Let me start by saying, I never really knew Charles Leroy Coles. But I felt like I did. I was lucky enough to have a few brief conversations with him over the years. But what shaped my opinion of Charlie mostly was watching him stalk the sidelines in Mid-American Conference arenas, and then hold court for the media in postgame interviews.
Charlie was a standout guard for Miami University from 1963 through 1965. He was a member of Miami's MAC co-championship team in 1964-65 and captured Second-Team All-MAC honors as a junior and senior. He would later serve as head coach at his alma mater for 16 seasons (1996-2012), and would become the school's all-time men's basketball wins leader with a 263-224 record.
This Saturday afternoon, Miami will retire Charlie's number 10 jersey at Millett Hall during its game with the Ohio Bobcats. Charlie will join Ron Harper (34), Wayne Embry (23), Dick Walls (44), Darrell Hedric (86) and Wally Szczerbiak (32) as the sixth player in Miami history to have their number retired.
My earliest memory of Charlie was during my days as a student at Bowling Green State University. In 1985, he was in his first year as the head coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas, and he brought his team into BG's Anderson Arena and put a beating on my beloved Falcons. Charlie had a standout player on that team named Dan Majerle, who would go onto be a first round pick of the Phoenix Suns and play 14 seasons in the NBA.
Charlie coached Central Michigan for six seasons (1986-1991) and was named MAC Coach of the Year in 1986-87 after winning the regular season, conference championship and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament. I once asked Charlie about those Chippewa teams and he had high praise for Majerle's toughness and basketball IQ.
But the biggest response came from him when I asked about a Central Michigan player I remembered watching a couple of years earlier when Charlie was still an assistant coach at the University of Detroit. The player was Melvin McLaughlin, who would finish his career as the Chippewas' all-time leading scorer. When I asked about McLaughlin, a big smile came across Charlie's face and he gave me a one-word response, "Sugar!" That was McLaughlin's nickname, presumably because he had such a sweet game.
Why John Bonamego makes sense for Central Michigan football
This international man of intrigue returns home to coach his alma mater, the first CMU coach to also be an alumnus since the 1950's.
In 1999, I was working for the chamber of commerce in Cleveland and helped the MAC move their offices from Toledo to Cleveland. I was also asked if I would like to volunteer at the men's and women's basketball tournaments which were held in Cleveland for the first time that March. I jumped at the chance and have now been part of every MAC tournament held in Cleveland the last 15 years.
Initially, my duties were to escort a couple players and the coach from the locker room to the postgame interview room. Sometimes I would escort the winning team and other times the losing team. I escorted the RedHawks many times over the years and Charlie was always the same, win or lose.
He'd usually be wearing his trademark grey suit with a red turtleneck sweater underneath. He would have a Diet Coke in one hand and a final stat sheet in the other. He would always greet me with a big "hello young man," and was very respectful of the job I was entrusted with. That's something I can't say about some of the other coaches I escorted over the years.
I remember I was once late getting Charlie to the interview room after a game, but it wasn't all my fault. As we were making our way through the hallways of Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans Arena), we ran into one of Charlie's former players. Charlie let out a big, "Ira Newble" as they embraced and talked for a few minutes. Newble was a member of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers at the time and had made sure he sought out his old coach. It was clear the love and respect the two men had for each other.
A few years later, my duties at the MAC Tournament evolved into moderating the postgame interviews, where I would introduce the coach and players and lead the media through the Q&A portion of the sessions. Those duties had me sitting next to Charlie on the dais on numerous occasions.
Boy, that was a seat I would have gladly paid for.
Charlie's postgame press conferences were as enjoyable as they come. He was part coach, part teacher, part storyteller, and always entertaining. I often wondered who was enjoying them more, those of us working in the room (media included), or Charlie himself? Long after the players were released from the press conference, Charlie would still be on microphone talking basketball. On more than one occasion I'd get the sign to wrap up the press conference, but I'd have a hard time interrupting Charlie. Truth is, nobody was complaining because we were all captivated by Charlie.
One of my favorite Charlie moments in a postgame press conference didn't come at the MAC Tournament. In fact, it didn't come in a game against a MAC opponent. It was in 2009 after Charlie's RedHawks were narrowly defeated by the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena. A reporter asked Charlie "how it felt to let that one get away?" To which Charlie replied, "Let's see, the Kentucky Wildcats are the number four ranked team in the country. I am hearing they'll have four number one picks in the next NBA draft. And you're asking how it got away from me? Why don't you go ask John (Calapari) why it was so close?" Classic Charlie!
The RedHawks certainly had their share of success and excitement at the MAC Tournament during Charlie's tenure as head coach. That very first year in Cleveland in 2000, Charlie did it to my Falcons again. Bowling Green came in as the number one seed and faced off against Miami at noon on the first day of play. At the time, the MAC had the number one seed play in that first game thinking they would most likely beat the number eight seed and then have the advantage of extra rest before playing the next evening.
Well Charlie and RedHawks punched a hole in that theory. Miami guard Jason Grunkemeyer would throw in a half-court shot at the buzzer as the RedHawks beat the Falcons in overtime. A year later Grunkemeyer would do it again, this time to Ohio University. He hit a 3-pointer with 6.8 seconds left to lift the RedHawks past the Bobcats, 62-61.
But maybe my most memorable recollection of Charlie and Miami at the MAC Tournament came in 2007. RedHawks guard Doug Penno banked in a desperation 3-pointer as the clock expired, giving Miami the improbable win, 53-52 over the heavily favored Akron Zips. The referees took a long time reviewing the replay to determine if Penno had gotten the shot off before the horn had sounded. During the delay, I remember Charlie walking up and down press row asking reporters, "Did we win?" It was as if even he couldn't believe what had happened.
But what impressed me most about Charlie that night, was how he handled the postgame press conference. He didn't talk about his team's performance or how it felt to win. He only talked about how bad he felt for Akron coach Keith Dambrot and his players. That Zips team featured senior standouts Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis who had just lost their last chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. Charlie knew how they felt.
He was treating the Akron players like he treated his own players, with compassion. I never saw Charlie get up in one of his player's face, especially when they made a mistake. His message to his struggling players was more subtle. They would spend more time sitting next to Charlie during games than actually playing. About as harsh as Charlie got during a game was throwing his hands up and asking a player, "Why?" On more than one occasion I saw Charlie hug a player that had just made a mistake during a crucial juncture of a game. Maybe that turnover or missed shot cost them a game, but Charlie was there to tell them there would be a next time. That was Charlie.
I haven't even mentioned how Charlie led his 1998-99 Miami team to a MAC championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That team was led by the All-American Szczerbiak and they advanced to the round of the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Kentucky.
But for all the success Charlie's teams had on the court, it seems his biggest accomplishments were the ones that happened off the court. By all accounts, the student athletes who played for Charlie were better young men for having done so. And actually, in the end that's the legacy of Charlie Coles the man that really matters.