There's only one man for the Chicago Bulls' job. There's only
one man to settle the NBA lockout. There's only one man to clean
up the mess in Washington. Naturally, that man is...Gil Thorp.
O.K., O.K., he's a little two-dimensional, and his haircut is by
Floyd of Mayberry, and, true, he stills says stuff like "Holy
crow!" and "What in blazes?" and "I know you'll make the right
decision, Billy!" but doggone it, that's what we need right now,
People who say there are no heroes on the sports page anymore
aren't reading Gil Thorp. Across America--from San Diego to
Buffalo--Coach Thorp has been sports' comic-strip hero for
almost half a century. How retro cool is this guy? He should be
in his 70s, but he still looks 38, with a glorious full head of
hair and a jaw so square you could open an industrial-sized can
of Van Camp's Pork & Beans with it. Better than that, he has
U-Hauls full of morals and sticks by them. In short, he gives
you this gnawing suspicion that he's everything you're not.
Six mornings a week we get to go to the most perfect place in
sports--Thorp's Milford High--where everybody is bright-eyed and
high-cheekboned, where you can count on people eventually doing
the right thing and where "cagers" and "gridders" get their
letter jackets through hard work, not J. Crew.
Not that it's a fairyland. You wouldn't believe the kind of
stuff the young athletes at Milford get into--steroids,
pregnancy, gangs, bookies, loan sharks--yet every single time,
Thorp helps them work it out. And in working it out, guess what?
We all learn a little something. O.K.?
One time his best football player, Lenny Hull, purposely knocked
the other team's quarterback out of the game with a cheap shot.
Thorp, who reminds you of Ward Cleaver, glared at him square in
the eye and said, "Lenny, winning without sportsmanship is
losing! You better remember that!" And Lenny went on to become
chancellor of Germany! (No.)
That's how Thorp is. He still looks, sounds and acts as if he
just dropped out of the 1950s, which figures, since that's when
a former World War II aerial photographer and gunner named Jack
Berrill began drawing him. For 38 years Berrill never missed a
day. In fact on the day he died in 1996, at 72, Berrill finished
the panel giving Thorp his eighth state basketball title. What
do you know? Two guys who like to see a job through.
Now the strip is written by Jerry Jenkins and drawn by Ray
Burns, but nothing's changed. Thorp is still the greatest high
school coach in history. According to an obsessive but very real
person named Matt Shaughnessy, who keeps track of these things,
Thorp has won 70% of his football games, 56% of his baseball
games, 70% of his basketball games--1,374 wins in all. He also
has 759 losses, but not once has he blamed the refs, the press
or the food on the charter.
Thorp has solved countless personal crises for his athletes,
influenced countless lives for the better and ended countless
sentences with an exclamation point. He's benched kids and even
kicked them off the team--usually his best players--for smoking,
drinking, swearing, not hustling and, just recently, talking to
a girl in the stands. Is Phil Jackson listening?
Thorp is so completely out, he's actually in again. There's a
Web site (www.gilthorp.com), and on it there's a poll asking who
should play Thorp if there were a movie. (Is Hugh Beaumont still
alive?) A few people even want him to wrestle Rodzilla.
But Thorp would never sell out. He's had his chances to go
big-time, but he never has. It's one of life's great comforts
that you can still find Thorp where you've always found him,
sticking out from today's endless sports stories of greed and
ego like an Eagle scout at a Marilyn Manson concert.
America needs a guy like this, craves one in fact. One time
Thorp lost his temper and yelled in the balloon above his head,
"#@*&!" Two weeks later a woman wrote to Berrill, "I'm very
disappointed Coach Thorp would use language like that." Berrill
wrote back, "I apologize. By the way, what'd he say?"
Shaughnessy, who really is one sick puppy, is coming out with
his ninth Gil Thorp book, straight from his basement (P.O. Box
1094, Arlington Heights, Ill., 60006). It's a beauty,
celebrating Gil's 40th anniversary, which happens to be Sept. 8.
You ought to think about getting it.
(I know you'll make the right decision.)
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA [Rick Reilly]
"Lenny, winning without sportsmanship is losing! You better