A one-time orphan from West Philadelphia, Herb Magee used basketball to focus himself. And, since then, he’s done the same for thousands of others. The winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball history, Magee enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Aug. 12. This winter, the 70-year-old begins his 45th year as the Rams’ head coach, with 922 career victories—all at Philadelphia University. It’s the third name the school’s had in Magee’s half-century there, dating back to his playing days as a two-time All-American and one-time Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science’s all-time leading scorer. Twice, his own players—Randy Stover in 1992 and Tayron Thomas in 2006—surpassed him. Drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1963, Magee opted for a career in coaching. His teams have appeared in 25 NCAA Tournaments. In his third year (1969-70), the Rams won 28 straight games and the national title. He lives in Berwyn with his wife, Geri.
MLT: How did you hear about your induction?
HM: I figured if no one called me, I didn’t make the list of finalists. Six weeks later, on the day before my family and I left for the Final Four in Houston and the coaches convention there, I got a call from John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. He was calling to congratulate me for being “in.” I said, “In what?” He said, “For being a member of the class of 2011.” I had the phone in my left hand, and I was doing a fist pump with my right hand.
MLT: You’re not supposed to tell anyone except your immediate family, but you’re at the Final Four. So how did you manage?
HM: You’re surrounded by coaches—even a dozen or so head coaches who once played for or coached under me, and there’s the pressure. I didn’t crack, but I hinted at the good news.
MLT: You have no desire to retire?
HM: I don’t discuss it. I enjoy golf, but I don’t want to play every day. I’ll know when it’s time to go, but I don’t exist if there isn’t the next day’s game, the next recruiting class.
MLT: If there’s one word that defines why you’ve remained at Philadelphia University, what is it?
HM: Comfortability. I’ve never had any interference, but I’ve never given anyone a reason to interfere. The university has benefitted because of the reputation of the men’s basketball team. I started there. It’s just my home.
MLT: What’s been the secret to your success?
HM: The big thing is that they know they’re playing for me, so there are no ifs, ands or buts. There’s one way to play—and it’s the way Coach Magee says, so I don’t get challenged. No one balks, and I wouldn’t stand for it anyway. I never saw a reason to change my style. It produced victories.
MLT: You’ve surpassed some of the biggest names in men’s NCAA coaching circles—Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Clarence “Big House” Gaines. But isn’t Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski also at more than 900 wins and on your heels?
HM: I have about a season on him, but he plays more games, and you know where they always end up—so I have to keep going.
MLT: You could’ve left Philadelphia University, where you’ve also coached cross-country, tennis and golf, and taught physical education classes. You had offers as a NBA assistant, and Division I jobs, but you never left. Why?
HM: I never had a Division I job offer in the city—and even if I did, I probably would’ve stayed. Did you ever get the feeling that you’re just in a place where you belong? I realize I’ve forfeited an exorbitant amount of money, but that doesn’t bother me. We sent our kids to Villanova, and I can buy my grandkids anything they want, but I certainly don’t make anything close to what friends like Jay Wright and Phil Martelli make—and they deserve every penny. But a job was created for me. I went to Bucky Harris (his college coach), and he went to the president (Bert Hayward), and the next day I was named his assistant coach. When Bucky retired a second time, he handed me the job (in 1967) at age 25.
MLT: What can you reveal about your acceptance speech after basketball legend and fellow Hall of Fame icon Dr. Jack Ramsay presents you?
HM: I’ll be about where I come from and who I am. I plan to thank my mentors (Hayward, Harris and) uncle Edwin Gallagher, a (now-deceased) Catholic priest and former chaplain at Eastern State Penitentiary. I was orphaned as a youngster after my mother and father both died a year apart. When my mom died, I was 12. My dad had a stroke and died the following year. Uncle Edwin became our legal guardian. He raised four kids (all boys), and we grew up as normally as possible in a West Philadelphia neighborhood where everyone else had a mom and dad, but we didn’t recognize ourselves as deprived. I had basketball and family. All I wanted to do was play basketball, and I’d play on a West Philly court here or there, or sneak into a gym. We’d wait for the guys. We all knew where to go.
MLT: How did you learn to shoot so well?
HM: I grew up as a Philadelphia Warriors fan, and I could walk to Convention Hall, get in for $1, and buy a hot dog and drink for $1. I studied (the Warriors’) Paul Arizin, Tom Gola and Ernie Beck, and the Celtics’ Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy and others. I followed the rotation of the ball. All my buddies always wanted to play, but I always wanted to get my shooting practice in. Now, all I do is teach it the way I do it.
MLT: You’re a popular speaker at camps, and have had you’re your own camps for decades. You offer shooting videos, and you’ve privately mentored some of the NBA’s best shooters. Of late, you’ve acquired the nickname the “Shot Doctor.” Do you like the moniker?
HM: I don’t know where that comes from. It wasn’t me, but I started hearing it a couple years ago. I just say I’m a guy who teaches shooting, but I’m not the only guy in the country doing this. Dr. Naismith invented the game, so no one else can invent it. But we all get something from someone, mix and match it, and have a love of the game. I never watch a game without learning something positive or negative.
MLT: You emphasize shooting. How important is it?
HM: Not everyone is going to be 6-foot-11 or 7 foot. (Magee is just 5-foot-10, 150 pounds.) But we’ve always said that your kid can still make it if he can make his shots. When they stop keeping score, then shooting won’t matter. We say that when we’ve played well, it means we’ve shot well. Others say, ‘Look at Michael Jordan.’ All people remember is rebound, dribble, dribble—dunk, but if you backed off him, it was over.
MLT: You have an up-and-coming granddaughter, true?
HM: Another (Karly Stec) is an actress, but the basketball player (Katie Stec) is a sophomore at Henderson High School. I arrange some practices to catch some of her games. She doesn’t practice as much as I’d like, but she can shoot because I taught her at a young age. At tournaments, the other team always yells, “Cover the shooter,” and I like that.
To learn more, visit herbmagee.com.