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College basketball loses personality in Bill Mulligan

January 12, 2010 |  5:54 pm
Bill Mulligan, one of the most colorful college basketball coaches to blow a whistle in Southern California, died Tuesday at the age of 79.

He was a friend, and he was one of the last links to an era where coaches were unafraid to speak their minds. There was no textbook coach-speak in him, which made him bigger than the 163-156 record he had at Irvine.

Asked in the 1980s how Fresno State was able to attract so many recruits from the Chicago area, Mulligan said, “Easy, they think they’re coming to California.” He would describe the deliberate style Fresno played in the 1980s as “vomit basketball.”

Mulligan was a prominent community college coach, at Riverside City College and Saddleback College, and gave UC Irvine its first taste of success at the Division I level. His teams played up-tempo in the pre-shot clock era, with Irvine leading the nation in scoring in 1980-81. Twice Irvine qualified for the NIT, in 1982 and 1987, when the Anteaters upset UCLA at Pauley Pavilion after beating Jerry Tarkanian’s Nevada Las Vegas team twice during the regular season.

But what set diminutive Mulligan apart was a personality that was loaded with colorful language and devoid of cliches, packaged in a wardrobe of sweaters, plaid pants and saddle shoes.

“You’re supposed to be tall and handsome to be a basketball coach,” Mulligan once said. “I’m 0 for 2.”

There was nothing PC about him. He smoked non-filtered cigarettes and was known to tip a few after games, and he could rant with the best.

He was hard on point guard -- The Times did a story about it with a cartoon of Mulligan throwing toy players over his shoulder into a pile.

Once, after a no-look, behind-the-back pass sailed out of bounds, Mulligan jerked Jason Works from the game, yelling, “Sit down, you moron!” Later, resigned to the fact that he needed Works, he said the guard would play “about 30 minutes a game -- even if it gives me a coronary.”

Occasionally, coaches will utter such things. Mulligan did it constantly, making him a sportswriter’s best friend.

On coaching at Irvine in 1982: “We have a lot of academically oriented players on this team.… They’re really into these exams. That’s good, but I don't know if it makes for good basketball, though.”

When forward Wayne Engelstad showed up to school overweight, Mulligan said: “I told him to report at 215 to 220 this year and he comes in at about 250. I didn't know how much for sure, but I knew he was too damn fat just by looking at him. So I said, ‘OK, you go inside. Fat people play center.’ "

On guard Scott Brooks' transfer from Texas Christian to Irvine: “He’d still be at TCU except he hated the state of Texas. He liked the program. He just hated the state.”

On Pacific player Domingo Rosario: “He’s the best freshman in the conference. I think I’ll head down to the Dominican this summer and see if I can't find me something too.”

When a recruit signed with another school, even though his mother wanted him at Irvine so much she began to cry, Mulligan told assistant coach Mike Bokosky. “Hey, Bo, we did a great job on the mother and a … job on the kid.”

And, of his high school classmate Bob Newhart: “In four years, I never heard him say one funny thing.”

Compared to Mulligan, probably not.

He will be missed.

-- Chris Foster