Monday, March 05, 2007

Traveling Violations: A coach's coach

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.”

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