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UCI Sends Mulligan Out in Grand Style

You put in 11 years as head basketball coach at UC Irvine, you get people to stop calling it Cal State Irving, you win 162 games at a school where students cut home games instead of classes, you beat Nevada Las Vegas six times, you beat UCLA twice, you work through hip and arterial surgery and a stroke, you wince through three final losing seasons, you finally decide to call it quits and what do they give you?

A framed photo of Kevin Magee and a pair of tan saddle shoes, the trademark heart and soles of your coaching career.

A framed photo of you in action during this season. You’re standing and you’re in mid-scream, forever and always.

A lifetime pass to UC Irvine athletic events, as if you haven’t suffered enough.

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A varnished wooden armchair, a subtle reference to the only kind of coaching you’ll be doing from now on.

And flowers. Lots of flowers. Flowers in the lei around your neck. Flowers in the miniature yellow rose-and-blue carnation bouquet they handed you at midcourt. Flowers that arrived, special delivery, at your office several days earlier.

“Yeah, Magee sent me flowers,” Bill Mulligan said. “Can you believe it? Like it’s some kind of wake.”

Saturday night, it nearly was. In Mulligan’s last game as head Anteater, the minions had nothing to play for but their coach--to send him out on the longest winning streak of the season, (two in a row), to send him out with less than 20 losses--and in less than six minutes, Irvine squandered every bit of a 17-point second-half lead to Utah State.

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“That why I got out of coaching,” Mulligan said. “Games like that.”

From rout with 6:35 left to flop sweat with 1:08 left, the Anteaters staggered down the stretch until the score was tied at 107-107 with Mulligan calling the very last timeout of his career with 16 seconds on the clock.

Mulligan’s idea was for center Ricky Butler to take the final shot. Butler shoots 56% from the field, the most reliable hand Mulligan had.

It was the only way to let fly.

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Of course, the shot went instead to point guard Gerald McDonald, owner of a .345 field-goal percentage this season and layer of six bricks in his first seven attempts Saturday night.

“McDonald was probably the fifth choice,” Mulligan said.

So McDonald tosses up this twisting, hanging little jump shot, in the middle of the lane, about eight feet from the rim, and the ball cascades down as the last second ticks away . . . and it goes in.

Final buzzer.

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UC Irvine 109, Utah State 107.

Mulligan can only stand and stare, hands on hips, eyes riveted on the scoreboard to make sure the last two points, like too many Mulligan recruits, don’t change their mind and decide to go elsewhere.

“I was thinking a lot of bad things before that shot,” Mulligan said. Afterward, the first thing that came to mind was a barb.

“I told McDonald, ‘It’s a good thing that wasn’t a layin,’ ” Mulligan said. “You know how he shoots those. He’d have missed a layin.”

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Vintage Mulligan, right down to the last drop. He goes out triumphantly, he goes out dramatically, but he has to go out in the only style he knows--zinging one of his players.

This was the night they won one for the Ripper.

It was a poetic bookend, beating Utah State. The night Irvine opened the Bren Center, four years ago in January of 1987, Utah State was also the opponent and also the loser. That night, Scott Brooks scored 43 points, three shy of Magee’s school record, in a 118-96 Anteater victory.

In between, there was more pain than gain, despite all the glittering promise the Bren Center held. Irvine skidded to 12-17 in 1988-89, collapsed at 5-23 in 1989-90 and limped in at 11-19 in 1990-91--the final straw that stirred Mulligan’s thoughts of retirement into action.

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“This year’s team was my biggest disappointment . . . " Mulligan said. “The thing that bothers me more than anything was that third place was up for grabs and we couldn’t take advantage. That’s what breaks my heart.

“I look at five games we lost that we should have won--the two with Santa Barbara, the two with Long Beach and the one here with New Mexico State. We win those and we’re right there in third or fourth place. That’s what I couldn’t deal with--just not getting it done.”

Still, there was reason enough to keep the whistle and keep pressing on. Four of them, at least.

1. The number of years remaining on his contract.

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2. The number of players Irvine would lose this June off its current roster.

3. Keith Stewart, the former Purdue and Marquette point guard who will be eligible at Irvine next season. “I feel bad that I’m not going to be able to coach him,” Mulligan admits. “He’s a big-time point guard.”

4. Nevada-Las Vegas, the Godzilla of the Big West, goes on probation next year, meaning that first place, and not just third, is going to be up for grabs.

“That tempted me,” Mulligan said, “but what I got into was that there were more minuses than pluses.”

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Such as more empty seats in the Bren Center than filled. It was that way again Saturday--just 2,261 bodies and 2,739 vacant blue chairs on hand to bid the coach adieu.

Mulligan couldn’t have expected more.

How can you say goodby when you’ve never taken the time to say hello?

“That’s the question everybody asks me--'How can you draw here?’ ” Mulligan said. “Well, the first thing that has to happen, the students have to come. They have to come and go crazy, so that even if the team isn’t that good, people will say, ‘Hey, let’s go and see those crazy students.’ ”

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Mulligan already tried it his way. Hey, let’s go and see the crazy coach.

Now Mulligan is gone and the ball in the students’ court, assuming they can find it.


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