Remembering Bob Boyd

The news was not so surprising. I’d been told a couple of weeks ago he was in poor health. Still the passing of a prominent figure is always cause for pause. And to we who knew and worked around him, Bob Boyd was a prominent figure indeed.

Boyd passed at age 84, in Palm Desert, Cal. Not to be too irreverent but I have to think if he’d had his druthers Boyd would have exited while watching the afternoon session at Santa Anita, but that’s another story. Goodness knows there are no lack of those about Big Bob.

To get the necessary facts out of the way, and explain to the current generation: Bob Boyd was Mississippi State’s basketball coach from April 1981 through March 1986. In those five seasons his teams were 55-87, 29-61 SEC. None played in either the NCAA or NIT.

So, does this mean we’re remembering a man who happened to stalk State’s sideline for just another unsuccessful stretch among many for Bulldog basketball? Nope. Not at all. And here is the fascinating aspect to Boyd’s years and legacy. He was himself that fascinating, in ways most college coaches are not and now can not be.

For instance. There hasn’t been a better technician here, in any sport. As his MSU successor, and was he ever, Richard Williams told me just a week ago when talking about the man, how in his 80s Boyd still saw things in games and explained them in ways that even veteran coaches could learn from. Ironically he took over after who inarguably is the least-competent coach ever on a State sideline in, again, any of the major sports. Jim Hatfield wasted a sublime 1978-79 team and went downhill fast the next two years despite the presence of our all-time frontcourt Dog Rickey Brown. Yeah, I still begrudge it.

For the many here who don’t know who I’m talking about, and know next-to-nothing about college basketball of three decades ago, the next will need some ‘splaining. You may have heard of the ‘four corners’ or ‘stall ball’. It was slowing down the game with constant side-to-side passing until the defense slipped and left a layup open. Sounds exciting, huh?

Well, after the go-go 1970s college game where teams almost competed to see who could shoot first, a few coaches went the other direction in the early ‘80s. National and conference championship caliber clubs used it at least part-time. Boyd arrived at State and made it his full-time offense. Yes, even with a guy named Jeff Malone (a junior) in the lineup, and supporting quality players Terry Lewis and Kal Wells, he played the stall relentlessly. It usually ended with Malone taking the shot, a good call as he averaged 18.6 points that first year.

The second? Malone led the SEC at 26.8 points and Boyd had his only winning season with State. But didn’t get a bid to any tournament, a sore subject for the coach for very personal reasons.

You see, Boyd simply cannot be understood outside this context. His name was made in 13 seasons at Southern Cal, his alma mater for that matter. From 1967-79 he coached some of the best teams in the country, a couple of years the clear second-best team. Problem was, right across town was the perennial best team. Boyd unintentionally served as the foil to John Wooden’s juggernaut, sometimes able to beat them but never able to come out ahead.

Big deal, you say? Well know this: that was the era when conferences sent just one team to the NCAAs. No, not even when the ’71 team went 24-2. They stayed home; UCLA went on to another national championship. Boyd’s only Trojan NCAA team came in his final year, 1979, after Wooden had long retired. As Boyd once said of his USC years, “I was in the right place at the wrong time.”

I seriously doubt he considered Mississippi State a right place to resume his career after a short retirement, but AD Carl Maddox convinced him and Betty to give Starkville a shot. To be clear, in all his time he never really settled in. His heart was always in southern California and who can blame the man? There weren’t any horse tracks in Oktibbeha County after all.

Nor was his coaching heart entirely into recruiting, as it turned out. Which is often the case for true teachers of the game you know. State certainly couldn’t replace Malone and three losing seasons followed…though for a week in February 1985 something special was taking shape. You won’t read it in any history of the program sadly, only we who were there remember.

I certainly can’t recall two better-played games in The Hump than consecutive wins over the Chuck Person Auburn team and Kenny Walker’s Kentucky. Suddenly Boyd had the hottest team in the whole SEC…and just as suddenly the coldest. During a practice explosive forward Tony Robinson, key to the surge, had his nose shattered. So was the team’s tempo with five-straight losses to run out the season. Again, you had to be there to understand.

You also had to follow hoops in the pre-shot clock years to know how Boyd’s boys could drive the other side crazy with endless passes and screens and fakes. Maybe the signature game of Boyd’s tenure was a loss, in his first season in fact. Georgia and Dominique Wilkins, maybe still the most freakish freshman guard I’ve ever seen in the SEC before his knee injury made him a power player, were delayed a day by snow and sleet.

Boyd knew they’d had to spend the evening in the Atlanta airport and arrived in Starkville so late they couldn’t really loosen-up in pregame. So, he didn’t just stall. Boyd froze the ball. I’m not exaggerating, the home Dogs held the ball a total of 30 minutes in the two halves! It was tied 10-10 at halftime, and I’ll never forget the sight of Wilkins—playing the right-corner in a 2-3 zone—rocking side to side as the ball was whipped around to avoid cramping up. State lost 26-20 with all the difference on free throws. I didn’t remember until re-reading that the ref responsible for so many of those calls was a former Ole Miss ticket manager, Danny Hooker. Yeah.

We’ll never know if Boyd would have been pushed out after 1985-86. He’d already decided, enough. Plus a shot clock was introduced that year and a three-point shot was coming soon too. Do give Bob credit for trying to upgrade recruiting, he just couldn’t convince Kenny Payne to stay in-state. Plus the state media, to be blunt, liked urging premier home talent to go to Louisville and other out-of-state addresses. I’m not being paranoid at all, just honest.

Along that line of thought… I hauled out the April 11, 1981 issue of D.B. for the introductory press fest with Boyd. In just the fourth graph, he said “I’d like to make it clear that in dealing with the press and the media I have nothing to hide from you and will be available to meet with you at any time.” Hmmm, if that was a verbal-slip when he said ‘press and the media’ Boyd might’ve been prophetic too based on his SoCal experiences. Because the two have certainly separated in the years since!

More to the point, while Boyd was certainly not open-door with press, he was absolutely accessible. I’m sure partly because even in L.A. his sport was always second-fiddle to football on the college level, never mind he lived in UCLA’s shadow. He did hold a grudge with Sports Illustrated, I discovered the hard way one day, based on a long-ago quoting of him in relation to a UCLA loss in Oregon that the Bruins—he believed—used as motivation a week later to whip the Trojans.

Funny thing though, he either liked—or thought so little of, it’s hard to say even now!—of local and state media, he felt safe having some sort of relationships. In fact, and this will boggle modern minds, after many a home game he would invited the press corps and yes, a young and impressionable p.r. guy, to his house. Betty would whip up some chili, glasses were filled, the TV turned on to then-new ESPN to watch a Pac Ten games. And Boyd would lean back and regale us with old tales or give pointed comments on his current peers and programs and even MSU’s own operation.

And not a word of it would ever appear in print or go on-air. Never mind it would have ended these get-togethers instantly. It was a chance to talk sports, not just basketball, with a guy who’d seen the great bigger world and we enjoyed it. No, that cannot happen today. Media execs and for that matter subscribers would demand we pass on every atom of information learned regardless of how confidential. I don’t bemoan this change by the way, it was inevitable. For football and basketball that is, baseball is always a little bit different out of necessity!

Anyway. Boyd did get a final hurrah of sorts for his exit, at the 1986 SEC Tournament. Then-D.B. editor Joe Dier sent me to Lexington for the finish, and against all expectations it lasted three games. Boyd’s bunch beat Vanderbilt in a modest upset; then Auburn in a major one. And they had league favorite Alabama on the second-half ropes too before falling in a simply great basketball game. The sort that there’d been too few of for five years to be fair, but a glimpse at what might have been if timing had been a bit right-er.

Boyd’s real legacy was written in ensuing seasons. By his successful successor. I still occasionally tease Williams how, in the beyond-bungled coaching ‘search’ by an incompetent and thankfully short-term athletic director, he was the ninth candidate on an eight-man list. Fortunately a little-known junior college coach Boyd had hired to straighten out some aspects of the program was ultimately handed the job. The rest is program history.

For that matter Boyd had an imprint on college ball for years to come. The other assistants were John Brady and Larry Eustachy. John went on to, like Richard, coach a Final Four LSU team and win conference titles. Eustachy just missed the FF with Iowa State. I used to share the McArthur Hall lunch table with those three some days and I learned a lot. Not about basketball much, but a lot of other interesting stuff!

Well. This is getting on, but two more stories must be told which to me somewhat explain a complicated man. I don’t know what he thought basketball was like in the SEC before taking the job. But if he had any notion he was leaving behind a football-first mindset at USC, he found out otherwise. If anything he learned quickly that the gridiron was even more dominant here, despite not being as successful.

One day, midway of my sports information career at State, I went by the Coliseum break room and found Bob holding-forth for an audience as he often did. He was talking about how Trojan legend John Robinson would often walk through the whole athletic department on a home-game Friday and tell everyone to take the rest of the day off. Boyd said he tried that one time himself before a home basketball weekend, and was shot-down. He was joking on the surface; clearly inside it always rankled.

The other story? I’ve said it before and surely will again, but in a career in college sports where profanity is so routine as to be meaningless Bob Boyd was an exception. No, the standard. I doubt I’ll ever hear a man so skilled at using bad words with such skill, style, fluency and flair. I’m serious, when Boyd got mad his voice and words could peel flesh off the helpless object of wrath.

I’d often attend basketball practices, sit on a sideline with longtime trainer Paul Mock. Who, by the way, sat by the head coach most of the time in games, which also just doesn’t happen any more. I wonder too if games were better-coached when a real boss wasn’t surrounded by assistants chirping their thoughts and just did what he already thought should be done. But I digress.

During one practice, it had to 1984 based on the people involved, Boyd didn’t like how things were going. So, he stopped drills, summoned the squad to line-up on one sideline, and called forward a few steps Mackey Whyte and Chauncey Robinson. The coach proceeded to ream these two out with words and delivery to peel fresh paint. Seated on the other sideline and (utterly) silent, Paul and I watched the rest of the team grow uncomfortable, then outright frightened, quivering as the diatribe developed. Assistant coaches and managers were trying to melt into the furniture in case Boyd notice them.

But unlike teammates, we could also see Mackey’s and Chauncey’s faces. They were trying to act hang-dog sorry, shuffling feet and drooping chins and all. But both were slightly grinning as much as they dared. See, these were and remain arguably two of the toughest humans ever to wear Mississippi State uniforms in any sport or era. Boyd knew it. Thus he knew he could blister the ball club through them without attacking the softer kids directly and breaking their spirits entirely.

Maybe there are coaches who can still do that with today’s athletes. Maybe there are athletes now who not only need but want that treatment, too. I don’t know. I do know, for his day-and-time, Bob Boyd really was right.

For crying out loud, as he’d say…

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