If Arizona Wildcats history is any indication, being an interim head coach isn’t that bad.
You just have to have a long view of things.
Consider that of the three top men who steered the Arizona Wildcats as interim coaches in 2007-08 and 2008-09, two are running college programs (USC’s Kevin O’Neill and Grant Canyon’s Russ Pennell) while the other (Charlotte’s Mike Dunlap) is an NBA head coach.
Indeed, that’s exactly the perspective that Chris Walker is taking as the interim head coach at Texas Tech, which will host the Wildcats tonight.
No matter how difficult the present looks.
A former guard at Villanova in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Walker was asked to take over the Red Raiders in October after the controversial exit of former coach Billy Gillespie, who was found to have run practices exceeding NCAA rules and prompted a near-mutiny from his players over his methods.
Since Gillespie was hired in March 2011, 15 players exited Texas Tech’s program, including six who bailed after last season. Many of those remaining went Texas Tech officials to complain about him, with leading scorer Jordan Tolbert saying publicly that he no longer wanted to play for Gillespie.
On the court, not surprisingly, the Red Raiders were picked to finish next to last in the Big 12, ahead of only conference newcomer Texas Christian.
It sounds bad. Maybe it is bad. But it’s a head coaching job, one that will stay on Walker’s resume forever.
“I look at it as awesome opportunity,” Walker said. “The way I look at it, everything is an interim situation. You just don’t know.”
Walker has been sharing his positive message with the Red Raiders, who have responded with a 4-0 record so far, albeit against weak competition.
There are no conversations about the past. Not anymore.
“I’ll just tell you that the only thing we’re focused on” is looking ahead, said Walker, when asked about the circumstances he took over from. “We can’t get anything going by looking backwards.”
An assistant under Gillespie last season who has made several stops in 17 years as an assistant coach, Walker took over just before full practices started and began delicately re-establishing his relationship with his players.
“I’ve always had a great relationship with the guys, but with a transition to being a head coach, they have to see you as being in an authoritarian role,” Walker said. “You have to initiate that and let them know that it’ll be in a different way. The guys have been awesome.”
Among other things, Walker told his players to have faith in themselves, to worry only about what they can control, and not worry about public opinion.
Judging by Texas Tech’s play so far, his message may be getting through.
“I think the team rallied around each other and kept each other strong,” said junior Jaye Crockett, the Red Raiders’ leading scorer. “Our team is full of mentally strong people and we’re just moving forward.”
Walker also made sure they had fun on the court. He has the Red Raiders playing a furiously uptempo offensive style that is fueled in part by an aggressive, pressing defense.
“The number one thing is we’ve got a little more talent. That has certainly helped,” Walker said. “The other thing, in my opinion, is that every coach has his own style and we have a team that accentuates it. We have the personnel to fit.”
The statistics prove his point. The Red Raiders are averaging 88.8 points and 13 steals per game.
And, when UA assistant coach Book Richardson scouted the Red Raiders this week, he also saw some intangibles.
Texas Tech did not play like a broken team. They played together.
“I think they have taken in that brothership of ‘it’s us against the world,’” Richardson said. “They said ‘we’ve been kind of the laughingstock of college basketball with what happened’ but they play really hard. I also think they’re playing for the guy who’s coaching now.”
That’s Walker. Maybe the Red Raiders will keep rallying around him and he’ll work his way into a permanent job by the end of this season. Or maybe he’ll find a future elsewhere, with a year of head coaching experience now on his resume.
Either way, it will be a ride Walker won’t forget.
“I used to focus on the destination, not the journey,” Walker said. “I realize there were so many things I have the opportunity to achieve and that if I stayed humble I would get an opportunity to realize my dream.”