Friday, March 19, 1999

Coles says game 'less important to him' than relationships

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If you were worried about this Sweet 16 stuff going to Charlie Coles' head, worry no more.

        Coles has led Miami University into the third round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. His team has tied the school record for victories in a season. His teams have made two NCAA appearances and won 62 games in his three years as head coach.

        “I'm just a coach,” he says.

        And that's fine by him.

        “I've gone from high schools to colleges and back again,” he says. “It doesn't matter where I'm coaching. I'm going to be happy.”

        With Coles, the wins don't matter as much as the kids do. That's why he came back to coach after a cardiac arrest nearly killed him 13 months ago. That's why he was coaching a few months after bypass surgery in 1985.

        He says he wants this season to continue because it gives him more time with Wally Szczerbiak and Damon Frierson, his two senior stars.

        “I don't want to lose my two best friends,” he says.

        Coles' relationship with players doesn't end with basketball, and you don't have to be a star for him to care about you.

        “The game itself is less important to him than the relationships,” says son Chris, who followed his father into coaching. “He cares about kids.”

        One story illustrates that. Last week in New Orleans, the elder Coles hooked up with William Bond, who played point guard for him at Saginaw, Mich., in the 1980s. Bond introduced his fiancee and Coles started asking questions about her background and her plans.

        “William said, "See, I told you it was going to be like meeting my dad,'” Coles says. “I got to watch out for my boys.”

        Coles has stayed in touch with dozens of players. “I've been best man in a couple of weddings. With one guy, Phil Newsome, I was twice — in his first and third wedding.”

        Coles is a 57-year-old who loves hanging out with 21-year-olds. He's hip in a '60s kind of way.

        “He is,” says his wife of 34 years, Delores. “He's got the younger guys, (assistant coaches) James (Whitford) and Jermaine (Henderson) to help him with the language. You know how kids talk today.”

        “He relates to us,” says point guard Rob Mestas. “Coach played. He knows what players like to do.”

        “He loves us,” says center John Estick.

        “Charlie's this wily veteran,” Szczerbiak says. “We've learned a lot from him. We wouldn't be here without him.”

        When Coles took over from Herb Sendek in 1997, some people wondered whether Miami took a step back in quality to get stability. Mestas says those people are wrong.

        “There's no comparison from playing for Herb Sendek and playing for Coach Coles,” Mestas says. “Herb was a great Xs and Os coach. Coach Coles is great Xs and Os coach, and he's a players' coach. He cares about you on and off the court.”

        Coles knows what his mission is. Szczerbiak will play in the NBA, and Frierson will play professionally somewhere. The rest of the RedHawk players get on with their life's work when they are finished at Miami. He thinks he can make a difference in how well they do. He is as proud of Newsome, a high-ranking official with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, as he is of Dan Majerle, an NBA star.

        That's why Coles has been satisfied to coach in relative obscurity for all but three or four weeks of his career.

        “I'm always happy when our players get attention,” he says. “But I don't feel sorry for them when they don't. They're getting ready for life here. We're getting them ready for when this — basketball — ends.”

        Coles has loosened up considerably since he took over for Sendek, but he doesn't let his players run wild. Messrs. Frierson and Szczerbiak both graduate in May. Estick, a junior college transfer, learned Coles' rules the hard way.

        “Got him twice,” Coles said.

        Coles is referring to suspensions last year for minor violations.

        “My players usually end up liking me,” Coles says. “They might not like me in the middle very much. But it usually turns out all right.”

        Coles will get after players — just watch him on the sidelines tonight — but what he did at practice last week was more typical.

        Miami was wrapping up practice with a spirited, full-court scrimmage. Messrs. Szczerbiak and Frierson were on the same team and had the scrimmage under control until Mestas hit a three, forced a turnover on the other end, and then beat the defense for a layup.

        As the players turned and ran up-court, Coles ran onto the court and high-fived Mestas. “Way to go, Rob!” He was praising Mestas while lighting a fire under Messrs. Frierson and Szczerbiak.

        “That's what makes Charlie fun to play for,” Szczerbiak says.

        Coles' style and his relationship with the players didn't change after his heart problems last year.

        “We still have coach-player feuds,” he says.

        Coles wouldn't have it any other way. When he came back, he was going to come back all the way or not at all. His family supported that.

        Coles tried — and failed — to be more restrained on the sidelines.

        “I was going to be really mild,” he says. “But when that game starts, it's the most important thing in the world to me.”

        That's why on Wednesday afternoon, with 4,000 students waiting to send his team to St. Louis for the Sweet 16, Coles is thinking — rather worrying — about the Kentucky game.

        “All this is beautiful,” he says. “But I've been so nervous about a game in my life. ... I want to represent the university well.”

        You want to tell Coles the only reason they'd be let down is that he and his team have lifted them so high. You want to tell him that no matter what the score is tonight that a team has never represented its university better.

        But Coles is a coach and the next game is always more important than the last one.

        “He'll celebrate for about 20 minutes after,” his wife says. “You wish he could stop and enjoy it. This is a dream come true.”


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