News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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April 9, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Waltman succeeded where others dared not tread

TERRE HAUTE — Royce Waltman sensed the “we’ve-heard-this-before” skepticism in my voice.

That conversation, the first of many, enlightened both of us. Waltman realized the depth of local wariness about Indiana State University men’s basketball — the program he was about to take over. I discovered just how prepared he was to end the doubt.

Memories of that first meeting came back to me Monday, when I learned coach Waltman had died at age 72 after battling cancer and a stroke.

Terre Haute met Royce Waltman on March 28, 1997, a Friday. Fans, ISU staffers and journalists watched Sycamores Athletic Director Larry Gallo introduce Waltman as the new head coach. Eighteen years earlier, Larry Bird had taken Indiana State, undefeated and No. 1-ranked, into the NCAA Final Four, skyrocketing expectations in the Terre Haute community. Those lofty dreams were long gone when Waltman arrived.

He was the sixth man to hold the head coaching job since Bird graduated. In the 18 years after Bird, ISU had compiled a deflating 181-316 record. The Sycamores’ last winning season was 1979-80.

I recited that litany to Waltman more than once that afternoon in ’97, in greater detail each time. Finally, our talk reached bottom-line territory, an area where Waltman (I learned later) preferred to dwell.

“How can you overcome all that?” I said.

“The stumbling block is what you’ve just asked me — ‘How do I do it when it hasn’t been done before?’” Waltman said. “The only answer I have is, this is what I’ve done for a long time. I’ve gone to places that weren’t where they wanted to be, and I’ve taken them to winning seasons, been to championships and finally to national contention. And I think I can do that here.”

This wasn’t just talk, nor were they meet-the-new-coach platitudes. Waltman’s record backed up his words. He’d revived programs at Bedford (Pa.) High School, DePauw University and the University of Indianapolis. He’d also spent five formative seasons as an assistant under Bob Knight at Indiana University, including the Hoosiers’ run to the 1987 NCAA championship.

To illustrate his conviction that ISU could enjoy success, too, Waltman repeated a Knight motto. “Winning is always possible,” Waltman told me moments after his introduction as Sycamores coach. More importantly, Waltman meant winning the right way.

That connection to Knight put Waltman on ISU’s radar screen. The Sycamores job opened up when Sherman Dillard accepted a lucrative offer to leave ISU and coach his alma mater, James Madison University. “What we were looking for was somebody who was a good teacher and, obviously, a good coach,” Gallo recalled Monday. Waltman’s lack of NCAA Division I head coaching experience didn’t matter to Gallo. Waltman had succeeded at the high school, Division III and Division II levels,

And he’d coached beside Knight on a Division I title team. “That kind of piqued our interest,” Gallo said by telephone from the University of North Carolina campus, where he serves as the Tar Heels’ executive associate athletic director.

So Gallo called Knight.

“He made one comment to me that will stick with me forever,” Gallo said. Knight explained that Waltman’s ISU recruits wouldn’t be as tall, fast or high-leaping as those drawn to a Big Ten school like IU, “but he’ll get those guys a little bit below, just a notch, than those we’ll get, and come in here and beat us.”

Less than three years later, Waltman fulfilled Knight’s prophecy. ISU scored a once-unthinkable 63-60 victory over the 22nd-ranked Hoosiers to win the Indiana Classic in Assembly Hall at Bloomington. Going in, IU had a perfect 51-0 record in the 26-year history of its own tournament. And, no Sycamore team had beaten Indiana since 1924.

Waltman and his Sycamores changed that. In stunned silence, 14,328 Crimson-clad Hoosier fans watched the ISU players celebrate the win.

“I don’t know if that was a premonition by coach Knight or what, but it proved very, very true,” Gallo said.

That single game stripped away the defeatist mentality that had settled over Terre Haute in its bleak post-Bird era. Grand achievements awaited Waltman’s teams, including Missouri Valley Conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000 and 2001, a victory over Oklahoma in the ’01 Big Dance. But going nose-to-nose with IU on the Hoosiers’ home court, with Knight on the sidelines, and winning, redefined “impossible” for Hauteans.

That attitude adjustment almost happened a year earlier. ISU played IU at Bloomington in 1998 and raced out to a 19-point halftime lead over the Hoosiers. I’ll never forget the bewildered looks from my fellow sportswriters — all on the Hoosiers’ beat — directed toward me, the Terre Haute guy. The Sycamores ended up losing 76-70 in that 1998 game, after ISU guard Michael Menser broke his nose in the first half. Yet, the Sycamores had opened some eyes.

In both cases, Knight graciously praised Waltman’s team.

After ISU’s landmark victory in the ’99 game, Knight walked into the visitors lockerroom to personally deliver that praise to the Sycamores. To the media, Knight declared, “We got out-played, out-coached, out-hustled, out-everything tonight.” Waltman had done exactly what Knight had predicted in that phone call with Gallo years before, and he did it with a starting lineup that included a trio of players who also made their conference’s All-Academic First Team.

Knight’s respect for Waltman continued as their paths took unceremonious detours. IU fired Knight in 2000, he bounced back at Texas Tech and then retired to the broadcast booth (of all things). Waltman got fired at ISU in 2007 after a string of losing seasons and three years later became the color analyst for IU’s radio broadcasts until his health forced him to quit in December.

On Monday, Knight remembered Waltman with high praise, once again.

“I never had a better assistant coach than Royce, and I never knew a better person,” Knight said in a statement relayed to the Tribune-Star by a close friend. “I thoroughly enjoyed his friendship over all those years. I know there are going to be a lot of sad people who shared that same friendship.”

I share that sadness. Coach Waltman and I talked dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. He always was insightful, witty and honest. No hidden agendas. Often the topics were fun — his reminiscences of “A Season on the Brink” at IU come to mind. Others were routine — opponents’ tendencies, players’ injuries. Sometimes the subject was tough — a player in legal trouble. Instead of dodging, coach Waltman answered, respecting the job I had. “You have to write what you know, Mark,” I heard him say more than once. That included the day we talked about his first bout with cancer.

Most who spent time around him eventually experienced his legendary outbursts. Me too, a few times. Invariably, his point — made in raised voice — was right.

His voice was calm and cordial the day he told me success was always possible, including at ISU, my alma mater.

Thanks for proving that, Coach.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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