- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
When asked to explain why he called then-Missouri coach Norm Stewart "Francis the Talking Mule," Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs "apologized" thusly:
"I got Mr. Ed, the talking TV horse, mixed up with Francis the Talking Mule from the movies. I meant to say, 'mule,' because a mule is not a thoroughbred. A jackass is a thoroughbred, but a mule is a cross, I think, between a jackass and a horse. I think a mule is worse than a jackass."
Told he was likely to be fired during the season, little-known Southwest Minnesota State coach Pierre duCharme once had his team carry him to the bench in a casket.
John Chaney, as we all know by now, threatened to kill John Calipari. And Bob Knight did, in fact, murder a chair.
And Pete Carril, lit cigar in hand, once waddled over to James Taylor and impolitely asked the singer to "shut the [heck] up," since his sound check was interrupting Princeton's practice.
Those, my friends, were the days, the days when characters -- uninhibited, unafraid and unapologetic -- ruled the sidelines. They were a little kooky, a touch controversial and a lot entertaining, adored for their showmanship, yet still revered for their principles, interesting even if they could be, at times, alienating.
They made the game of college basketball just that: a game.
We never realized their days were numbered.
When, in 2006, Chaney quietly rasped Frank Sinatra's "excuse me while I disappear," it wasn't just the Temple coach who was headed off to retirement; he was taking his era into the sunset with him.
It was an era of fearless and unfiltered coaches, men who could be a little controversial without fear of recrimination or termination; men who could be a lot off color without worry of a social media firestorm.
"I couldn't wait to hear what was going to come out of Lefty [Driesell]'s mouth or see what was going to happen with the family feud between Wimp Sanderson and Sonny Smith," said former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who once memorably painted his chest orange in support of the Lady Vols basketball team. "You'd go to a banquet with Johnny Orr and you'd be bent over laughing, but every other word out of his mouth wasn't a household word. Can you do that today?"
And that's really the essence of it all.
It's not that there aren't characters in the game anymore. There are plenty. It's just that their personalities and their convictions have been muted.
The combination of high stakes and social media has robbed the game -- and maybe the world in general -- of some of its fun. There is too much to lose to risk offending anyone and too many Internet highways to burn the politically incorrect trespasser.
"If those guys then had social media monitoring their every move and every word, just think about that," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.
Think he's overstating it? Consider this past season alone.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams was called out for being disrespectful and immature. His crime? Celebrating a Marquette win at West Virginia by two-stepping to "Country Roads."
Iowa's Fran McCaffery was vilified for slamming a chair in a huddle, even though his frustration was directed at his team.
Calipari nearly ignited a civil war when he tweaked Louisville and its fan base by saying his was the only college basketball program in the state of Kentucky.
"I just think," Pearl said, "there are less people who can take a joke anymore."
No doubt the triple threat of a camera phone, Instagram and Twitter has stifled plenty. Every word can be viral in 10 seconds, every misdeed captured and stored online for eternity.
Larry Eustachy's entire career was derailed because of a camera phone. Ultimately more good came out of that than bad -- he was forced to confront his alcoholism -- but there's no doubt this fireable offense wouldn't have been public knowledge before the world was filled with cell phone-carrying paparazzi.
If you say something off color at what is supposed to be an in-house booster luncheon, it will no doubt be flying around the Twittersphere before you leave the dais.
If you sit innocently at a bar with a group of friends, someone will snap a picture and post it, and if you have a little fun or act a little goofy, you've created a life of infamy.
"Anybody can tweet something or post something, whatever it is they do, and it takes a life of its own," Huggins said. "It doesn't have to be true and, for the most part, you don't even know who did it. It's a very cowardly way of doing business, but it doesn't matter. It can ruin your career."
Mix all of that with skyrocketing salaries, enormous pressure, a react-first-ask-questions-second society and uneasy -- or even insecure -- administrators who aren't willing to ride out a storm with a coach, and you've got justifiable paranoia.
"I think sometimes people are just afraid," said Coppin State's Fang Mitchell, who proudly considers himself a Chaney disciple. "Jobs are so scarce. We are in a field that has  Division I jobs. To keep your job, it's easier to just be politically correct."
Chaney gave more than one Temple president pause. He stoked unpopular fires and never backed down from a fight, railing against Prop 48 and championing disadvantaged kids. His stances weren't always smart or popular -- in 2005 he admitted to using a player he called a "goon" to commit hard fouls against Saint Joseph's, leaving John Bryant with a broken arm.
Yet he weathered the storms and ultimately was able to leave on his own terms.
"I'd say something or do something and the phone would ring," Chaney said. "[Former Temple president] Peter Liacouras would call me and say, 'John, you know I love you; what am I going to do with you?' And I said, 'Geez, I don't know. I made a mistake. I'm sorry.' And that was it. That was the end of it."
But Chaney was a legend, a man who had earned the chance to make a few mistakes by building a Hall of Fame résumé. He had equity with his administration.
"I think that's the part that is hard to know anymore -- do I have enough equity to be me?" Pearl said.
Tim Miles is one of the few today who's decided to roll the dice.
Born and raised in South Dakota, he grew up watching small college coaches use their personalities to drum up excitement where otherwise there might be none. He remembers duCharme's casket and Northern State's Bob Wachs, who ditched the bench for a seat in the stands long before Jimmy Patsos did it at Loyola.
In tiny outposts they were the draw, the guys who made the games entertaining even if the actual X's and O's weren't.
He vowed to stay true to those roots and has managed to do so, even after crossing into the so-called big time. Before he landed at Nebraska, Miles created a name for himself with his halftime tweets and the reality show centered on his Colorado State basketball team.
"Coaches would say, 'Are you nuts?'" Mile said. "And I'd say, 'Well, yeah, I guess I am.' But when I started out, I said I'm going to lose a lot of games, but I'm not going to lose my sense of humor. I grew up with guys who had those infectious personalities. Who doesn't want to be around that? So as long as we're about the right things, as long as when we cross the lines it's a different deal, we're going to have some fun."
Unfortunately, fun is rarely a descriptor for college athletics these days. There is still entertainment in the game thanks to ridiculously talented players, but it's not that same carefree joy.
It's not goofy.
It's not silly.
Some, of course, might argue that basketball is a business and that there is little to smile about in a cutthroat profession that values winners, not entertainers.
There's certainly some truth to that. A boring coach who wins is more popular than a fun coach who loses.
Still, there's a tradeoff.
"What's our game lost? It's the same as what our society has lost," Huggins said. "Think about it. It used to be that the leaders of the country said what was on their mind regardless of whether it was popular. Now we're all so guarded in everything we say. Nobody takes a stand. We've become a very vanilla society. Why would sports be any different?"
Characters have always ruled the sidelines. But the era of camera phones, social networks and political correctness have stifled today's personalities. And the college hoops entertainment value has taken a hit because of it.