Originally created 02/21/99

Jaguars' Tuell is in search of happy endings



Gary Tuell is a fan of happy endings. Likes them in his movies, in his television shows, and hopefully come Wednesday, in his Augusta State basketball team.

In his second season at the Jaguars' helm, he's turned a five-win team into a conference co-champion sitting on the brink of its first NCAA Division II berth in 21 years.

To remove any doubt of its postseason prospects, ASU needs a Peach Belt tournament title this week in Savannah, which tips off Monday.

After sitting down with him for lunch last week, it's easy to see that there's more to this man than basketball. You might be intrigued to discover that this single, 48-year-old writes poetry to relax, doesn't own a compact disc player and once boxed Muhammad Ali for fun.

Did this season exceed your expectations or did you know all along you'd be Peach Belt champs?

"I thought we had a chance to be a good basketball team, I'm not sure I could say that we'd be good enough to win the league. At the beginning of the season, I thought that 13-3 would be good enough to win. And I was right because there are three teams there. I just wasn't confident that we'd be the team to be there. With three freshmen playing as many minutes as they have, I thought we'd be good enough to do something in the tournament. But the way the freshmen progressed made it possible for us to be more competitive.

"One thing a coach doesn't know about is chemistry. You never know how kids are going to respond to each other. You can't predict that. With as many new guys as we have to have the chemistry be so good, that's what done it for us. Our chemistry is a bigger reason why we're where we're at. It's not about me. I think I coached better when we won five games than at times this year."

Forget basketball. You have a chance to have any job you want. What do you take?

(30-second pause. Then a starry-eyed glare.) "Boy, I don't know. That's tough. I'm doing what I want to do right now. There's very little out there that I don't think I could enjoy more. (A 30-second pause.) I wouldn't mind being a chauffeur for my girlfriend. Just drive her around. That way we could be together and I wouldn't have to worry about what I wear. (Another 30-second pause.) You know, I'd work for Augusta National. Anything they let me do. I'd cut the grass everyday. Just to be able to walk out into heaven every day would be something."

How did you meet your girlfriend?

"Freshmen English class at the University of Louisville 30 years ago. I knew she'd be the love of my life. We're great friends. I wish everyone had a chance to have someone like her."

Where's she now?

"Southern Indiana, near Louisville, working in the Department of Education."

Any wedding bells in the future?

"That's up to her." (He laughs.)

How do you guys communicate?

"I write her a lot of poetry. Whatever my heart tells me to write. It's good for me, because I'm able to express myself. And it's good for her because she hears how I feel about her. I don't have much of a social life. Coaching tends to bog you down during the season. You're either watching tape, or scouting players, or worrying about how you're going to get better. When the season's over, I'll go up there and spend time with her. But I don't have a social life, and that's by choice. I'm 100 percent faithful."

Are you a better coach or a better poet?

"I don't think I'm good at either one."

What's the last CD you bought?

"I don't own a CD player. I don't know what a compact disc is. They look like 45s to me. I have a play called `CD,' but I don't have a CD player. I still like my tapes. The last one I bought might have been the BeeGees Gold. And I bought a Tori Amos tape."

You're showing your age.

"They're tapes, but they're not 8-tracks."

How about the last movie you saw in the theater?

"You Got Mail. My girlfriend saw it and e-mailed me about it. So a couple of Sundays ago, I took in a matinee at the cinema over by Barnes & Noble. She wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to hold up my end. I like Tom Hanks, and I think Meg Ryan's a doll.

"Besides, I'm a big fan of romance, humor and comedies. I like happy endings. I'm a big believer in dreams. It's who I am and it's what I preach to our team. My happiest happy ending in basketball would be a national championship because it one, I want to watch our guys react to having such a great season, and two, because it would be in Louisville, my hometown."

Growing up, who did you have posters of on your wall?

"We were too poor for posters. I cut newspaper pictures out and taped them to my wall. I had Pat Riley when he was at Kentucky. I had Johnny Unitas. I had Hank Aaron. My claim to fame is when I was 12, I said Hank would break Babe Ruth's home run record. I was in New Orleans when he did it, and I still have the copy of the newspaper.

"And of course, growing up in Louisville, I had Muhammad Ali's picture. He's involved in my biggest thrill. It was June 1974, I was working at the University of Louisville in the sports information department. Dave Kindred was the columnist for the Courier-Journal, and we were good friends. He was working on a story about Ali as he prepared for his first fight with (George) Foreman. So the two of us flew to Ali's camp in Deer Lake, Pa. We spent three or four days there, and Ali would treat us like royalty because we were from Louisville.

"One day, after two or three hours of training, Ali was driving to a Boy Scout camp, and we were riding around in this white Cadillac. He started talking like only he knows how to. He said, `It's too bad none of you can box because then we could put on a show for the kids.' That's when Kindred said `Oh, Tuell can fight. He's got a cousin who's an amateur, and every now and then he trains with him.'

"Ali looked at me and got real quiet. He said `You can box?' I just laughed. So after the Boy Scout camp, the car ride was silent, but Ali had this look in his face. As we got back to camp, he pointed at me and said, `Tomorrow. You. Me. 2 p.m. In the ring. I want you. We're going to settle who's the real Louisville Lip.'

"Ali's trainer gave me one of his robes, a white terry-cloth robe that I still have. Larry Holmes was his training partner, and he gave me his gloves. Larry said he was going to stay in my corner just in case Ali forgets this is for fun. So the bell rings, and we're dancing around. I hit him flush with a good right. Probably about as hard as I could hit him. He was in a crouch, he got up and said `Hit me.' I said `I just did.' He said `Well, I guess you're in trouble then.'

"I then flicked him with a left, and Ali went down. I posed over him like he did over Sonny Liston. I'm the only white guy to ever have knocked down Muhammad Ali."

That's a happy ending anyone would enjoy.

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.