Behind the Bluster
Riley Wallace is both intense coach and father figure
Somewhere in Utah
"You’ve gotta forgive me if my phone cuts off, but I’m somewhere out here in Utah, trying to do some recruiting," says longtime University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Associate Basketball Coach Jackson Wheeler.
As he has on so many occasions during 17 years with the Rainbow Warrior team, Wheeler has left the travel contingent to scour the countryside for the next big talent. The 18-12 Warriors were in Las Cruces, N.M., preparing for the 2007 Western Athletic Conference Tournament, hoping to extend their season and the career of one of the last of a waning breed.
Riley Wallace retired at the end of the season as a rarity in college hoops—a coach who defines his program. He has the 13th longest tenure for head coaches at one school; only four of those ahead of him, Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Mike Kryzyweski (Duke), Lute Olsen (Arizona) and Jim Calhoun (Connecticut), are from major college programs.
"If I had to pick one word to define Riley, it would be 'the greatest,'" Wheeler says. "He’s re-built this program, he’s been loyal to the university, and he’s instilled his high morals and ethics into Hawaiʻi basketball. He’s one of those guys that many people won’t appreciate until he’s gone."
When Wallace took the reigns in 1987, the Rainbows had experienced four consecutive losing campaigns. After battling through a 4-25 first year, Wallace’s ’Bows won 17 games the next year, and then 25 the year after that. Under his watch, UH won 370 games, three WAC Tournament titles and a pair of regular season conference crowns. He led teams to nine national post-season tournaments, earning WAC Coach of the Year honors three times. (Only former Utah boss Rick Majerus has four.) Along the way, Wallace helped groom several top young coaching talents, including Pittsburgh Head Coach Jamie Dixon, Kentucky Assistant Scott Rigot and Denver Nuggets Assistant Jarinn Akana. He had an impact in other ways as well.
"When I first came here, I was really having a hard time. I had just lost my wife to a drunken driver, and I was having serious thoughts about giving up coaching," Wheeler recalls. "Riley got me to come out here, and I really was able to turn my life around. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I’d still be coaching, I don’t know where I’d be."
Recruiting in L.A.
Like Wheeler, UH Hilo Head Basketball Coach Jeff Law calls from the recruiting trail to reminisce about his experience as assistant coach on the Rainbow bench, 1988-92 and 1994-98.
"There’s a lot more to the man than what meets the eye," Law says. "Intensity, sensitivity, knowledge, experience—he has it all. He is a good teacher, not just of X’s and O’s, but life as well. He was very influential in many of my views in basketball, life, everything. He took me under his wing like a father does, took care of me and gave me opportunities to grow and mature."
Some benefits came in unexpected ways. "Riley always made a big deal about professionalism, wearing a jacket whenever we went on the road. "You know Riley; it was never long before that green blazer ended up in the seats somewhere. I was able to establish some long lasting relationships in those years, ’cause every time we were in Fresno or Utah, I had to go up into the stands to get that jacket."
Rebounding in Italy
Anthony Carter calls from two oceans away. The UH All-American and seven-year NBA veteran is playing with Scafati of Italy’s Serie A league, biding his time in a bid to return to the NBA. "Coach is very inspiring," Carter says. "He’s such a hard worker. He’s disciplined. He always wants the guys to be everything they want to be in life, and he’ll do whatever he can to help them achieve it."
Carter arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1996. Miles from his Georgia home, he found the Wallace family’s hospitality comforting. "To me and many other players, he’s really been a father figure. He makes sure everything gets taken care of the right way. He and his wife would invite the guys over to eat, and his wife would even tutor us when we needed help with school. They’re like everybody’s parents. They always treated everyone the same."
Teamed with Alika Smith in one of the most formidable duos in program history, Carter signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat following his senior season. He credits Wallace. "He sat me down one day and told me that he knew I could play in the NBA and he was going to help me get there. I told him that day that if I ever made it, I would make it a point to give back to the school." In 2002, Carter established the Anthony Carter Men’s Basketball Endowed Scholarship Fund with a $100,000 donation.
The best from Boston
While coaching at Centenary College of Louisiana in the early 1970s, Wallace convinced a 7-foot Shreveport native to stay home. "I knew Riley before he became famous," Robert Parish laughs on the line from Boston. "He played the game the right way, moving the basketball around, taking care of the little things. He had a swagger about him. That chip on his shoulder he had on the court, that confidence allowed us to play with poise and confidence as well. He only knows one way to play the game, and that’s all out. I really have a lot of respect for Coach Riley. He is a class act."
Eighth overall pick in the 1976 draft, Parish was a star center through 14 years and three NBA titles with the Boston Celtics. He added a championship with the Chicago Bulls before retiring in 1996 as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Centenary basketball was an extended family with Wallace as the father figure, Parish recalls. "Monitoring curfew, our classes, making sure we got our work done…he made it his personal interest. Our class, the class of ’76, we are a part of his legacy. We all graduated on time. He wouldn’t have it any other way. He made sure that we’d all be prepared for life after basketball. If we weren’t performing up to his standards in the classroom, he would 'take us behind the barn' as they say. If I hadn’t graduated, I would have never gone back once I got into the NBA. I give him a lot of credit for that."
Loyal in Sacramento
During the mid-’90s, UH student Darryl Arata was sports media relations director for Rainbow Basketball. Now in his sixth season as manager of basketball information for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Arata chats from his desk at the team’s front office.
"I had been working for Riley for a couple of years when I decided to pursue an internship," Arata says. "It was a dream of mine to work in the NBA for the Bulls, with Michael Jordan and all. I mentioned it to Riley one day and he offered to call (Bulls General Manager) Jerry Krause for me. Later I met Jerry and he told me what a good word Riley had put in for me."
Arata retains ties to UH’s basketball program, offering a bed to Wheeler and volunteering to be Wallace’s personal driver on recent recruiting trips. "Once you get to know him, you are a friend of his forever. Everyone around him is loyal to him because of the way he treats them. It’s no coincidence."
Back to Las Cruces
As he has been for the past 17 years, Bob Nash is right beside Riley Wallace, figuratively and physically. A member of UH’s famed "Fab Five," Nash launched a distinguished professional career as a first-round 1972 selection of the Detroit Pistons. On his return to Hawaiʻi, he became friends with Wallace.
"I was trying to decide which direction to go in and Riley insisted that I consider coaching. He’s been a mentor to me ever since. He’s taught me so much—how to evaluate talent, how to evaluate situations in the game. His love for the game, the intensity he brings, his preparation in getting his team ready—I marvel at him and what he does. He has invaluable insight and wisdom and he has exposed me to things that I plan to instill if I am ever fortunate enough to run my own program."
(Nash gets that chance as UH’s next head hoops coach.)
For all Wallace’s accomplishments, his steely stare and his fiery demeanor stalking along the sideline, Nash’s one-word summation of his former boss is this: caring. "Riley is a very intense person, that’s obvious," Nash says. "When he’s on the basketball court, he has to show a certain amount of discipline to get people to buy what he’s selling. But there is a nurturing side to him and a lot of people don’t see that. He really does care about the individuals on the team." Witness the crowds at the Wallace home every Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Home to Honolulu
The Rainbow’s 2007 playoff hopes may have ended in a first-round heartbreaker, but that doesn’t detract from two decades of leadership on and off the court. In the end, Wallace’s legacy isn’t his 370 wins, the 20 all-conference performers he coached or the players he sent to the pros; it’s in the lives of the people he has touched.
Thanks for the memories, Coach.
Score an assist
Riley Wallace was honored April 25 in the Stan Sheriff Center with a benefit dinner to establish the Riley and Joan Wallace Endowed Scholarship for Men’s Basketball. To make a donation, contact Lorraine Leslie, firstname.lastname@example.org or 808 956-6501.