CLEMSON, SC -- To describe Larry Shyatt as unique is akin to calling the Mona Lisa a darn good water color.
A vast understatement.
Shyatt, soon to enter his third season as Clemson’s head basketball coach, has the unique ability find something positive in even the most dire circumstances. It’s the old “life gives you lemons, make lemonade” routine (there’s a similar saying involving chicken salad, but this is a family column. Most of the time).
Even as injuries and losses mounted last season, Shyatt found something positive to build on for the next game. So Wednesday, when Clemson announced power forward Chucky Gilmore would miss the upcoming season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered Monday, it was no surprise to hear Shyatt saying that somehow, someway, he and the Tigers will find a way to make this injury work to their advantage.
Thursday, I was privy to even more undying Shyatt optimism.
We spent an hour together on a radio sports talk show I hosted, chatting about everything from his Tigers to his Indians (Cleveland), from philosophical differences with the NCAA to coaching the U.S. basketball team in the Maccabiah Games - the Jewish Olympics - next summer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Listening to Shyatt speak about Clemson’s determination and hard work, you’d think he’s coaching the defending national champions instead of a team which finished dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season.
He was witty, well spoken, and displayed a marvelous sense of humor and an honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth manner which made you feel you’d known “Coach Shy” all your life (And the fact that he tends to sound like Marvin the Martian - “The Immodium Pew 36 Explosive Space Modulator” - from Bugs Bunny fame when he gets excited makes him all the more real).
But it is exactly that affirmative attitude - his seemingly incredible understanding of what really is important in life, as well as basketball - which makes him so easy to root for as he struggles to build a basketball program in a football town.
“I would hope that (attitude) has very little to do with basketball,” Shyatt said. “That’s my parents, my best friend - my wife - and those people who have been closest to me for a long time giving me, hopefully, a degree of balance.
“Some people have said, ‘Gee, sometimes the kids don’t connect with you.’ Well I think that’s quite normal. I think what’s important is are you always at least attempting to reach out and attempting to do the right thing.
“To be honest with you, I love it and I enjoy it.”
A contingent of Clemson fans, however, have been vocal in voicing their displeasure with Shyatt.
Last season’s 10-20 record (4-12 ACC) wiped out memories of 1998-99, when Shyatt’s first Clemson team reached the championship game of the NIT in New York’s Madison Square Garden. They forget Shyatt was 19-9 in his only other season as a head coach (1997-98) at Wyoming.
They forget that as either an assistant coach or head coach, Shyatt has helped develop 15 players who went on to play in the NBA.
None of that matters to some Clemson fans. One bad season and it’s ‘Bye Bye Shy.’
Let’s hope not.
Let us not forget that while the Tigers were expected to struggle last season, nobody could predict the rash of injuries which, at one time, were so bad Clemson had to scrimmage with managers in practice just to fill out five reserve slots.
Let us not forget that recruiting Clemson basketball is like recruiting Duke football. The red-headed stepchild oft times is little more than an afterthought at each school.
And let us not forget that Clemson’s facilities are woefully inadequate, making an already difficult recruiting job even more of a challenge.
Shyatt sees all this, yet somehow maintains both his sense of humor and sense of purpose. He offers no excuses about 1999-2000, though there were plenty of legitimate points he could make.
Instead, he takes it all in stride and promises to find a way to make things better. Somehow, some way.
Yet even when given the opportunity Thursday to get in the last word, maybe to promote himself at least once while the outro music played, Shyatt found a more important cause to champion.
“The only appropriate thing, or right thing, would be if anybody cares about Clemson or Clemson basketball, it sure would be the right time to drop Chucky Gilmore a note, and perhaps his mother, (saying) that they care, that they want to see him healthy, and they know he’s going to be back.
“This is probably a tough time for Chucky.”
Dan Scott is the sports editor of Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Daily Messenger.
His columns can be read at www.dailyjournalmessenger.com.