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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 2, 2007

Mahalo, Riley

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By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

UH head coach Riley Wallace gave his heart to basketball and his Rainbow Warriors. Wallace, 65, will no longer be the head coach of the Rainbow Warriors after this season. It is a concept he — and many basketball fans in Hawai'i — may never get used to.

Advertiser library photo

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Riley Wallace's team defeated Tulsa 73-59 in the championship game of the 2002 Western Athletic Conference Championship Basketball Tournament in Tulsa, Okla. on March 8, 2002.


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Who: UH vs. Boise St.

When: 5:05 p.m., tomorrow

Where: Stan Sheriff Center

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"When the team wins, he’' wonderful at home. When they lose, oh, boy."

Joan Wallace | Riley’s wife

"We are losing a veteran coach, a coach who has meant so much to the WAC."

Karl Benson | Western Athletic Conference commissioner

"Riley has been an ambassador for this league at the national and local level for 20 years. The league will miss him dearly. You have to respect a coach like him who's done it as long as he has, and won doing it the right way."

Steve Cleveland | Fresno State coach

"In this business, you meet a lot of people, but not everyone is genuine. Riley is a genuine person. He's a real guy, and he's made a mark."

Reggie Theus | Former NBA star and current New Mexico State coach

"You had to have heart to play for Coach Wallace. If you had heart, you would learn what it took to be a winner."

Anthony Carter | Hawai'i player from 1996-98

"His general principles of teamwork are embedded in my persona forever ... on and off the floor."

Predrag Savovic | Hawai'i player from 1999-2002

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The life of Riley Wallace in 2007 ...

In just about every city he visits with the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team, he receives pats on the back, handshakes, even gifts.

San Jose State gave him golf equipment. Utah State gave him a $1,000 vacation certificate. Nevada gave him a rocking chair.

It is as much an appreciation tour as it is a farewell.

"Good people are hard to find these days," Utah State head coach Stew Morrill said. "And Riley Wallace is good people. As a coach, his record speaks for itself. As a person, I can't say enough about the guy."

Wallace, 65, will no longer be the head coach of the Rainbow Warriors after this season. It is a concept he — and many basketball fans in Hawai'i — may never get used to.

Wallace has been in charge of the 'Bows since 1987. After 20 years of coughing — a nervous reaction that kicks in every basketball season — Wallace's last home game as head coach will be tomorrow, when Hawai'i hosts Boise State.

The 'Bows will travel to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in New Mexico next week, and they still have a shot at a postseason tournament after that. But once the season ends, Wallace's resignation will go into effect, ending the longest and most successful run in Hawai'i basketball history.

"All this attention is nice," Wallace said. "But it's never been about me. I've always wanted to draw the attention to my players and this program. And if me leaving brings more attention to the players and the program, then I don't mind."

Wallace's 333 victories are the most by a Hawai'i men's basketball coach, and the second-most in the history of the WAC. Sixteen of his 20 seasons with the 'Bows have ended with winning records, including this season.

He started with a coat-throwing, foot-stomping style that caught the attention of fans — and referees. He will end it with a mellower style, but still fueled by a competitive fire that is respected by fans — and colleagues.

But it takes a better understanding of the journey to fully appreciate the destination that Wallace charted for the once-lowly UH basketball program.


As a middle-school student in Jerseyville, Ill., Wallace's goal was to drop out.

"A lot of kids from the area back then quit school once they reached 16 to work on the farm," he said. "I didn't want to work on a farm, I just didn't like school."

But his mother, Mary Barbara, was a schoolteacher, so Wallace had to choose another goal.

"I fell in love with basketball; basketball was my out," he said. "I knew if I wanted to keep playing, I had to keep studying."

During his teen years, Wallace spent countless hours shooting hoops on a dirt court outside the family home. "There used to be a strawberry patch there, but no more strawberries after we put up the goal," he said. "I wore it out shooting every day."

By his senior season in 1959, Wallace was a 6-foot-5 all-star forward. He thinks he is the first player in Jerseyville High history to dunk in a game.

"We're a basketball family," said Myrna Landon, his older sister. "And Riley loved it more than all of us."

He was recruited by 36 college programs, including Houston, Kansas State, Southern Illinois and Drake.

He chose Centenary.


Wallace was a four-year starting forward at Centenary, in Shreveport, La. His playing style would reflect his coaching philosophy — he was a no-nonsense hustler who took more pride in defense than offense.

"If you came over my back once, I'd tell you not to do it again," Wallace said. "If you did it again, you'd have a bloody nose or black eye. I had some sharp elbows and I knew how to use 'em."

More important than his basketball career at Centenary was his relationship with his future wife, Joan. She started as his study partner; they got married after his senior season in 1963.

"We were in the same biology class, and he wasn't doing very well so he asked me for help," Joan said. "He was the same guy he is today, except he was skinny back then."

They have two children of their own, Rob and Kim, and hundreds more who went by the collective name Rainbow Warriors.

"Every year, we bring the (players) over for Thanksgiving and Christmas," Joan said. "It wasn't all about basketball."


After various coaching stints — including six seasons as an assistant at Hawai'i under Larry Little — Wallace was offered the job of head coach of the 'Bows.

Hawai'i had a record of 11-45 in the previous two seasons under Frank Arnold, and Wallace was offered an annual salary of $55,000 to rebuild the program.

"It wasn't your ideal situation, and it wasn't a lot of money for a Division I basketball coach, but it was a lot of money to me," Wallace said. "And I wanted to be a Division I head coach."

The 'Bows finished with a record of 4-25 during Wallace's first season, but there was undoubtedly a new attitude surrounding Hawai'i basketball.

"It was intense the first day Coach Wallace walked in the gym," said David Hallums, a former Pearl City star athlete who played on Wallace's first two Hawai'i teams. "There were players who quit after the first day and got on a flight two days later to go home."

During that first season, the average home attendance at the Blaisdell Center Arena was 1,683.

"There were more people there when I played in the (high school) state tournament," Hallums said. "To get motivated, I kept thinking in my head, 'OK, this is like playing Farrington in the first round.' "


It took one year for Wallace to turn the 'Bows into a winning program.

By season two, they had a record of 17-13 and got invited to the National Invitation Tournament.

"Back then, the (UH) football team was kicking butt, and they would always tease us that first year (in 1987)," Hallums said. "But we didn't feel embarrassed around them anymore. Coach Wallace made that much of a difference that fast."

And it wasn't just measured in wins and losses.

After practices, Wallace would wait for some of the players to shower and change. Then they'd pile in his car and drive to his Hawai'i Kai home. There, Joan Wallace would serve as volunteer tutor for the players.

"They didn't have the (academic assistance) program they have in place now," Joan said. "And I was a coach's wife, so I did what I had to do to help the team."

Troy Bowe, who was recruited to Hawai'i out of New York, said: "Coach Wallace and Mrs. Wallace were like our parents over there. If it wasn't for them, I don't know where I'd be."


At the end of season three, the 'Bows set a school record with 25 wins, and capacity crowds were showing up at the Blaisdell Arena.

"One thing Coach Wallace did was prepare us for every team we played," Bowe said. "As far as getting a team ready to play, and knowing what the opponent was going to do, he was the best in the business."

Bowe now coaches youth basketball in New York. Phil Lott, another star player from Wallace's early years, is also a youth coach in Connecticut. They both said they run the same plays Wallace taught them at Hawai'i.

"I try to emulate everything I learned from Coach Wallace, on and off the court," Lott said.

Although Bowe lives in New York, he has two children in Hawai'i from a past relationship.

A few years ago, Wallace got Bowe's son, Troy Jr., into a summer basketball camp. Around the same time, Joan Wallace made a video of Bowe's games at UH and sent it to Troy Jr.

"That's unbelievable that they would even think about my kids like that," Bowe said. "There's no way I can put into words what Coach Wallace did for me. I am forever grateful."


Whoever said Hawai'i can never be a basketball state was not around in 1997 and '98.

Led by the "Dynamic Duo" of Anthony Carter and former Kalaheo star Alika Smith, the 'Bows went 42-17 during those two seasons.

They played before 15 sellout crowds in the 10,000-seat Stan Sheriff Center in those two seasons. There have been two sellout crowds in the nine seasons since then.

"I felt like a rock star," said Smith, now a UH assistant coach. "We would go out and people, complete strangers, would come up and want to talk to us."

Carter, who would go on to play in the NBA, remains one of Hawai'i's favorite athletes.

"Coach Wallace means everything to me," Carter said. "He gave me a chance when I didn't think I had a chance."

The proof is in the gratitude.

After signing a $12 million contract with the Miami Heat in 2002, Carter donated $100,000 to the UH basketball scholarship fund. More recently, Carter added the UH basketball program to his will.

"There's no amount of money that can make up for what Coach Wallace and that program did to get me where I am today," Carter said. "There was nothing like my time in Hawai'i. I will never forget it."


An influx of international recruits helps transform the 'Bows into an NCAA Tournament team. They go to the "Big Dance" in 2001 and '02.

But players like Predrag Savovic and Nerijus Puida were not just hired guns.

Puida, who was from Lithuania, now calls Hawai'i home. He and his wife, Dainora, have real parents in Lithuania and hanai parents in Hawai'i Kai.

"Me and Dainora go over to Coach's house at least once a month, and it's like our second home," Puida said. "We eat, watch movies. Sometimes we stay there to 11 or 12 o'clock at night. He will always be my coach, but he is also a father-figure and a friend."

Savovic would go on to play in the NBA and now in Europe. He received numerous accolades and was on two championship teams with the 'Bows. But he said an unexpected visit by Wallace left the most lasting impression.

After Savovic's senior season at UH, he was a long-shot candidate for the NBA draft. Wallace went straight from a basketball clinic in Guam to be with Savovic on draft night.

"He showed up in New York to give me support," Savovic said. "I will always remember that gesture, not only that he was there, but that he traveled 15,000 miles from Guam."

Savovic was not drafted.


He still has remnants of a scar across the top his head, where doctors performed emergency surgery to remove swellings of blood near his brain.

It was one of several medical procedures Wallace has experienced during his tenure at Hawai'i. None of it has to do with his departure.

"Every time he had to go in for something, the doctors said he was fully recovered and gave him the OK to go and coach again," Joan Wallace said. "When he was in the hospital, I would be worried then, but they always said he was OK, so that made me feel OK about him going back."


During the past two seasons — this one, especially — practices have been shorter. The yelling is not quite as frequent. The cough is not as persistent.

"There were some days in the early years where I actually feared for the lives of the players, that's how physical and intense it was," said associate coach Bob Nash, who has been on Wallace's staff for all 20 seasons. "So he's mellowed out. We're seeing a gentler, softer, fuzzier Riley Wallace."

The gentle nature was always there, those close to him say. He just never let it show on the basketball court.

"In the gym, he was the meanest man you could ever meet," Hallums said. "But once you got past that, you could see what he was about. After I left UH, I put Coach Wallace down as a reference for all my jobs."

Wallace insists the desire has not changed, and never will.

"Unless we're winning, I'll never be relaxed," Wallace said. "I'm still coughing. I still can't sleep after we lose. I still get nervous before games. But I've matured as a coach, and I think that really helps. I don't have to yell as much because I let my assistants do some for me. Before, I never let them do that."


Wallace's once bright-red hair is now white and buzzed close to his scalp. The player once nicknamed "Slats" because of his thin build is now concerned about getting overweight.

Still ...

"I have a lot of energy left," he said.

Wallace has admitted regret in signing a contract that targeted his resignation for this year. When he signed it — three years ago — he thought he might be ready to retire.

Now, he's not so sure.

"My wife is retired, and I know she has a long honey-do list ready for me," Wallace said. "But I've never done those kinds of things in my life. I've always been a coach, and I don't know if I know how to do any of those other things."

Wallace has three young grandchildren and loves being "Papa," but is not sure he could do that all day, every day.

"That's the one thing I did think about hard, is spending time with the kids," he said. "But I'm not the kind of guy who likes sitting around the house."

He has been offered the athletic director's job at his alma mater, Centenary, and he said he is considering it. If the 'Bows make a postseason run this month, it could lead to offers to coach other programs.

"You all know Riley," his wife said. "He'll retire when he's ready."

Whatever happens, Wallace said his blood will remain as colorful as his personality.

"I will be a Rainbow Warrior until the day I die," he said. "Nobody's going to take that away."

Reach Dayton Morinaga at dmorinaga@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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