Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Hawaii's Riley Wallace

August 20th, 2011
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Hawaii head coach Riley Wallace. In twenty seasons on the "big island" Coach Wallace led UH to two WAC titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.

Jon Teitel: You averaged 10+ points per game during your career at Centenary, and later became assistant coach at your alma mater after recruiting Robert Parish. How good a player were you back in the day, and how did you convince Parish to come there? 

Riley Wallace: I was a three-year starter because I could not play as a freshman.  I was pretty much a role player. I was a good rebounder and was assigned to guard the best player on the opposing team.  It was a good school with small classes.  Parish lived a couple of miles from the school.  We were playing Long Beach State when Jerry Tarkanian was their coach.  Tark went to go watch Parish play at Woodlawn HS when he was almost 7' tall, and he said that we should be fired if we did not keep him in the state of Louisiana!!  We had unlimited recruiting visits in those days, so we were out there all the time to watch his games.  The key was his mother, who has since passed away.  She helped him get through the problems in the South with integration, and wanted him to stay close to home so she could keep an eye on him. 

JT: In 1987 you became head coach at Hawaii, where you went 4-25 during your first season, but the following year you had a winning record and made the NIT. Were you worried that you were going to get fired after that first year, and how were you able to turn it around? 

RW: They offered me the job, so I came back after being there for six years as an assistant.  Reggie Cross played a lot in Europe and Chris Gaines became the all-time leading scorer in school history.  I was thinking about Chris the other day, as he recently died at age 42. 

JT: In 1994 you had a seven-point win over BYU for the first WAC title in school history, which you called "the greatest moment in my 30 years of coaching". How were you able to win the title, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards? 

RW: The WAC Tournament was at the Delta Center, and BYU was our big rival.  It was great to see the kids get excited, including the two local guards we had on the floor.  Current Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was one of our assistants back then. 

JT: You lost to Syracuse in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, then again in the 2001 NCAA Tournament. Did you get sick of playing them after awhile, and what makes Jim Boeheim such a great coach? 

RW: It is unique in that you can play all year long without facing a zone defense for 40 minutes.  They had big guys who we just could not handle.  Boeheim is a great coach, and one of the best at coaching the zone.  Not many have figured it out, but Jamie has had good success against him at Pitt.

JT: In 1997 you upset #2 Kansas in the Rainbow Classic behind tournament MVP Anthony Carter. How were you able to pull off the upset, and where does Carter rank among the best players you ever coached? 

RW: That Kansas game was great; our guys just came to play.  Carter has to be in the Top 5. He had the respect of all his teammates because he shared the ball with everyone, and was one of the guys who helped turn the program around.  He helped us eventually get an on-campus arena. We were unable to host an NIT game once because another group already had it reserved.  We averaged around 10,000 people per game in the old gym. 

JT: What are your memories of the 2002 NCAA Tournament (Predrag Savovic scored 26 points in a loss to Xavier)? 

RW: We had a nine-point lead at halftime, but did not play well in the second half.  If we had got by them, I think we could have beaten Oklahoma in the second round.  It was probably one of the toughest losses I ever had. 

JT: You were named conference COY three separate times. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors? 

RW: It means that I had good players!  I gave all of my staff members a trophy as staff of the year. 

JT: You retired from coaching in 2007. Why did you decide to step down, and what have you been doing since then? 

RW: I was just tired. The travel to and from Hawaii during the conference season is rough, and after 20 years of trying to recruit it just wears on you.  I still have the energy to coach, so if I was at another school where we could take a bus ride or short plane ride to our road games then I might still be coaching.  However, it was a great place to live and the fans were great. 

JT: Your great-nephew Kendall plays guard for UNLV. How good a player is he, and is the rest of your family very athletic?  

RW: Kendall is a good three-point shooter, and Coach Lon Kruger has made him even better.  He blew out his knee last year, but should be back this year.  The whole family comes in to watch him play, so it is very special. 

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? 

RW: I would like to think that I treated people right in the program and did things the right way.  I definitely loved what I was doing and loved where I was. 
Coach Wallace is also on Jon's list of best coaches in WAC history.

Boise State: Bobby Dye (1983-1995) 213-133, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Fresno State: Boyd "Tiny" Grant (1977-1986) 194-74, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 3-time conference COY
Hawaii: Riley Wallace (1987-2007) 334-265, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Idaho: Don Monson (1978-1983) 100-41, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Louisiana Tech: Andy Russo (1979-1985) 122-55, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
Nevada: Mark Fox (2004-2009) 123-43, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
New Mexico State: Lou Henson (1966-1975, 1997-2005) 289-152, 7 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
San Jose State: Walter McPherson (1940-1942, 1945-1960) 264-208, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 conference titles
Utah State: Stew Morrill (1998-present) 324-103, 8 NCAA tourney, 7 conference titles, 5-time conference COY, 1-time national COY