Fred Schaus dies at 84; first L.A. Lakers head coach

Fred Schaus, who helped usher in pro basketball to Los Angeles as head coach of the Lakers for their first seven seasons here and was Jerry West’s mentor, died Wednesday in West Virginia. He was 84.

Schaus was living in a nursing home and the cause of his death was not released.

Schaus was born in 1925 in Newark, Ohio, but became a basketball star at West Virginia University. The 6-foot-5 forward turned pro in 1949 and played five seasons for the Fort Wayne Pistons and the New York Knicks.

He then returned to his alma mater as basketball coach from 1954 to 1960. Schaus developed several All-Americans, including “Hot” Rod Hundley, who later played for the Lakers.

But his greatest star was a shy West Virginia high school player Schaus recruited named Jerry West.

Schaus was “my mentor,” West said in a statement Thursday. “He was the first coach to show interest in me.”

The Mountaineers, with Schaus and West, reached the NCAA title game in 1959, losing to California, 71-70.

In 1960, the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, becoming the first NBA team on the West Coast. The Lakers selected West in the draft, and then owner Bob Short hired Schaus as their head coach.

The Lakers moved into the Sports Arena, then only a year old. The team already had a dazzling forward in Elgin Baylor, and by adding West they became an offensive juggernaut. It was during this period the Lakers’ bitter rivalry with the Boston Celtics began.

The Lakers, with Schaus as coach, reached the NBA Finals four times, and lost all of them to the Celtics and Bill Russell.

After the Lakers lost to Boston in the 1963 NBA Finals, Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: “Freddy Schaus would rather beat the Celtics than be president, but it begins to appear as if he might as well aspire to climb the Matterhorn in high heels.”

In 1966, the Celtics and Lakers met again in the finals. In the seventh game, the Celtics held off a late rally to beat the Lakers, 95-93. Celtics Coach Red Auerbach, as was his custom, lit a victory cigar as fans swarmed the Boston Garden court.

Schaus called it the “worst disappointment of my pro coaching career. . . . If you don’t win it all, you’re nothing.”

After the next season ended, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke named Schaus general manager.

He stayed in that job five seasons as the Lakers’ popularity grew. In 1972, the Lakers won their first NBA title with West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich as their stars.

Soon after, Schaus surprised Cooke by quitting as general manager. Taking a big pay cut, he returned to college coaching at Purdue. Coaching is “still in my blood,” he said. He coached six seasons at Purdue, then returned to West Virginia as athletic director from 1981 to 1989.

Overall, Schaus had a 315-245 coaching record with the Lakers, the fourth-highest win total in team history. “He was a no-nonsense coach,” Hundley said.

Schaus is survived by his wife, Barbara; two sons, Jim and John; a sister, Mary Brown; and six grandchildren. Jim Schaus is the athletic director at Ohio University.