Milwaukee Bucks: The pursuit to hire Al McGuire before expansion season

Once upon a time, the Milwaukee Bucks made an unsuccessful play to hire legendary Marquette University coach Al McGuire before the Bucks’ expansion season.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette University have been tied together throughout the vast majority of the Bucks’ 52-year history.

Of course, the Bucks and Marquette have shared the same arenas since 1974 from the MECCA, the Bradley Center and now, Fiserv Forum. But long before the Bucks and Marquette shared the same home with one another, the Bucks attempted to make a push to bring in one of Marquette’s legendary figures.

After the original Bucks ownership group of Marvin Fishman and Wes Pavalon were awarded an expansion franchise back in January 22, 1968, they had to start from the ground up in filling out the team’s entire identity both on and off the court.

For both Fishman and Pavalon, there was one person they thought could be the perfect coach for the startup Bucks: Al McGuire.

The legendary, Hall of Fame head coach was four seasons into his run leading the then-Warriors and was in the midst of turning around the school’s famed basketball program.

But the lure of the Bucks and the ownership’s push to hire McGuire led to the New York native looking to make the jump to the NBA following the 1967-68 NCAA season. And it would give the Bucks the cache and a smart, driven basketball mind to form the team’s early basketball identity going into their expansion campaign.

However, the Bucks’ pursuit of McGuire was squashed by the school who wouldn’t let the coach out of his contract, a decision that McGuire honored. But in classic McGuire fashion, he had a solid one-liner about the school’s decision to essentially shut the door on his NBA aspirations:

“The priests at Marquette take a vow of poverty,” he said somewhat bitterly, “and they expect you to abide by it.”

In an interview with PBS Milwaukee back in 1997, Fishman recalled courting McGuire and his interest in making the jump to the NBA as well as Marquette’s alumni intervening with the initial negotiations between Bucks ownership and McGuire:

“Al McGuire was our first thought because of the reputation he had gained at Marquette. But we did not, as a board, we could not reach out to Al without some good feeling on getting him. We sounded Al out and Al was in favor of a switch to the NBA. There was a meeting with Al, but he had a contract with Marquette…

So we talk to one of the fathers who was, more or less, in charge of the sports area and he was an important person on the faculty of Marquette. And he said, basically, “We love Al, but that’s OK. You can go ahead and make an offer to him.” Then, the Marquette alumni heard about it and raised a little bit of a press storm. Well, as much as we would have liked (McGuire), we did not want to appear here as a fresh franchise and who did they take? The coach of Marquette that everybody thought was so great. Al would have been a great coach.”

Fishman’s good faith aside, not all Bucks officials were happy with the outcome of McGuire staying at Marquette. Take the case of Bucks president Ray Patterson, who told Tom Oates of Madison.com back in 2011 McGuire was the reason for his arrival to the organization and having to steer the ship in the aftermath of saga:

“Al McGuire was supposed to take over when they first got the franchise and that’s why I invested in it, because he was such a name and a success story,” said Patterson, who is 89 and lives near Houston.

“Right after I put some money in it, the fathers at Marquette told Al McGuire he couldn’t leave. So here I am, a new investor, investing mostly in Al McGuire, and I went to the board meeting and they told me that Al McGuire wasn’t coming and that I had to take over because I was the only one with any basketball experience at all.

“So I toyed around with it and it really came down to the conclusion that I had invested enough money that I couldn’t leave it to unknowns.”

With the Bucks forced to search elsewhere, Fishman set his sights on Philadelphia 76ers head coach Alex Hannum, who had won an NBA title a year earlier with the Wilt Chamberlain-led squad. But after Hannum passed on the offer, he suggested his player-assistant coach and the man who would end up being the Bucks’ first head coach in franchise history, Larry Costello.

Again, here are Fishman’s words on eventually going with Costello from that aforementioned interview with PBS Milwaukee:

“I think Larry was our third choice. And a very good choice. We heard nothing but the best. I called up people he had played for in Philadelphia. They said if you could get that fellow, he’ll never sleep. He’ll work day and night. He’ll do it what it takes to get a ball cub there. Wes (Pavalon) and I met with Larry at a luncheon at O’Hare and after the luncheon, we looked at each other and thought this guy is so gung ho. We got to use him for our first coach because he’ll keep everybody in line. He’ll produce a good club. And he even volunteered to play if one of the guys got hurt (laughs).”

On April 3, 1968, close to two and a half months after becoming an NBA team, the Bucks hired Costello. And for good measure, they ended up selecting the 14-year veteran and five-time All-Star through the 1968 Expansion Draft, leaving Costello’s dreams of playing again alive if need be.

The latter never came to pass, obviously, but it was Costello who stewarded the Bucks for their first eight-plus seasons before abruptly resigning midway through the 1976-77 NBA season.

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Given that both Costello and McGuire led their respective squads to championships throughout the 1970s, I’d say all parties were happy with how everything turned out. But a nice “what if” question all the same that could have led to a different trajectory for the Bucks in their early years.

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