By Todd Golden
St. LOUIS — The only coach to lead the Indiana State men’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament in the post-Larry Bird era will no longer lead the Sycamores after the season ends.
ISU coach Royce Waltman, who has coached ISU since 1997, will not have his contract renewed. Waltman’s current coaching contract expires at the end of the season.
After declining comment on his status in the days leading up to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Waltman decided to speak during the postgame press conference after ISU’s 59-38 loss to Creighton in the MVC tourney.
“I found out a week ago, but it still hasn’t been made official by whoever is going to make that statement,” Waltman said.
Waltman cited dissatisfaction with university administration that news of his contract status became known to some before an official announcement.
“I’m not one to be bitter, but the administration handled this with the deft touch of a 20-mule team. They said it at a Board of Trustees meeting, which is obviously going to leak out, but yet said they didn’t want it announced until after the tournament. It left us with every man, woman and child in Terre Haute knowing I’m fired, but it’s not official.”
ISU Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman declined to comment about Waltman’s job status before Waltman’s postgame comments on Friday. Efforts to reach Prettyman, or anyone in ISU’s administration, after Waltman spoke late Friday were unsuccessful.
Waltman informed the team on Tuesday he wouldn’t be retained.
“It got to be such common knowledge, I had to talk to them. I told them it had nothing to with how I felt coming to the tournament. I felt we came down in good spirits,” Waltman said.
ISU will begin its first search in a decade for a men’s basketball coach.
“It’s a bummer and he’s going to be missed. He’s a great coach,” ISU guard Cole Holmstrom said.
Waltman finished his ISU career with a record of 134-164 in 10 seasons at the helm. ISU has finished in last place in the Valley in five of the last six seasons and finished last again this season.
“We’d been hearing whispers and I think when he told us it solidified in everyone’s mind that we could play for him knowing he wasn’t coming back,” ISU center Jay Tunnell said. “It’s sad to see him go, but at the same time, we’re going to be ready for a new coach and a new system.”
Before that, ISU enjoyed its most successful period since the Larry Bird era.
Waltman, who had been coaching at the University of Indianapolis, was hired to replace Sherman Dillard in 1997. The Sycamores immediately had their first winning record since 1980 with a 16-11 mark in 1997-98, as the core of ISU’s late 90s teams — Nate Green, Michael Menser, Matt Renn — led the way. Kelyn Block and Djibril Kante arrived for the 1998-99 season and ISU had another winning season.
The Waltman success culminated with ISU’s Missouri Valley Conference regular season title in the 1999-2000 season as the Sycamores compiled a 22-10 record and won the conference by a game over Southwest Missouri State. ISU lost in the MVC tourney, but made the NCAA Tournament field anyway, losing to Texas 77-61. It was ISU first MVC regular season title and first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1979, the last year of the Bird era.
In 2001, the Sycamores were in good shape in late January to repeat their Valley title, but suffered a 2-6 February, dropping them to fifth place. ISU recovered in the MVC tourney, beating Southern Illinois, Creighton and Bradley to earn a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
This time, the Sycamores made a bigger tourney splash. No. 13-seeded ISU beat Oklahoma 70-68 in overtime in 2001, the only NCAA Tournament win for ISU since the Bird era. The Sycamores lost to Gonzaga in the second round.
“I’ll have great memories of some of those teams. Guys like Menser, Renn and Green. They call me all the time. They try to act like they don’t care about me. Nate Green will call from Italy and his greeting will be something like, ‘Are you going to make it old man, or not?’” Waltman jested.
Since then, ISU fortunes have sagged as the Sycamores are 58-118 since 2002 and average attendance has fallen from a high of 6,750 per game in 2000 to 4,270 this season, ISU bottomed out at 3,781 in 2005. ISU has not averaged more than 5,000 per game since 2001.
“I’m very proud of what we did so quickly, but we failed. We were in a position to build on what we had and we didn’t. There’s nobody to blame for that except myself,” Waltman said. “We made some recruiting errors and some mistakes. I’m embarrassed by that.”
Waltman was nearly let go last season, but survived an 11-day wait to determine his coaching status last season, but returned to fulfill the final season of his contract.
Besides the early success, another highlight of Waltman’s era was giant-killing. ISU was 3-3 against Indiana during the Waltman era, beating the Hoosiers at Hulman Center during the 2001 and 2006 seasons and at Assembly Hall during the 2000 season. The victories encompass three of ISU’s five victories against IU in school history and are the only ones in the modern era.
ISU also beat Purdue 89-70 in its only Waltman era trip to Hulman Center on Dec. 28. Watershed victories over Butler and Creighton were chalked up during the current season alone as ISU surprised everyone with an 11-4 start after being picked a resounding last in the MVC preseason polls.
The start raised expectations for ISU’s fans, but ISU won just twice after its 11-4 start.
Waltman — a native of Ellerslie, Md., who played baseball at Slippery Rock — has a career record of 323-249, having previously been head coach at DePauw and Indianapolis. Waltman was an assistant under Bob Knight at Indiana from 1982-1987, taking part in the Hoosiers’ 1987 NCAA championship season. Before that, Waltman coached from 1971-1982 at Bedford High School in Bedford, Pa.
“I can’t get a head coaching job, because if you get fired for cheating you can get rehired, but if you get fired for losing it’s like you have leprosy. Young coaches need to bear that in mind. Cheating and not graduating players won’t get you in trouble, but that damn losing will,” Waltman jested. “I’d like to stay in basketball, but I’m realistic. I don’t want to go back to Bedford High School and coach the team and that’s about the only job I could get. For the right guy, I’d be an assistant, I’d be a scout. I’m not ready to retire.”