By AARON BRACY
He is a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame.
The second-winningest coach in NCAA history.
A living legend.
A Philly icon.
He’s well-known throughout basketball circles as one of the best coaches in the game, an all-time great shooter himself and an authority on teaching the jump shot.
He has amassed 1,123 career victories in 53 – yes 53! – seasons as head coach of Jefferson University (formerly Philadelphia University and Philadelphia Textile), a national title and has been a mentor to coaches and players everywhere. He has helped the likes of Charles Barkley and Jameer Nelson become better shooters.
Someone nicknamed Magee “The Shot Doctor.” Appropriately, it has stuck.
And, yet, he’s rarely in the headlines and almost never mentioned on sports-talk radio. In fact, some casual sports fans in Philadelphia might not even know who he is. He could’ve coached in the big-time, made more money and bigger headlines. He thrice turned down Division I head coaching jobs.
That’s because Herb Magee is perfectly comfortable at home in Philly, right where he has been since starting his career as a college freshman in 1959. He is the head basketball coach at Division II Jefferson University — and he’s perfectly content.
“It would’ve meant moving out of the area, and this is where my family is,” Magee told Bracy Sports Media (full interview below) about why he turned down bigger schools and bigger money over the years. “My kids were in school at the time. It didn’t seem like the right thing to do and I’m glad I didn’t. Where I am is where I should be.”
And the young-looking 78-year-old isn’t going away anytime soon. Assuming there is a basketball season in 2020-21, Magee will be returning to the Jefferson sideline for his 54th season.
“As long as I have that desire and that fire to do it, then I’m going to do it,” Magee said. “When the season’s over, my wife and I sit down and we talk about it. She and I discuss it and we make a decision. And the decision after this year was we’re going to coach again this coming year. I just pray to God we get the opportunity to coach, that nothing happens to the season.”
It would be hard to imagine a season without Herb Magee coaching basketball at Jefferson.
When Saint Joseph’s coach Jack Ramsay didn’t show interest in the undersized but deadly shooter during his high school days at West Catholic, Magee followed his uncle’s advice – or, rather, his directive – and went to Jefferson. Rev. Edwin Gallagher, a Catholic priest and Magee’s uncle, adopted Herb and his three brothers after their parents died.
There wasn’t any debate when Rev. Gallagher told Magee he was going to play at Jefferson after Harris had won the priest over.
“Instead of talking to my coach or anybody else, (Harris) started recruiting my uncle,” Magee said. “And my uncle said to me one night at dinner, on a Sunday night I’ll never forget, he said, ‘OK, Herb, you’re going to play for that Mr. Harris at Philadelphia Textile.’ And that was the end of that story because we always did what he said.”
Magee went on to a prolific career at Jefferson. He scored 2,235 career points, which still ranks third in school history, and averaged 29.1 points per game during his junior season in 1961-62. And he did it without the 3-point line.
“What I remember most of all about Coach Harris is as a freshman, when he put me in, he said, ‘You have the green light for your whole career. If you’re open, shoot it,’” Magee said. “I certainly paid attention to that and did exactly what my coach told me to do.”
After graduating, the Boston Celtics selected Magee with the 62nd overall pick in the 1963 draft. But Magee broke two fingers on his left hand and felt his chances of making the team were slim with future Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and John Havlicek already on the squad. So, he opted to return to Jefferson and work as an assistant coach.
He benefited from a JV team that he helmed and found out early that the coaching thing was right up his alley.
“The biggest thing about coaching is you have to first prove it to yourself that you can do it – and I did,” he said. “I proved to myself that I knew what I was doing and I could handle coaching a basketball team. When I took over, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I just jumped from the JV to the varsity.”
Magee assumed the reins in 1967 as a 25-year-old. Three seasons later, Jefferson won a national title.
“We really had a great basketball team,” he said. “We had every position filled with a terrific player. I always tell my teams over the years that if we could ever approach not just the ability of those guys but the way they handled themselves every single day at practice.”
Magee figured that would be the first of many national championships. He’s made 31 NCAA tournaments, but never again ended his season with a victory. Still, he has amassed 37 20-plus win seasons, including 27-4 this past season; an amazing .717 career winning percentage; and when he looks above him in the record books, only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has more coaching victories in college basketball history.
“It really is hard to believe,” Magee said. “It just goes to show you one season goes to the next. After we hit 1,000, there’s no real reason to stop. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do at the University. I’m happy for the school and all the players who played for me.”