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Wally Szczerbiak reflects on the death of longtime Miami (Ohio) coach Charlie Coles

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Charlie Coles (Getty Images)

When Charlie Coles awoke in a hospital bed in Kalamazoo, Mich. hours after suffering a near-fatal heart attack during the first half of a 1998 MAC tournament game, the Miami (Ohio) coach's first concern wasn't his health.

He gestured for a nurse to get him a pen and paper and scratched out the question, "Did we win?"

Stories like that of Coles' competitiveness and sense of humor are what his friends and colleagues in the basketball industry will remember most about him. Coles, Miami's all-time leader in career wins, died Friday morning at age 71, the school announced. No cause of death was reported immediately, but Coles had a long history of heart issues.

To provide a window into Coles' colorful wit and fierce competitiveness, I spoke to the greatest player he coached at Miami (Ohio). Wally Szczerbiak reflected on Coles' sense of humor, the time the coach nearly died on the floor and on the 1999 Sweet 16 run that landed Miami (Ohio) on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

JE: I'll start with the obvious question first. Give me your reaction to hearing that Charlie passed away this morning?

WS: It was a shock. It was very unexpected. Charlie had just retired a year ago and he had been doing really well. It was no secret he had some heart issues he was battling through. I don't know all the details, but he was a big part of my college career and he was a great coach and a great person. He'll be sorely missed.

JE: I'd spoken with him in late March for a story I did on Sean Miller and Thad Matta's friendship, and Charlie seemed as engaging and entertaining as ever. Do you think his death was a surprise even to those close to him?

WS: It was certainly a surprise to me. The last time I'd spoken to him, he seemed great and his health seemed under control. My junior year, he had that episode where he collapsed on the court during a MAC tournament game up in Western Michigan. So there was a little bit of history there, but he seemed to be doing well.

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Wally Szczerbiak (Getty Images)

JE: I know Charlie was an assistant when you first got to Miami (Ohio). Did you get to know him on the recruiting trail or was it not until you got to campus?

WS: It was during the recruitment process that I first got to know him, and then when I got on campus he was assistant coach for a year before he took over the team. He was a great coach and a great guy. He taught me a lot about the game, he worked with me a lot and he saw my potential as a player and helped me realize it. I owe him a lot for that.

JE: One of the aspects of Charlie's personality that stood out most was his dry sense of humor. How often did that come out when you were playing for him?

WS: He had a great sense of humor with his players and the media and he kept things light, but at the same time when it came down to getting to work and winning basketball games and getting the most out of his players, he did a great job of that at Miami. He definitely had a great personality and sense of humor, and you saw that often during pregame speeches and in his postgame interviews.

JE: You said that he was instrumental in helping you tap into your potential in college. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

WS: He was a really great scorer back in his day, so I think he saw my ability to put the ball in the basket. He saw my leadership ability and skills and he saw my work ethic and improvement from year to year. He allowed me to explode on the scene my junior year and really assert myself as one of the leading scorers in the country and best players in the country. I really appreciated him allowing me to blossom into that role.

JE: Charlie had a heart attack and collapsed early in a MAC tournament game in 1998 and had to be revived on the court by doctors. Describe that day from your eyes. How scary was that to see your coach fighting for his life?

WS: Well, I'll always remember, there were 11 minutes to go in the first half and I was taking the ball out of bounds and I heard a big thud. I looked over, and he was laying on the ground. Luckily, it was in an arena where there were doctors around who were able to care for him right away. Ray Martin took over the team for the next couple games in the MAC tournament, and then Charlie came back my senior year as healthy as ever.

JE: I remember reading that the first thing Charlie asked in the hospital when he woke up was whether you guys won the game and that he coached you guys even harder the following year after the heart attack. Does that speak to his competitiveness?

WS: Yeah, we had a two-hour delay and we were wondering if we should even go out and play. The coaches and players decided he would want us to play, and we went out and played and won the game.

JE: The 1998-99 season, you guys won the MAC and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. Before that season, did you have an inkling you had a pretty special team?

WS: We did. Before the season, we had worked pretty hard. We had a lot of pretty accomplished seniors. We had good pieces on that team. Obviously it was a pretty special year. You have to have some things fall your way and stay healthy, and we did. We had a great team 1 to 12 and we had great chemistry. You need that in order to make a run like that.

JE: You had plenty of memorable games that season, but does scoring 43 against Washington in the opening round of the NCAA tournament top them all?

WS: I think so. That was my career high. I had other pretty good games, but to have it on that stage with so much riding on it in the NCAA tournament, I would have to say that was my best game.

JE: The next game, you guys upset second-seeded Utah to get to the Sweet 16. Best win of your college career?

WS: Yeah, definitely. Winning the first game was great, but then to knock off the No. 2 seed in Utah and make it to the Sweet 16, that showed the first win wasn't just a fluke. We really belonged, and we were really excited to move on to the Sweet 16.

JE: I think all of Charlie's peers realized how good a coach he was, but do you think that Sweet 16 run helped validate him as a coach in some ways too?

WS: Definitely. As a coach, you're judged by getting to the NCAA tournament and how far you go once you get there. Us getting to the Sweet 16, that's the furthest any Miami team has ever gotten. He led us a long way, we accomplished a lot of great things with that team, and he was a big reason for it.

JE: How close is that 1999 team still today? Did you guys keep in touch with each other and with Charlie?

WS: My teammates are the ones that notified me today. Mike Ensminger and Jason Grunkemeyer, they live in Ohio and they got the news before I did and they notified me ASAP. It's a tough day for all of us. It was a close-knit group, and we've definitely stayed very close.

JE: I think many people's favorite memory of Charlie was the press conference after his team suffered a close loss to the Kentucky team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 1999. Did you chuckle watching Charlie's response to the question about how the game slipped away?

WS: I don't remember it, no. I just remember the game. It was pretty exciting, and the guys played great that night and put a scare into a great team.

JE: I know this is hard on short notice, but how would you define Charlie's legacy as a basketball coach?

WS: First and foremost, he's a great person. He did so much for his players and cared so much for the guys he recruited and coached. Then he was also a very accomplished coach. He lived and breathed basketball. He started as a great player and turned into a great coach. He accomplished many great things in basketball, and he'll be sorely missed.

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