The Creighton community will gather Friday at Christ the King Catholic Church to say goodbye to former Bluejay coach John “Red” McManus.
McManus, who died July 23 at the age of 88, is one of the revered figures in Creighton athletic history. And it’s not necessarily because he won 138 games and put the Bluejays on the map with his coast-to-coast, border-to-border scheduling practices in the 1960s.
McManus’ tenure came to the rocky ending when he resigned under fire at the end of the 1968-69 season. In spite of that, McManus’ love for the Bluejays burned all the way to his final breaths.
After he quit coaching, McManus evolved into a patriarch of Bluejay basketball. His successors welcomed him back. They took him on road trips. They had him speak to their teams. They reveled in his stories.
One of my lasting memories of Red will be the cheek-to-cheek smile he wore the day two winters ago when Greg McDermott’s team serenaded him on his 87th birthday.
A colleague remarked to me the other day how strange the relationship between McManus and Creighton turned out to be. It’s easy to stay loyal to your school when it’s naming buildings after you. It’s another thing to have the unfailing loyalty McManus had for the school that showed him the door in 1969.
Sports divorces can be messy business. This one turned out to be a love affair. After his resignation, McManus remained in Omaha, ran a successful business, raised a family and never turned his back on the Bluejays.
His support of Creighton wasn’t limited to the basketball team. For years, he was a regular at games played by other Creighton athletic teams. A few years back, a golf benefit and dinner was held for the wife of a former Bluejay baseball player who had been stricken with meningitis.
Red was long past the days when he could get around the golf course but he was the first person to send in reservations for the dinner.
As a coach, McManus could be a firebrand on the sidelines. He was not above shouting epithets that one would not hear in church at officials or giving a ref the choke sign.
Yet, his former players paint a far different picture of the McManus they remember. He was a gentle and kind man who helped them grow on and off the court.
A Creighton alumnus, Dave Wenthold, recently passed along a story that sums up the magic of McManus. Wenthold wrote:
When Don Nelson was coaching the New York Knicks, he invited McManus to attend a game at Madison Square Garden. Nelson had played for McManus when he coached the Iowa freshman team during the 1958-59 season.
When Red arrived in New York, he befriended a man named Paul, who was in town from Minneapolis. They helped each other navigate through the New York airport, through Grand Central Station and then to their respective hotels.
Later that day, Red called Paul at his hotel and said, “A friend of mine is under the weather and I have an extra ticket to the Knicks game. Care to join me?”
Paul agreed. At the game, Paul and Red were seated courtside. After the game, Nelson’s wife, Joy, walked over the Red and said, “Don would like for you two to join us for dinner at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant.’’
On their way to the restaurant, Red asked Paul not to mention that they had just met earlier that day.
During the dinner, Nelson learned that Paul was in town for business and that he was the father of four boys. Nelson insisted that each of Paul’s sons receive some New York Yankees gear. When Paul offered to pay for the apparel, Nelson replied, “If you’re a friend of Red’s, then you’re a friend of mine.’’ Nelson paid for the apparel.
Wenthold said Paul was a good friend of his father. When Paul learned that Wenthold was going to attend Creighton, he told Wenthold about the day he had spent with McManus.
Said Wenthold: “During my Creighton undergrad days and the years since, I’d see Red at the Missouri Valley basketball tournament in St. Louis. I would always remind him of the story, which never failed to get him to smile slightly more than he was smiling already.’’