GERRY FRIEL HAS A SPRING IN HIS STEP, A smile on his face and hope
in his heart as he walks across the University of New Hampshire
campus in Durham on a spectacular fall afternoon. ''Great day to be
alive,'' he exults. On the eve of his 20th season as New
Hampshire's basketball coach, Friel has the air of a man heading
straight for the Final Four.
He's not. In fact Friel, 45, is the losingest active Division I
basketball coach. By a landslide. Friel's career record of 184-313,
amassed entirely at New Hampshire, computes to a winning percentage
of .370. In 1986-87 his Wildcats went 4-24; last year they were 4-25.
Those two years taught the New Hampshire athletic department
something, says sports information director Mike Bruckner: ''You can
have a better record if you play fewer games.''
No. 2 on the active losers' list -- of those coaches who have
coached more than 10 years and more than 200 games -- is Rider coach
John Carpenter, and his record is a far better 287-305, for a winning
percentage of .485. ''I last because I have good rapport with the
athletic director,'' Carpenter says. Carpenter is the athletic
Friel is not his own boss, but he too has lasted -- for two
decades. An emotional coach who ''gives 200 percent blood and guts
every game,'' according to his mentor, Bob Cousy, Friel has stayed on
the job because he has his values in order. ''If you don't win, you
haven't lost it all,'' he says. ''The lessons learned from losing
allow you to survive against greater odds in life. I believe in
playing for the experience and for the sport. I coach because I know
it is worthwhile. I am a dreamer, and maybe a little bit unrealistic.
But I do know what's important is to give a kid the opportunity to be
in the arena.''
And happily for Friel, the administration at New Hampshire has
supported that attitude ever since the Wildcats started playing
basketball in 1902. Unhappily, that may all be about to change.
Friel and the University of New Hampshire -- a classy but not
flashy school with bedrock New England values -- have combined to
provide a textbook example of how basketball and books can coexist.
After serving as an assistant to Cousy at Boston College, Friel took
over the Wildcats in 1969. Since then, he has had 59 scholarship
players; an impressive 42 of those graduated. Most of the others left
in good standing; only five flunked out. That's a graduation rate
(not counting players who subsequently graduated elsewhere) of 71.2%,
compared with a national average of 33.3%.
What Friel has done is take students and try to develop them as
basketball players rather than take basketball players and try to
develop them as students. Says Buck Buchanan, a member of the
university board of trustees, ''What Gerry does is turn out gentlemen
and graduates, and that's the name of the game.''
However, the name of the game in college basketball is getting
topflight players, the majority of whom are black, and Buchanan
concedes that ''our program is inherently weak because we can't get
many blacks. This isn't prejudice or bigotry. It's just true.'' Rural
New Hampshire's small population of 920,000 is only 0.4% black, and
the composition of the university reflects that small percentage.
Derek Counts, the Wildcats' leading scorer last season, with 14.6
points per game, is black; he found his way to Durham from New York's
Lower East Side via a government ''fresh air'' program that sends
inner-city kids to rural schools. At high school in Vassalboro,
Maine, Counts did well in the classroom, excelled on the court and,
though only 5 ft. 9 in., became one of Friel's prime recruits. ''I've
second-myself about coming here,'' says a senior liberal arts major,
''but it could have been a lot worse. I could have gone where nobody
To New Hampshire's credit, the school's spokesmen are not
sanctimonious on the subject of academic standards for basketball
players. Stan Fish, the admissions director, says that the average
SAT verbal score for entering freshmen in 1986 was 494, while the six
scholarship basketball players admitted that year averaged 408; the
overall math average was 550, the players' was 496. It's a
New Hampshire's relatively strict academic standards constitute
only one reason that it's at the bottom of the pecking order among
the 293 Division I basketball schools. Says part-time assistant coach
Andy Johnston, ''Players want to play, win, travel and compete in
front of big crowds and on TV.''
Travel? Typically, New Hampshire, which plays in the ECAC North
Atlantic Conference, makes one airplane trip a year -- to Buffalo for
its league games against Niagara and Canisius -- and rides the bus to
the rest of its road games. Stunningly, Friel has arranged a two-game
trip to California this year (against Fresno State and St. Mary's) --
which prompted forward Dave Marshall to quip, ''It will be a lot more
fun to go to California and lose than to go to Providence and lose.''
And crowds? The highest home attendance last season was 411, for
the game against Northeastern. When last year's matchup with
Fairfield attracted 195 fans, Bruckner told the P.A. man,
''Tonight, instead of introducing the players, we're going to
introduce the crowd.''
The Wildcats often practice in the gym at the same time as the
gymnastics team. Until a year ago Friel didn't have a full-time
assistant, and he can't go far afield to recruit because part of his
$36,210 salary is for teaching theory of coaching basketball every
Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:10 a.m. What's more, Friel pays
$42 a year for a parking place at the gym.
Compounding Friel's difficulties is the fact that New Hampshire
isn't exactly a basketball hotbed. Mike Deane, coach of one of the
Wildcats' conference rivals, Siena, says, ''If they got the best
player in New Hampshire every year, they'd still be last in the
league.'' Few dispute the fact that Friel is a first-rate coach stuck
in a difficult situation. Skip Chappelle, a former coach at Maine,
says that when New Hampshire was his next opponent, ''it meant you
had to prepare longer and harder for Gerry than for any other
Perhaps it is a by-product of Friel's enthusiasm that some Wildcat
fans can't seem to recall just how bad things have been. Buchanan,
who's both a trustee and a rooter, says, ''I've never seen Gerry lose
by more than half a dozen points.'' In fact, last season New
Hampshire lost nine of its 13 home games by more than six.
But some people have been keeping count. Unfortunately for Friel,
New Hampshire president Gordon Haaland is one of them. ''A 4-25
record is not acceptable,'' says Haaland, who has been president
since 1983. ''It doesn't reflect well on the university, so I can't
ignore it. If we're going to bother with something, we ought to try
and do it well.'' In fact, on Feb. 29, Haaland asked Friel for a
letter of resignation; Friel refused. After a long stalemate,
Haaland, in June, agreed to let Friel coach this season, partly in
response to support for Friel voiced by various trustees and alumni.
Meanwhile, it seems that there is a motion in the student senate
to ask Haaland to resign -- for reasons unrelated to the Friel
situation. Says Friel, ''Haaland has bigger problems than winning
basketball games right now.'' It should be an interesting season.
Friel, who easily makes basketball's top 20 of good guys, has a wide
body of support. Cousy fumes that the school ''wants to have high
academic standards and spend no money on basketball -- and win. These
things are in direct conflict. Gerry does it one way. The other way
is to get down into the cesspool with the others. It's a question
of how you interpret success. Pressure is being put on him by people
who don't understand the game.''
Oddly the university, in July 1987, gave Friel a full-time
assistant, upgraded a part-time assistant and established a
basketball recruiting budget of $20,000 -- the first such funds Friel
has had. Trustee Jim Hatch argues that Friel should be given a
chance, meaning more than one season, to see what he can do with
slightly increased resources. ''The administration has decided it
wants to win,'' says Hatch. ''That's a major shift in emphasis.''
Says Friel, ''The new ground rules were never explained to me.''
Another member of the administration who's itching to fire Friel
is Mike O'Neil, director for the division of athletics and
recreation, and special assistant to the president. O'Neil,
ironically, is (''He used to be,'' says Friel) godfather to one of
Friel's four children, Keith. O'Neil has worked on campus for 20
years and became director of the division in June of '87; to get the
athletics program on a firm financial footing, he immediately
advanced the notion that winning basketball games would draw more
fans. Which, of course, it would. O'Neil calls Friel ''a great
humanistic person,'' but says, ''We want to be competing for the
conference championship every year. We don't want to be 4-25.''
If some members of the university administration are privately
hoping for another disastrous season -- which would make it
impossible for Friel's friends to block his dismissal -- they'll
probably get their wish. Even Counts says, ''People say we don't have
the talent. I have to say that's true.''
Says Friel, ''Sometimes I lose and say, 'Hey, that was a great
exhibition of competitive sport.' You shake hands and go home and
admit that the other players were better than your players. That's
O.K. I feel absolutely successful. What you have to do in this world
is try and help others become better. I've had a good effect on a lot
of young men. I have done all the right things.''