For Jack Gardner the final buzzer sounded Sunday evening, and to those who know him it was probably no coincidence that it followed the passing of Stan Watts by only 72 hours. Rivals to the end, there was no way Gardner was going to let Watts one-up him.
No fan or acquaintance of Gardner's could resist imagining what happened Monday when they met in that big gym in the sky.Gardner: Two out of three?
Watts: Shoot for it. Got milk?
Gardner, the great basketball coach at the University of Utah, died at the age of 90 Sunday evening, just three days after Watts, the great BYU basketball coach and Gardner's in-state nemesis, passed away at 88.
That was what they did during their careers, as well -- match each other nearly step-for-step. Gardner won 19 games against Watts and BYU; Watts won 17 against Gardner and Utah. And so it went. Gardner won seven conference titles; Watts eight. Gardner earned two Final Four berths; Watts won two NIT titles. Gardner built the Huntsman Center in 1969; Watts built the Marriott Center in 1971. Gardner discovered John Stockton; Watts discovered LaVell Edwards. Both of them are in the national Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Both of their schools award scholarships in their names. Both put their stamps on the game with a track-meet style of play, although there was some dispute about who did what when.
"Stan didn't fast-break a lot until I had been at Utah for five or six years," said Gardner only a few years ago.
For three decades in their retirement, Gardner and Watts sat in the Huntsman and Marriott centers, respectively, watching their old basketball teams like lords of the game, biting their tongues as the play got slower and more pedestrian. The game didn't progress after they left; it regressed.
Gardner and Watts retired within a year of each other; they died within days of each other. "Can you believe those guys, both going at nearly the same time?" said Danny Hawes, who played for Gardner and now works in the Utah athletic department. "We were talking about that up here. They're probably banging heads right now."
Gardner, like Watts, is considered one of the game's premier coaches. Don Haskins, the legendary UTEP coach, once said Gardner was among the top five coaches of all time. Gardner was so successful he didn't build just one arena; he built two of them. The Huntsman Center is considered the house that Jack built. So is Ahearn Field House at Kansas State. During his 28 years as a head coach, including 18 years at Utah from 1953 to 1971, his teams won 486 games. He took four teams to the Final Four -- two at KSU, two at Utah -- but never won the national title.
Gardner, nicknamed "The Fox," was so intense that he kept a bottle of milk under the bench to chug during games, supposedly to keep his stomach settled (years later, when Watts recalled a win over Gardner in their final game against each other, he laughed and said, "That was a two-quart night for Jack.") The milk bottle became Gardner's trademark.
He also was known for the meticulous preparation and organization he brought to coaching. He came to the gym each day with a lengthy typewritten outline of that day's practice.
"He was all business," says Ladell Andersen, one of 22 Gardner assistants who went on to become a head coach and one of three to become a pro coach. "Every minute was planned. After a game, he'd have me stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning, putting together a report on everything we tried, how we scored, where we scored, how many we got off fast-breaks, off turnovers and so forth, and I had to have it on his desk by 8 in the morning. Five or six pages of the stuff. I don't think there's ever been a guy more organized than Jack Gardner."
Gardner was considered the guru of the fast-break style of play. Other teams were doing set shots and walking the ball up the court. Stepping on the court with the Utes was like walking onto I-15 during rush hour. The Utes delivered a rebound to the wing, and they were off and running (hence, the nickname "Runnin' " Utes. When Haskins wanted to learn how to teach his team the up-tempo game, he called Gardner for advice, then used it to beat his Utes in the semifinals of the Final Four ("I became the all-American chump on that deal," Gardner would say).
Gardner never seemed to get enough of basketball. He gave clinics around the world, then exchanged several letters with James Naismith himself, who was curious about what he had learned of overseas basketball. He attended every Final Four from 1939 to 1996, a foot injury finally ending the streak. Even in retirement, he continued to stay close to the game, and when the New Orleans Jazz came to Utah he became a consultant to the team. He has been credited with discovering John Stockton during a scouting swing through the northwest in 1983.
"Jack, in my opinion, was one of the real giants of the game, up there with Adolph Rupp and Henry Iba," says Andersen.
Last week marked the end of an era.
The end of two of them.