There is a tradition in politics of sports figures parlaying their celebrity into campaigns for elected office. Jim Bunning, for instance, pitched a perfect game in 1964 and now represents Kentucky as a Republican Senator, while Tom Osborne, who won two national titles as Nebraska’s football coach, just completed three terms as a G.O.P. congressman from that state. Democrats can claim Bill Bradley and Heath Schuler as their own athletes-turned-politicians.
Now comes Dick Versace, most famous for his stint as head coach of the Indiana Pacers (a 73-87 record over parts of three seasons) and his run as an NBA broadcaster on TNT in the 1990s. But before that, he was the highly successful coach of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois — the heart of the 18th Congressional District, whose Republican Congressman, Ray LaHood is retiring next year. The 67-year-old Versace wants it known that he’s eyeing the race as a Democrat.
This may not be such a crazy idea. The district has elected moderate Republicans for years, but its voting history suggests victory is possible for the Democrats — under the right circumstances. Versace actually qualifies as a local celebrity. His seven year run as Bradley’s coach, from 1979 to 1986, represents the program’s glory days, when his Braves dominiated the Missouri Valley Conference and made regular NCAA tournament appearances. But his tenure ended in scandal (and NCAA probation), and after a 32-3 season in 1985-86, the school essentially fired him, announcing that he would coach one more season and then be replaced. Versace took the hint and landed a job as an NBA assistant coach, which led to his hiring as the Pacers’ head man in 1988. He left Bradley loaded, though, and his replacement, the colorful Stan Albeck, guided a team led by future NBA star Hersey Hawkins to another Missouri Valley title and a trip to the ’88 tournament. But Albeck couldn’t match Versace’s recruiting prowess and was dismissed in 1991, as Bradley suffered through a prolonged down period.
Anyway, if you ever caught one of his “Versace Look” segments during his TNT days, you might have trouble imaging Versace in Congress. But he could be the party’s best bet for a pick-up in Peoria.