Traveling Violations: A coach's coach

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsMarch 3, 2007

Dan's Road Trip: Salukis can run

ST. LOUIS – He’s been telling it like it is for 42 years as a coach, always unflinchingly honest and direct, a breath of fresh air. So, no, there was no reason to expect anything to change now that Royce Waltman’s bumbled dismissal was humiliatingly public.

Waltman has been fired as the head coach of Indiana State and that probably means little to most college hoops fans. It should mean more.

This is a coach’s coach, the kind of guy you’d send your kid to play for and learn from in a heartbeat, just the way parents in Indiana had for decades. This is the kind of leader college basketball likes to pretend all of their coaches are like, when in truth, so few are.

He had been a high school coach, a Bob Knight assistant at IU, a small college champion and finally the guy who resurrected Indiana State from its depressing post-Larry Bird era and returned the Sycamores to a couple of NCAA tournaments earlier this decade.

But as the Missouri Valley grew, ISU stumbled and that, Waltman said, was on him. No excuses, not now, not ever.

“We failed,” Waltman said after a 59-38 loss to Creighton ended ISU’s season at 13-18. “There’s no one to blame for that except myself.”

Indiana State had fallen off in recent years, so the school had little choice. But make no mistake, college basketball is a poorer place without this guy, the grandfatherly teacher. The way the school’s Board of Trustees decided to fire him a week ago and then let it become the worst kept secret in Terre Haute was an unfortunate way to end it.

“Well, don’t take this as a bitter comment because I am not one bit bitter but the administration handled this with the deft touch of a 20-mule team,” Waltman laughed.

Waltman was disappointed Friday and worried about the future. For over four decades he’s had a team to concern himself with; a group of young men to teach and now, well, who knows? He can’t imagine a winter without a team. But now, at 65, and coming off this disappointment, he knows he might be done – no matter his 599 career victories at the college and high school level.

“I can’t get a head coaching job,” Waltman said. “You gotta understand, if you get fired for cheating, you get hired right back again. If you get fired for losing, it’s like you’ve got leprosy; so young coaches need to bear that in mind. Cheating and not graduating players will not get you in trouble, but that damn losing …”

That’s always been Waltman’s way, take no prisoners. Don’t get the idea that this press conference was a final rant against an unfair system. Waltman spent as much time cracking jokes as anything.

When initially asked to comment on the accuracy of a report in the Terre Haute paper that he was done, he deadpanned, “Well, I would say it’s very accurate.”

College hoops can only hope he hooks on somewhere as an assistant. He was a victim of his own success in many ways. When he took over in 1997, the Sycamores had suffered through 17 consecutive non-winning seasons. He immediately got them to 16-11 and then into the 2000 and 2001 NCAA tournaments. But he couldn’t maintain it and Waltman says that’s on him.

“We had some great teams and then we made some recruiting errors and some mistakes and we found ourselves in a position where we didn’t build as we should have,” he said. “I’m embarrassed by that.”

ISU will go younger, for sure, and will probably find a more polished, supposedly more exciting coach. “Whatever they choose to do is their decision,” said Creighton coach Dana Altman. “But they’ll have a hard time finding a better coach and a better man than Royce Waltman.”

  • Concerning “The Jerome,” it turns out that Andy Staples of the Tampa Tribune did, in fact, finish dead last a year ago. He scored one less point than my father, who spent Friday somehow trying to paint this as a victory of some sorts.

“Do I get a retraction?” he asked, which I agreed to. “How about a public apology?”

The guy finishes 47th out of 48 and he wants an apology?

“I’m ashamed/proud (of last place),” Staples said. “But now you can call your dad the penultimate competitor. And any opportunity to use the word penultimate is a blessing.”

And so The Jerome turns.

Ironically I didn’t even give my father enough credit for his Jerome scouting this winter. He even took in the Drexel-Northeastern tilt last month, a true MCI game – friends and family only. Of course, he immediately turned on his buddy Bruiser Flint and picked Virginia Commonwealth to win the CAA.

“It’s a home game for VCU,” he offered.

Of course, the guy is so excited about all the games on Saturday he doesn’t even know when my mother is returning from visiting family in New York. If she is smart it’ll be April.

  • These pot shots at my father are preemptive strikes because his pick in the Ohio Valley (Eastern Kentucky) took out my pick (Tennessee Tech) in a depressing development that I am sure to hear about on Saturday. It is almost as depressing as the fact I spent part of a Friday night actually following an Ohio Valley semifinal game on the internet.
  • Meanwhile “Big Daddy” Lipscomb gave me a scare in the Atlantic Sun but East Tennessee State held on to keep my pick in that league alive. All of my other early tourney picks are still alive. If tourney administrator Dave Curtis ever gets around to providing scoring updates, we wouldn’t hate him for it.
  • Waltman may not be the only older coach who paced his last sideline Friday. Drake coach Tom Davis, 68, said he wasn’t sure if he’d return next season after losing to Southern Illinois – his son, Keno, will take over when the good Doctor hangs it up.

“The older you get the more you think about it,” said Davis, who coached at Iowa, Stanford and Boston College through the years. “I’ve been in it long enough to know that … I’ll take some time and think about it.”

If this was Davis’ final season – 17-16 – it can be highlighted by his victory over Iowa, the program that fired him in favor of Steve Alford (who is now on his own hot seat).

  • On the other hand, rumors are everywhere that Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowry is being pursued by Colorado, Minnesota and who knows where else to fill open coaching positions. Considering his three tournaments in three years and the impressive defense his teams play, that makes sense. If he’s smart, he’ll wait out for the right job because he’s too good to settle for just anything. And with rumors that Michigan might give Tommy Amaker still another year, this may not be the year the great high major job opens.
  • If Winthrop wins the Big South title Saturday, it could be a big night for Rock Hill, S.C. We heard a rumor that last year when the Eagles secured a NCAA bid the party got rolling so strong that the school chancellor even picked up some monster bar tab. See, this stuff doesn’t happen in the ACC.
  • Bradley coach Jim Les thinks his team’s dramatic 51-48 victory over Northern Iowa put the Braves in terrific shape for an at-large bid no matter the result Saturday against Southern Illinois. “I think we are one of the 65 best teams in the country,” Les said.

Maybe. But one more win sure would help.

  • Got a beer in Buffalo on Monday night with former Canisius coach Mike MacDonald, who worked as color analyst on the Akron-UB game, making him the professional opposite of Billy Packer. But hey, Mac’s just starting out.

He actually coached Medaille, a Division III school in Buffalo, this season and was so good that one year after getting fired from the MAAC he was the coach of the year in the AMCC. Not bad.

  • With the victory Friday, Creighton has won at least 20 games in each of the last nine seasons, all under Altman.
  • Meanwhile, Wichita State, which at one point was ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll and owns victories over Syracuse and LSU, got ground up by the Valley. After losing its fifth consecutive game to Missouri State 67-64 Friday, the Shockers dropped to a shocking 17-14.

“We’ve created a monster in this league,” Missouri State coach Barry Hinson said. “Don’t point the finger at them, point it at the other nine teams in the league that are good. They play in the sixth best conference in the country.”

  • In St. Louis I caught up with radio hosts and hoop nuts Mike “Chops” Ritter and John Marecek of the local KFNS, not to mention Mac McCausland who did the color commentary on the Wichita State-Missouri State television broadcast. Good guys all.
  • Naturally, since Indiana State was playing, there was a guy in the stands in an old school, ISU Larry Bird jersey. Or maybe it was an Eddie Bird throwback.
  • Penn captured the Ivy League title Friday, meaning the Fighting Quakers are the first team to qualify for the NCAA tournament this season.
  • With the exception of players with extreme athletic ability and size – the guys in the Valley are a little smaller and a little slower – there was no way to tell Friday this was a supposed mid major tournament. The crowd (over 31,000 for the two sessions), the environment and the quality of play were all top notch. The Friday finale between Wichita State and Missouri State was pure March Madness.

The league expects packed houses here for this weekend’s semifinals and title game. Maybe it’ll allow them to spring for wireless access courtside next year.

  • Campaign stop Saturday: Rock Hill, S.C.