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South Buffalo loses a legend with McGrath’s death

Dan Gerken was a young assistant for Alfred at the time. Things weren’t going so well and his head coach was working over Mudd McGrath, who was officiating the game. Gerken yelled something to a player and McGrath came sprinting across the court and right in his face.

“Oh, God,” Gerken thought. “He’s going to give me a technical.”

“Danny,” McGrath said, “you got a bottle opener? My partner brought a six-pack and they’re not twistoffs!”

Gerken, who had known McGrath as a kid and was the Lake Shore coach for 15 years, said he’d take care of it. He found a bottle opener at halftime. The game itself has faded. Mudd made it the memory of a lifetime.

A lot of people out there are nodding and smiling, no doubt. They have their fond memories of Thomas James “Mudd” McGrath, the legendary tavern owner and basketball official who died last week of cancer at 72.

McGrath was a true Buffalo character. Everyone knew him. During the early 1990s, when the Bills were at their zenith, Mudd McGrath’s tavern was the place to be. Mudd might have been the most popular man in South Buffalo, next to Mayor Jimmy Griffin. Bill Polian was a regular. He loved the fact that Mudd treated him like any other patron.

Visiting sports writers went there to find the heart of the Buffalo fan. At the first Super Bowl, the guys from Mudd’s made the cover of the Tampa paper, jumping into a swimming pool holding up mock front pages saying the Bills had won.

That was pure Mudd, living life to the fullest. But people who knew him best will tell you he was a softy at heart, a devoted husband and father who dashed to the bar after reffing a game, but generally slipped away to get home to his six children.

But Mudd would not have been a civic icon if he hadn’t also been a terrific official. He looked after younger refs, who looked up to him. Coaches respected him as a hard-working guy who knew the game but even more important, who knew people.

“His people skills were the best,” said Kevin Ferguson, a Division I official who worked many games with McGrath. “He could calm a situation down in no time. He could calm players down. He could calm coaches down.

“Mudd was reffing a game at Buffalo State,” Ferguson said. “The other referee made an absolutely awful call. Coach Dick Bihr was ready to go through the roof. Mudd walked over to him and said, ‘Come on, Dick, you just bought a brand new beautiful house, you’ve got a beautiful wife and kids.

“Coach Bihr looks at Mudd and he says, ‘If he keeps making calls like that, I’m going to be living in the street!’ It was classic. They both laughed and guess what? He defused the situation. He was good at that.”

Bihr had Mudd as a ref dozens of times at St. Joe’s and Buff State. They became friends. Bihr would get T’d up by Mudd, then have a beer with him later. McGrath did the famous game when Buff State beat Canisius at the Aud. Bihr remembers Mudd joking that he’d never get a Canisius game again.

“You always knew the officials were going to work hard on the game if he was on it,” Bihr said. “He wasn’t going to let the game get out of hand. There wasn’t going to be any nonsense. It didn’t mean the game was going to be officiated tightly or loosely, but both teams would have a shot to win.

“And when the game was over, he understood it was over. No hard feelings. We both had a job to do. He loved the game of basketball. That made it easier for him to go through all those different eras. He was great with players and coaches, because he had that certain comic ability.”

You picture Mudd, you see him in a striped shirt with that impish look on his face, the ball under his arm. He was animated, but vigilant. He would give players and coaches these sly glances, letting them know he was aware of everything happening around him.

Bihr said McGrath would put his whistle into his mouth to suppress a laugh when his partner blew a call. And if Mudd missed one, he was the first to admit it. He’d run down the sideline say, “I missed it.”

Ferguson remembers a game at Medaille, soon after the new gym opened. One of the teams was making a substitution, but Mudd put the ball in play too early.

The coach was going crazy.

“Mudd goes out to the middle of the court,” Ferguson said. “He blows his whistle as loud as he can and says, ‘This whole thing is my fault! There’s no technical foul! We’re taking the ball out of bounds again, and we’re going to start over.’ And guess what, no one said a word.”

For all his theatrics, Mudd wasn’t one to impose himself on a game. He let the players go, within reason. Visiting coaches wanted him on games because of it. Younger officials learned from him.

Danny Nostrant was one. His father, John “Noey” Nostrant, was a long-time hoop official. In 1995, Noey died of a heart attack at 72 while reffing a summer league game at Timon. Danny saw a lot of his old man in Mudd, a tireless ref who controlled a game without overwhelming it.

Nostrant reffed his first big game with Mudd. It was Timon vs. Turner/Carroll, in the Leonard Stokes/Julius Page/Charlie Comerford era. Nostrant was nervous. Mudd told him to calm down. It was just another game. They barely blew the whistles in the first half.

“He always made you feel comfortable,” Nostrant said. “In his way, he’d tell you if you were doing something wrong, and you adjusted. Second half, it’s all-out, a great game. I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’ It goes to the final shot. There’s a timeout. He tells me, ‘You get the shot.’ Comerford misses off the back rim and Turner wins. Great game.

Nostrant was crying now. “After the game, Mudd puts his arm around me and says, ‘Wow, that was unbelievable!’ I’d never heard him say that. I really get emotional when I talk about him, because he’s, he’s just a great guy.”

Dan Finucane is another veteran official who saw Mudd as a mentor and friend. Mudd was a mailman. Finucane’s father was Mudd’s boss. So as a boy, he was familiar with his devilish side.

“He was a great mailman,” Finucane said. “But my father used to say, ‘Mudd felt the rules were for everybody else. These guys were all working second games, so they might work games when they were supposedly on the clock. They were taking care of each other.

“So when I got into reffing, he helped us out. My first few times reffing with him, I was nervous. I was out there with a legend. Coaches aren’t going to bother Mudd. He’ll go after me because I’m the new guy. So Mudd was always looking after us and trying to protect us.”

Finucane said Mudd wasn’t fond of the long road trips in his later days. If he came to the bar, Mudd would ask what he was doing the next night. Then he’d talk him into taking his place as a ref at some distant outpost. If they ask where I am, Mudd said, just tell them my grandmother died.

“So I went up to Lew-Port one time and walked in the door,” Finucane said. “Jim Walker was coaching there at the time. He says, ‘How many grandmothers did Mudd have?’ ”

Yes, Mudd loved to stop for a few after games. Mike O’Bryan, who played at Buffalo State, recalls getting clobbered late in a game with his team up by 20. Mudd gave the call to the other team. O’Bryan looked up from the floor and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’

Mudd said, “You guys have this one in the bag. Now shut up so we can get the hell out of here. Meet me at Cole’s, first round is on me.”

Ben Bluman, a veteran official and dear friend, remembers how upset Mudd was to find that neither had bought beer for the trip home after a game in Rochester. Bluman said Mudd made him pull off at every exit on the way home, looking to buy beer, to no avail.

“We get back and I tell him we turned an hour trip into two hours,” Bluman said. “He says in his many years of reffing, he never had driven back from a game without having a beer. It took us so long to get home, the bar we met at was already closed. We remained friends, though.”

When he heard of Mudd’s passing, Finucane told his wife he was probably out late too many times with Mudd after games, but he wouldn’t trade a minute of it. He said Mudd was a sentimental man at heart, and he loved tending to his garden.

They called him “Onion Eyes” because he cried so easily when talking about his family. Mudd was famous for writing notes of congratulations to coaches.

“He was a very caring guy,” Finucane said. “He was well-known for his Irish exits. You’d be out with him and all of a sudden he’d disappear, and you didn’t know he had left. He never said goodbye.”

“I think he did it to his wife at their wedding,” Ferguson said.

Finucane said he and Bluman were reminiscing with Mudd’s son, Sean, and daughter, Molly. They kidded about the fact that Mudd had passed away at the Hospice facility before his wife, Ellen, got there. His last Irish exit, she said.

(The McGrath family asks that any donations be made to SMART HOPE, 36 Densmore Ave., Buffalo, 14220, or