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McGRATH: How Bob Hallberg found the top anyway

Women’s basketball coach athletic director Bob Hallberg got ultimate honor from St. Xavier last week: ShannCenter court named for him.

Women’s basketball coach and athletic director Bob Hallberg got the ultimate honor from St. Xavier last week: the Shannon Center court named for him. | Courtesy of St. Xavier

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Updated: December 18, 2013 6:48AM

Tuesday’s United Center spectacle was billed as a college basketball doubleheader featuring four of the nation’s top five teams. What it most resembled was an NBA waiting room.

The question of who’s No. 1 among Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and Duke is too premature to warrant a definitive answer. And it was dwarfed by speculation over who’s likely to be the No. 1 pick when the NBA draft occurs in seven months: Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins or Kentucky’s Julius Randle.

They’re all freshmen and so monstrously talented that it’s pointless to imagine them sticking around campus long enough to learn where the library is.

That’s how it is in college hoops — top-tier players are here today, gone tomorrow. It’s the coaches who provide the star power, and the UC sideline offered a dazzling display: Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Bill Self and Tom Izzo account for seven national championships, 24 Final Fours and about $20 million in combined salaries.

Bob Hallberg is a coaching lifer, and the thought of playing in that league crossed his mind as he was transforming rag-tag outfits into cohesive teams at one Chicago high school and three colleges. But it never lingered. Hallberg was a Chicago guy with a family to raise, and doing so in a sane, stable manner trumped ego and ambition.

Nebraska called while he was compiling a .736 winning percentage at Chicago State (now that’s coaching), but the nomadic life of a career chaser wasn’t for him. He thought he had established himself as a Division I coach during nine seasons spent elevating UIC into a credible operation, only to have his world shattered by a call to his boss’ office.

‘‘I had been promised a five-year contract at a Division I salary, and I thought I was going in there to sign it,’’ Hallberg recalled. ‘‘When he said, ‘Bob, we have to let you go,’ I looked around to see if there was somebody else in the room. I was stunned.’’

Hallberg was done in by politics. Longtime Lou Henson aide Jimmy Collins had been passed over for the Illinois job that went to Lon Kruger when Henson retired. Some university higher-ups who had backed Collins decided the UIC job would be a nice consolation prize for him, so Hallberg was out. Never mind his stature as the program’s founder and a graduation rate that exceeded his winning percentage.

‘‘I was pretty bitter, and it took me a while to get over it,’’ he conceded.

With a wife and three children to support, Hallberg went to work for his family’s insurance business.

‘‘I didn’t hate it,’’ he said, ‘‘but I surely didn’t have same passion I had for coaching.’’

In 1999, on a bike ride through his South Side neighborhood, Hallberg noticed a construction project on the St. Xavier campus.

‘‘They were finally building the arena I’d been promised in 1971,’’ he said.

Such a facility might require a manager, so Hallberg called Dr. Steve Murphy, a university vice president and a friend from Hallberg’s days as SXU men’s coach and athletic director. Murphy made a counter-proposal: SXU was looking to start a women’s team; why don’t you come back and coach it?

The salary — minimum wage by coaching standards — wasn’t the biggest challenge. Ego management was — in reverse.

‘‘Most guy players think they’re Michael Jordan,’’ Hallberg said. ‘‘Most women players think they’re terrible and have to be encouraged. If I tell you to cut off the baseline, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or I don’t like you. It’s a correction, not a criticism.’’

Either way, it works. Hallberg has a 329-101 record (.765) with SXU’s women, making 11 consecutive trips to the NAIA playoffs. In 2001, he added the athletic director’s job and presides over a thriving 14-sport program. The Cougars won the NAIA national championship in football in 2011, and they’re perennial playoff participants in men’s basketball as well.

On Wednesday night, the university said thanks. The court at SXU’s Shannon Center was named Bob Hallberg Court, with the starters from his first men’s team and his first women’s team doing the unveiling. John Boles, the former Florida Marlins manager whom Hallberg hired to coach baseball at SXU in 1971, flew up from Florida. Nearly every team he has coached over 40-plus years was represented at a reception after the Lady Cougars’ victory over Trinity International.

Four nights earlier, they opened their season with a win at UIC.

Bob Hallberg never made six figures as a coach, but he’ll tell you the job has been plenty rewarding.

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