broken leg. I remember that. I don't remember what I first thought of him. But it was probably his eyes that attracted me. He has wonderful eyes. They just draw you in."

Coles' first job was teaching physical education and serving as an assistant coach at Sycamore High School. He spent two years there, and two years as an assistant at Springfield Shawnee. At 27, he landed his first head coaching job at his old high school.

Three years later, he was hired as head coach at Saginaw High School in Michigan, a perennial state power. He spent 10 years there, running up a 208-43 record.

"I was happy there," he said. "I thought it was the best job in the world. I loved being a high school coach."

But in 1981 Don Sicko, a good friend of Coles', became head coach at Detroit. Coles spent three years as Sicko's assistant before becoming head coach at Central Michigan in 1985.

A few days before the season began, Coles was jogging when something went terribly wrong.

"I couldn't move," he said. "I couldn't go anywhere."

It was his heart. He had bypass surgery Nov. 25, 1985. Six weeks later, he coached his first game at CMU.

Coles went 22-6 and took the team to the NCAA Tournament in his second year at Central. He went 19-13 and finished second in the MAC the next year. But the next three seasons, his team never finished above .500. He resigned under pressure.

"Some things happened off the court that I didn't like," he said. "I don't want to get into them."

Coles returned to teaching and coaching at the high school level at Toledo Central Catholic. Again, he was happy - most of the time. "The second-worst thing in the world is teaching ninth-graders," Coles says. "The worst is to have a ninth-grade class the last period of the day."

Coles is kidding, as he often does. He liked the teaching as much as coaching.

"I never had less than five classes," he said. "I always wanted five. Some of my best friends are people I taught, but didn't coach."

Again, someone called with a job offer he could not refuse. Herb Sendek, the new young coach at Miami, wanted him as an assistant.

"If it was anywhere other than Miami I wouldn't have taken it," Coles said. But it was his chance to go back. So in 1993, at the age of 52, almost twice the age of most college assistant coaches, he took the job as Miami's top assistant. He was coming home to Miami, and though he didn't know it, to the dream job he never expected to get.

A player's coach

The most important statistic to Charlie Coles is not the number of games he won, it's the number of friends he's made.

When Coles was lying in the hospital last winter, it was the threat of losing all those player-coach relationships that brought him back, back to 12-hour days, the recruiting, the all-night bus rides.

Now, it is eight months after the ordeal in Kalamazoo, Coles is sitting in his office, dressed in a Miami warm-up suit. He has been watching a video of Bobby Knight on motion offense. He has taken a break to explain why he came back.

"There are two kinds of coaches. There are the guys who win all - or at least most - of their games. They coach the great players and the great teams. They win the awards and championships.

"There are the coaches who have the ups and downs. They have the good years and bad years. I'm that kind of coach. I wasn't going to famous or be a household name. That's OK.

"I've had the relationships with my players and teams, just like the famous coaches. I think part of it is I'm selfish," he said. "I couldn't give this up. I need those relationships."

But none of the players whose lives he has touched would call him selfish.

"He's a father figure to his players," said Jermaine Henderson, who played for Coles and is now an assistant on his staff. "He is genuinely concerned about them. He'll do anything he can to help a guy."

Coles is a 56-year-old man who relates best to 22-year-olds. "I like being around them more than being around other adults," he said.

The door to his office, 200 paces from center court at Millett Hall, is always open. Coles always has time to chat. He calls each players by nicknames he has given them. Wally Szczerbiak is "World," short for "Wally World." Damon Frierson is "Smooth." Anthony Taylor is "A-Train."

Coles' life is basketball and Miami. His two children are grown. Delores has her own business making and selling miniature dolls. "I don't do a lot socially," he said. "My wife and I might go to see a movie, but she has her own thing. A lot of times at night I'll come over to the gym and watch film."

This year's Miami team would have been hard for any coach to walk away from. Coles has coached for 34 years, and this year's team has the makings of his best ever. Szczerbiak attracted preseason All-America attention, and Frierson, the other senior, is as good.

Recovery

The afternoon Charlie Coles almost died was a cold February day in Kalamazoo.

Coles was coaching Miami in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Tournament. One second, he was hollering for someone to pick up Western Michigan guard Jason Kimbrough in transition. The next, he was flat on his back in full cardiac arrest.

Delores, and their two children, Chris, 29, and Mary, 24, were in the stands and watched the medical personnel pound his chest, working furiously to restart Charlie Coles' heart.

Doctors got Coles' heart restarted on the sideline. If Coles' heart had stopped almost any other place than courtside - where medical personnel and emergency equipment were nearby - he likely would have died. He spent a week in a Kalamazoo hospital.

Strictly speaking, Coles did not suffer a heart attack. His heart stopped, but there was no damage. After the soreness of strenuous CPR wore off, and the black eye from his fall faded, he was basically healthy. The road to recovery over the next six months would be more mental than physical.

Coles credits Delores, his wife of 34 years, for getting him through the ordeal.

If Delores had asked him to quit, he would have, but she didn't. "It was his decision," she said. "I couldn't take that away from him. When he walks into the that gym he's at his happiest. That's his passion."

Coles admits that in the months right after the incident an ache or pain would frighten him. But gradually his confidence grew. "The last month or so, as I got into coaching, I didn't think much about it."

Coles' concession to his brush with death was a resolution to take it easier this year, not let little things worry him, be calmer, more relaxed.

So how is that going so far?

"A complete, total failure," he said.

"If anything, he's been a little harder on us," Szczerbiak said. "He knows that this has a chance to be a special year."

The reason Coles has pushed himself is that he feels as good as 56-year-old man can.

Doctors have inserted a defibrillator in Coles' chest, which is supposed to be better at controling his heartbeat than a pacemaker. He takes blood pressure medicine, a blood thinner to prevent clots, and another pill to strengthen his heart.

"All these medications make it possible for me to coach," he said. "I'm in pretty good shape. But those medications give me more confidence."

Coles watches what he eats and he works out every day. Delores is proud of his effort. "He walks three miles to work everyday. That's something I couldn't do." On days he drives, he'll work out on a treadmill at Millett or walk the campus.

He starts out walking.

"But I get impatient and start running. I think because I run it gets me in better shape."

That allows him to push it a little harder on the job, which he feels is his duty.

"I'm not going to cheat the players," he said. "If I'm back coaching then I'm all the way. I don't want people saying, 'He lets other people do everything.' That wouldn't be fair.

"I was either going to coach or not coach. I wasn't going to coach a little bit."

Back at Miami

When Sendek left after three years for the top job at North Carolina State, Coles was almost an automatic choice to replace him as Miami's head coach. Coles still had to go through the formal interview process, one part of which still amuses him.

"Someone on the committee asked me if I could sell Miami," he said. "Please. If they had a contest on selling Miami, I'd be better than anyone in the world - or at least tie for No. 1. I love this place."

Coles put his own mark on the program. His teams play much faster than Sendek's. And he brings the touch of "a players' coach," but that doesn't mean he's soft, it means he cares.

"He's one of those people you just fall in love with once you've been around him so long," said former Miami star Devin Davis.

"Kids need attention," Coles said. "That goes for ninth-graders and college basketball players. I taught 19 years. I think I tried to be a teacher as much as I tried to be a coach."

Last season was a struggle. The team started the year with just four returning players. Point guard Rob Mestas, who was coming off knee surgery, never fully recovered and ended up redshirting. Szczerbiak broke his wrist and missed eight games. A team that started the season playing well above expectations struggled just to make the MAC Tournament.

The team's best game came while Coles was in the cardiac care unit. Enduring a two-hour delay after Coles collapsed, and not certain whether their coach would make it, the RedHawks beat Western Michigan. Then they beat Kent State in the MAC semifinals. Both wins were upsets. The RedHawks finally lost to Eastern Michigan in the finals.

With all five starters back - plus Mestas and two transfers - Miami is picked to win the MAC this year. Coles has two years left on a four-year contract. He says he'll coach as long as "they let me."

When pressed, Coles admits that Friday's opener against Notre Dame is like none in his 34 years as a coach.

"I thank God for giving me the determination to stick with the race," he said. "I don't know what the prize is going to be . . . maybe it'll just the satisfaction of sticking with it."