Harvey Mackay had a gruesome battle with COVID-19 during the midst of the pandemic. The restrictions were such that his wife, Carol Ann, was not able to visit Harvey during a long hospital stay in Arizona.
He turned the corner after several weeks; always slim, now extra-slim. He was back in Minnesota this summer, with a schedule full of calls, meetings, big plans and even golf.
Mackay will turn 90 on Oct. 24. On his 80th birthday, he was said to have thrown a weekend bash for celebrities, business contacts, publishing contacts and close friends in Las Vegas that was astounding in scope. He is going to repeat that for a 90th birthday bash in Phoenix in November.
My first awareness of Mackay in the sports realm was 50-plus years ago when he was trying to give some much-needed support to George Hanson as the Gophers men's basketball coach for the 1970-71 season.
Bill Fitch had resigned on May 30, 1970, to become the first coach of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers. Hanson was promoted from being an assistant, the Gophers finished under .500 and athletic director Marsh Ryman decided to drop Hanson.
Williams Arena and the Gophers' athletic facilities as a whole were so ramshackle that Cal Luther, from Murray State in Kentucky, took the job, looked closer at what he was signing up for, and went back to the Racers.
Thus arrived Bill Musselman, 31, from Ashland University in Ohio, as wired-up as possible for a human being, and finding a dedicated partner in the indefatigable Mackay, then 39.
Boosters could recruit then, and Mackay was a frequent companion for Musselman on such trips. Rumors had it The Muss and Harvey believed in rewarding name, image and likeness for aspiring Gophers well in advance of it being fashionable.
Jon Roe, the legendary Gophers reporter for the Minneapolis newspaper, was privileged to cover Big Ten hoops when it was 10 teams and filled with coaches of giant-sized résumés.
My favorite Roe tale from those days was Michigan's Johnny Orr confronting Jon over the aggressive recruiting tactics undertaken by Musselman and Mackay in their attempt to land Campy Russell, the prep superstar from Pontiac, Mich.
Roe listened to Orr's indictment of the Gophers' recruiters and then said, "One question, Johnny. Where did Campy wind up?''
Orr had to admit the answer was, "Michigan.''
Post-Musselman, Harvey was excused from being a booster for his alma mater for a time, but when we needed a dome in downtown Minneapolis to mollify the Vikings, Harvey and Sid Hartman were loud voices in the civic effort.
And then came Mackay at his Harvey-ist:
With athletic director Paul Giel ailing after heart surgery, Harvey and a couple of associates delivered Lou Holtz (leaving Arkansas) to become the new Gophers coach in December 1983.
An excellent coach and an amazing bull slinger, and with the Vikings in decline … Minnesotans went insane for Lou.
Over in St. Paul, writing columns primarily for the afternoon Dispatch, I made as much fun of the over-the-top Holtz sales job as could be mustered. It was like spitting into a hurricane.
In 1984, Mackay became a brief, yet-memorable local TV star by marching to the Metrodome ticket windows to buy thousands of Twins' tickets on discount days – "The Buyout'' intended to enforce owner Calvin Griffith's lease to play there. In midseason, it was announced Carl Pohlad would be buying the team, at what always seemed an incredible bargain rate.
Four years later, Mackay released his first book on sales and business, "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,'' and it started his decades-long run as a phenomenon of bookselling.
During this period, Harvey and I patched it up — my theory being, "He's ours and he's unique.''
Mackay hasn't always been right in observations passed along. One afternoon, my bride and I were flying to Phoenix for a vacation. Harvey came back from the front cabin and talked to us for 20 minutes — half of which was an endorsement of Tim Brewster, early in his tenure as Gophers football coach.
I managed in a quick retort: "I don't see it. Unlike your guy Lou, it's a hard sell without substance.''
Harvey and I had lunch last month. Around 80 minutes, and a much-needed sharpening of my listening skills.
Around 25% of the Harvey blitz was a full-fledged salute to P.J. Fleck, as he entered Season 6 as Gophers football coach.
"I've been around him; I've seen the way the players react to him,'' Mackay said. "You watch him dive into those players and surf across them after a victory … the enthusiasm he has for the players and them for him is world-class.''
So, not hearing a future siren call from Notre Dame, as did your man Lou after only two seasons?
"P.J. loves it here, and he knows he can win here,'' Mackay said. "We have a true star in this coach.''
OK, after the overwhelming start against chumps this season, and a solid chance to win Saturday at Michigan State, and with the Big Ten West crumbling as the Gophers rise, and in honor of the 90th birthday of my later-in-life friend Harvey, there's a revised outlook for this fall. Here goes:
I'm buying P.J. Fleck.