When Dana Altman became Creighton’s basketball coach and started having John “Red” McManus spend more time around the program, Altman soon discovered that McManus still had the competitive streak he’d shown as a coach.
“His common joke caught me off guard the first couple of times before I figured it out,” Altman said, smiling. “He’d ask, ‘When’s so-and-so going to graduate? Because I want to make sure I’m there to see him go.’
“But he also cared deeply about the players.”
McManus’ competitive nature, accomplishments, his love of Creighton and his life as a family man were celebrated Friday during funeral services at Christ the King Catholic Church.
McManus, 88, died July 23 after a lingering illness.
Pallbearers included Paul Silas, Tom Apke and Bob Portman, all of whom played for McManus during his stretch as the Bluejays’ coach from 1959 through 1969. McManus compiled a 138-118 record, led Creighton to two NCAA tournaments and developed a reputation for his willingness to play the best opponents possible.
“He was such a competitor,” Apke said. “Bull-headed. Stubborn. ‘We’re going to get this done.’ competitor.”
Portman, who averaged 24.6 points per game and scored 1,876 points in a career that lasted from 1966 through 1969, came from the San Francisco area and quickly established a reputation as one of the best shooters in Bluejay history.
He said McManus not only pushed players to the limit, he also gave them the confidence to get there.
“There were some times when my confidence would go down, but he had more confidence in me than I did,” Portman said. “I remember some games where I may have been 1 for 10 in the first half, and he’d be saying, ‘You’ve got to get going. Keep shooting the ball.’
“He wouldn’t let you wallow.”
Apke not only played for McManus, he was later an assistant on McManus’ staff. He then relied on McManus as a mentor when Apke was Creighton’s head coach from 1974 through 1981. Apke later coached at Colorado and Appalachian State and is now retired and living in Charlotte, N.C.
Apke said one of McManus’ practice drills illustrated his coaching style.
“He used to take us individually and teach us how to play post defense,” Apke said. “He’d be the defender and we would try to get open, and then we would have to guard him. And he would push and shove and hold and cheat, and we as players were unsure how much we were supposed to push and shove and hold and cheat against our coach.”
McManus was elected to Creighton’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1979 and is often credited for bringing “big-time” basketball to the school because of his scheduling while the Bluejays competed as an independent.
McManus’ teams played Providence when it had national player of the year Jimmy Walker; Miami with future NBA star Rick Barry; and Houston when it had future NBA star Elvin Hayes.
And Creighton beat John Wooden’s UCLA team in Omaha in 1961, a few years before the Bruins started winning the national title almost annually.
“Was he tough? Yeah, he was tough,” said Portman, now retired and living in Hillsborough, N.C. “But you’re not going to win going easy.”
McManus’ first major victory was successfully recruiting Silas away from Oakland, Calif., and the nearby national power at the University of San Francisco. Silas went on to become an All-American and NBA star.
A few years later, Portman traveled the same path from California.
“Most of the Bay Area teams were slow-down basketball,” Portman said. “And Red was selling, ‘Hey, we’re going to run and we’re going to gun, and we’re going to play some good teams.’?”
McManus eventually resigned under pressure as coach and athletic director after the 1969 season. He went into private business, opening a successful tuxedo rental store.
He also stayed close to a program that went through peaks and valleys during the next quarter century. Once Altman took over in 1994, McManus would attend some of the team’s road games as well as home contests.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Altman, now the coach at Oregon. “When I first took the job, I thought it was good to have a guy who was successful come back and spend a lot of time around the program.
“When you study the history of the program, you realize what a big part of the start of Creighton basketball Red was. He loved Creighton, absolutely, and loved the basketball program. … I think all the players learned something from being around him, and that’s how important Creighton was in the community.”