Friday, March 19, 1999

Coles' love conquers fear

Coaching game too great a joy to sacrifice

Charlie Coles: "I can't give up the excitement of the game or of being a coach."
(Gary Landers photo)
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        ST.LOUIS — Charlie Coles has done death. His heart made an unscheduled stop last season at Western Michigan, and only the proximity of physicians brought him back from The Great Beyond.

        The head basketball coach of Miami University counts his blessings on a daily basis — lately, the list is long — but he continues to put his ticker to the test in the cardiac cauldron that is college basketball. In his mind, there is no contradiction, for Coles is more interested in living than he is in longevity.

        “My life's goal was to coach all my life,” he said Thursday afternoon, “and I'm almost there.”

        He has cut back on caffeine. He has cut out fried chicken. He has abandoned roast beef as a concession to the doctors. But the one flavor Coles can't forsake is the thrilling taste of games. He is hooked on hoops, knowing full well how hard it can be on his health. He has sworn off other vices so that he might absorb more stress.

        “I don't see how it could be good for me,” he admitted, holding court in a hallway of the Trans World Dome. “But it's so tough to stop. I can give up coffee. I've had a cup and a half of coffee since the incident, and I love coffee. I've never smoked. But I can't give up the excitement of the game or of being a coach. Coaching is a calling. I really believe that.”

        He is 57 years old, doing the only job he ever wanted. Charlie Coles thought he had a pretty good gig when he was coaching the junior varsity at Sycamore High School, and he has fairly

        floated through this magical March. Tonight, Miami makes its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 against mighty Kentucky. A life's work has been rewarded.

        “It's his dream come true,” said Delores Coles, the coach's wife of 35 years. “We've seen other coaches go through it, younger than he, but now Charlie is finally getting his turn.”

Coles is tourney's heart
        Wally Szczerbiak is the sensation of this tournament. Charlie Coles is its humanity, its heart. He has none of the calculated cool and exaggerated ego of the Armani coaches, and all of the wide-eyed wonder of a child at the circus.

        After his RedHawks stunned Utah on Sunday in New Orleans, thereby advancing to the Sweet 16, Coles was asked how much more his tender heart could take.

        “All of it that's in store,” he said, punching the air with a roundhouse right.

        Relatively speaking, Coles is not really at risk. A defribillator implanted in his chest should correct any more ventricular irregularities that might arise. Dr. Steve Dailey, Miami's team physician, says Coles is probably healthier now — both physically and mentally — than he was before his heart stopped.

        “He has a much different perspective on a lot of things,” Dailey said. “He certainly has a better focus on the big picture. Little things are not going to bother him as much. ...

        “It's a stressful job. Being a fireman is a stressful job. Being a teacher can be a stressful job. But there's a lot less stress involved if you're doing something you love.”

        Coles' joy in his job is both obvious and infectious. He is as aggressive about hugging his players as he is about hectoring the referees.

        “I guess (the doctors) told him not to be as intense,” senior guard Damon Frierson said. “But he seems the same or even more intense than before.”

        “We have fewer arguments,” Delores Coles said. “That's for sure. But out there on the floor, unless you put him in a wheelchair, I don't know how you get him to calm down.”

Plenty of coaching left
        Where Coles has cut back is behind the scenes. Instead of studying film till 3a.m., he has started delegating more responsibility to his assistant coaches and is often in bed before 10p.m.

        Miami point guard Rob Mestas says he “assumed” Coles was finished coaching when he collapsed at Western Michigan. But the decision was never really in doubt.

        When he first regained consciousness in the hospital, Coles was unable to speak because of an oxygen mask. So he reached for a pen and paper and scrawled, “We Won?” three times to be sure his players had prevailed in his absence.

        He would coach again, or he would die trying.

        “Don't get me wrong,” he said. “I've given thanks almost every hour since that happened. I'll drive down the highway and say, "Thank you, Lord.' ... But as a coach, there's always something else to do. You don't get a chance to really reflect.

        “There were five doctors at that game that day. Why there were five doctors that day at Western Michigan, I don't know. They saved my life. I was gone, and they brought me back. But now, I don't think a lot about that. I think about the Big Blue (of Kentucky). They can scare you, too.”

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