The Hardwood Flash: June 1
Around the hardwood with CSTV.com's Bryan Armen Graham
June 1, 2006
By Bryan Armen Graham
Not many east coasters had heard of Vance Walberg before the longtime California coaching staple replaced Paul Westphal as head coach of Pepperdine six weeks ago.
But for the left coast basketball junkies that have been abuzz about the 49-year-old coach and his unique system for years, Walberg's opportunity at the Division I level is long overdue.
Over the last 17 seasons, Walberg has established winning programs at Clovis West High and Fresno City College by installing his trademark up-tempo offense and pressure defense. Walberg compiled a 133-11 record in four seasons at the junior college, twice garnering California Coach of the Year honors. In 2005, the Rams finished with a sterling 34-0 record and the California state championship.
But even more notable than those gaudy numbers is the unwavering offensive and defensive pressure his teams employ. Fresno City shoots a ton of three-pointers and gets boatloads of easy lay-ups through its well-oiled transition game. His cerebral defense is neither a zone press nor a man press. Rather, Walberg's players learn to read an offense and react as a cohesive unit -- when one player goes to trap, teammates rotate, fill and take away angles on the fly.
"I feel like it's what got me to where I'm at. It's something I really believe in, something that I enjoy, and I think it's something that the fans enjoy," said Walberg of his system. "We've been pretty successful doing it, and it's something that I'm going to stay with."
During his tenure, Fresno City gained a reputation as one of the more difficult special-preparation teams in the Central Valley Conference. It's an advantage Walberg believes can translate into the West Coast Conference.
"It gives you an advantage because I think we're a little bit tougher to prepare for. Where the advantage comes from is when you play those Thursday-Saturday or Saturday-Monday games, the back end of those games gives you an edge," Walberg said. "I heard a lot of times where people said they would practice with six-against-five or seven-against-five just so they could get used to that type of pressure since it's different."
A consummate learner and student of the game, Walberg has spent one week of every October since 1987 picking the brain of a different Division I coach. The list reads like a Who's Who of coaching legends, including Bob Knight, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Denny Crum, Nolan Richardson, Gene Keady and Mike Krzyzewski. But when the Fresno City coach visited John Calipari three years ago, the Memphis coach was so impressed with Walberg's philosophies that the teacher-student roles were reversed -- and a unique friendship was struck.
The result was the high-powered offense that the Tigers used this past season on their run to the Elite Eight. The Memphis coach even singled out Walberg after the team's Regional Final loss to UCLA.
"People thought I was crazy: `You've won all these games doing it one way, all of a sudden you're changing everything,' But I've had more fun coaching this style. The players have had fun playing it," said Calipari in the wake of his team's tourney ouster. "[Walberg] will be a Division I coach in the next year or two. His teams will score over a hundred a game."
Said Walberg of his experience with the Memphis coach: "It's just a neat relationship. For me, he's been a big-time plus. He's kind of mentored me in a lot of different things. Just the way he treats me I really respect. He doesn't need to spend the time with me or anything, but he treats me like a brother and I really appreciate it."
The incoming Waves coach has kept touch with Calipari. When the Tigers traveled to California for the Sweet Sixteen -- about three hours north of Fresno -- Walberg spent the week with the team.
"I followed them all year. I get CSTV and they were on there a lot. I saw them play on TV probably 15 or 16 times minimum," Walberg said. "We would always talk a couple times each week on different things and when he went to Oakland I went up there and spent the week with them. It was a neat experience."