TERRE HAUTE —
When I began to think about former Indiana State coach Royce Waltman — and I’ve thought about him a lot in recent months as the ravages of a stroke and cancer robbed us of his presence — I thought to myself “what can I print?”
Waltman was many things. Blunt, plain-spoken, unfiltered? All of the above and more. Every Indiana State fan saw Waltman in action … and I had a front row seat for three years right next to him on press row.
It was even odds that the sportcoat was not going to be long for the world inside the coaches’ box. Ear-muffs for those sensitive to adult language were highly-advised. Officials, assistant coaches, players, reporters … none of the above were going to dodge his wrath any more than light can escape a black hole.
“He was unfiltered and not necessarily politically correct, but he told you how it was,” said good friend Ray Goddard, the pro at Terre Haute’s Idle Creek Golf Course.
The fiery demeanor was just surface-level Waltman for a man who was miles deeper. It was the Waltman many saw on TV, but it was only part of how he was a coach and a man.
To know him? It was to know a man who had more integrity than any I’ve covered in my two decades in the business.
“He was brutally honest and he always had a tough love about him to tell it how it was. Sometimes we don’t always enjoy it, but since he did it, I think people appreciated it. You knew what you were dealing with under him,” said current Clemson assistant Dick Bender, who was on Waltman’s staff for all of his 10 years at ISU.
Waltman’s accomplishments at ISU speak for themselves. He brought winning back to a program that hadn’t tasted it for two decades. He is responsible for two of ISU’s four Division I NCAA Tournament appearances. He is the second-winningest coach of all-time at ISU behind Duane Klueh.
But those aren’t the years that are burned into my memory banks. I covered Waltman’s last three seasons at ISU, and by any measure, they weren’t his best ones. Waltman suffered from cancer shortly after ISU’s early 2000s success, the recuriting slipped, the Missouri Valley Conference got a lot better, and the Sycamores were not able to recover.
I was a rookie beat writer when I arrived in 2004. No coach could have better prepared me for the in’s and out’s of a Division I beat better than Waltman. He put me through my paces just as he did his players.
I was on the business end of some of his outbursts as well as his praise and he was always fair. He was honest to a fault and you always knew where you stood. It was the same for me as it was for his assistant coaches and players.
“The thing that gets lost in today’s society is how to do things the right way. The other thing is telling the truth. He was strong about that,” said Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, an ISU assistant from 1997-2004.
His integrity went way beyond interpersonal relationships. He knew that college basketball was more than just the factory it seems destined to turn itself into. He was fiercely loyal to his players and would put their situations above his.
I saw it first-hand. A player whom I won’t name had become a problem within the program and also had significant issues in his home life. He walked out of practices, had confrontations with coaches and teammates, all of the ingredients that — 90 times out of 100 — will get a player kicked off of a team.
Waltman refused to do it. His reasoning was that if he let the player go, he was dooming this player to a lifetime of problems. He thought the structure of playing Division I basketball, even despite this player’s behavior, was more important to the player’s overall well-being than that of the team.
This was at a time when Waltman needed all of the help he could get and could ill-afford the strife. He put himself second and the player first. His morality was more than talk, he put it into action. I deeply admired that.
Waltman did a lot of little things to make college basketball a life experience rather than an endless parade of practices and games. One thing he did was to pair up athletes from rural and urban backgrounds both as a team-building exercise and to expose these players to different points of view and cultures.
Waltman was a man of integrity first and always. I wished I had covered Waltman’s best teams, but in a way, I feel blessed that I covered him when his teams weren’t at their best because I think I learned more about the man.
He had been part of an Olympic gold medal-winning team in 1984, he was part of Indiana’s 1987 national championship team, he coached DePauw and the University of Indianapolis to dizzying heights, and he pulled ISU out of its abyss and back into NCAA Tournament relevance in the early 2000s.
He had been to the top of the mountain. He wanted to be there again. He wanted to win desperately. The losses, every one of them, gutted him. He could’ve cut corners to get there again, but he never did. He couldn’t. His morality wouldn’t allow for it.
“Some of the things I take away from Coach, I tell my own kids and kids in the classroom [at Terre Haute North],” said former ISU forward Matt Renn, who played for Waltman from 1997-2001. “He told you to do things the right way — to not cheat, so that when you do have success you can enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about how you got there.”
I’ve been around college basketball for a decade now. I’ve learned how this sport works. Integrity is a rare commodity. Honesty, as it was with Waltman, is not it’s own reward. Dishonesty is forgiven if the W’s come with it.
But for three years, I was blessed to cover the sport not for how it is, but how it can be with someone honest at the controls, how it should be in a perfect world.
I feel blessed to have been there to see it and to know the man that embodied it. Waltman was a great coach, but he was a greater man. ISU is very fortunate to have been graced by his presence.
Goodbye Royce. If I ever get to cover someone finer, I’ll be a lucky man indeed.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.