December 15, 2011

Winning friends, and games


 
 

December 15, 2011 7:05 AM



Bob Williams doesn't dance to records.

He cringes every time someone mentions how close he is to breaking the mark for most UCSB men's basketball coaching victories.

He caught Jerry Pimm with his 222nd win on Tuesday at the University of San Diego and could pass him as soon as Friday at Washington.

But basketball is not a numbers game to Williams, even in his 14th season with the Gauchos.

"I've never been big on setting goals like that," he said. "It has been harder here than I thought it would be, but not harder than the first eight games."

Getting No. 223 on a Pac-12 court won't be easy, but nothing seemed tougher than win No. 1.

Williams had just come off an NCAA Division II national championship at UC Davis when he lost his first eight games - four by just one point - as Pimm's successor in the fall of 1998. The schedule finally gave him a Christmas present on Dec. 23 when the Gauchos jingled the bells of tiny Western State College of Colorado, 90-71.

"Everybody had to be going, 'Huh? Dang! ... He won at Division II, but that was Division II!'" Williams said. "You had concern. At the same time, I didn't take this job over with the expectation of winning that first year.

"I took over this job with the expectation that we had a ways to go to rebuild this to what coach Pimm had."

It didn't take him so long, as it turned out. The Gauchos won 15 of their next 19 games to capture the Big West Conference's Western Division.

"It might be as satisfying as anything I've ever done," Williams said. "It allowed me to take a breath and go, 'OK, maybe I do belong ... Maybe I can do this,' because when you're 0-8, you're questioning that.

"But even when we were questioning, we came into every practice believing that it was all about us and that it was all about our getting our attitudes right."

Williams isn't a numbers guy, after all, but a people person. He entered coaching right out of college with the aim of making good friends, not Final Fours.

"When I went into it, all I wanted was the Aptos High School job," he said. "I really enjoyed the coaches that I knew growing up. I like the camaraderie that coaches had with other coaches.

"When I first got into it and taught at high school, I loved the football coaches, and hanging out with the other coaches, and going out with them and doing barbecues with them. That was a huge part of what really made it fun for me."

He became the whiz kid head coach at Cabrillo Junior College before he even turned 26. By 33, he was the head coach at Menlo College, and two years later was snatched up by Tom Asbury to join a Pepperdine staff that included current Gaucho basketball administrator David Campbell.

"He became a great friend," Campbell said. "I had a two bedroom place back then, and he took the second bedroom for his first eight months at Pepperdine.

"The thing I found out very quickly was what a people-person he was. And he was really good with the players."

But that also meant plenty of tough love.

"Even from the very beginning, he wasn't afraid to challenge the players," Campbell said. "That first year, Marty Wilson was a senior, and they butted heads quite a bit. And it's kind of interesting to look back, considering their friendship now."

Williams hired Wilson as an assistant coach when he took the UCSB job in 1998, and his protegé is now the head coach at Pepperdine.

"I had a great staff that first year in terms of the energy they brought to it and their commitment," Williams said. "They were phenomenal, Greg Clink, Marty Wilson, John Wheeler ... and Matt Stock was a volunteer back then.

"They started every practice with great energy and got the kids revved up at full lather when I'd take over."

As intense as he may get during practice, he's also known for keeping his cool during games.

"He handles stress on game day better than just about anyone I know," said Kevin Bromley, the former head coach at Cal Poly who is now a Gaucho assistant. "While most coaches are really uptight on game day, his demeanor doesn't change. He really keeps an even-keel."

He was even able to find the humor of getting taunted by one of Cal Poly's players near the end of UCSB's 67-62 loss in the 2003 Big West Tournament semifinals.

"After the game when we were shaking hands, Bob told me, 'Congratulations Kev, I'm happy for you, but I really didn't appreciate your guy telling me to 'Sit down, (expletive), I own you,'" Bromley said. "I told him, 'He says that to me every day in practice,' and Bob started laughing."

Relationships are so important to Williams that he will even stop a coaches' meeting when he gets a call from a former player or assistant, Campbell said.

"It's amazing to me how many of them have stayed involved and in touch with the program," he said. "At Pepperdine, there was a saying that Asbury coined that's been really appropriate with Bob: 'We don't want to be involved in your life for four years, we want to be involved for 40 years.'"

And you don't even have to be a prized recruit. He's given starting positions to a string of walk-ons that have included Bray Skultety, Chrismen Oliver, Paul Roemer, Jordan Weiner and this year's Walter Mitty story, 6-foot-3 forward Christian Peterson.

"When I first walked on, I didn't know if I'd get a chance here at all," Peterson said. "A lot of credit to Williams ... He's going to play whomever helps the team, not just the players that he's invested into.

"It takes a pretty humble coach to do that."

Ask Williams to pick his All-Gaucho team and he lists enough to fill the Thunderdome. He doesn't want to leave anyone out.

"You need a couple of subs," he argued. "B.J. Bunton has to be on that group, and Mark Hull. It's tough ... You probably go now with a backcourt of Orlando Johnson and Branduinn Fullove and Al Harris, and you have to have Chris Devine on that front line somewhere, playing and competing.

"And James Nunnally, with the way he's playing - I mean, he's a good player. You would want Jaime (Serna) in there, too, somewhere in the mix. And Jacoby Atako - Stock thinks Jacoby is the perfect point guard for me because he just never turned it over, made good decisions and could really defend."

Williams could go on for hours.

"We've had a number of kids that really care about winning, and that's what I'm most proud of," he said.

He took UCSB to the 2002 NCAA Regional in Albuquerque, where it nearly upset Arizona, as well as the last two in Milwaukee and Tampa. This year's Gauchos appear to be going places, too, with a 5-2 record.

"We've found our niche a little bit with the type of kids we're getting," Williams said.

And now he's about to find a niche in UCSB's record book.

He met Pimm when he was a rookie Division I assistant at Pepperdine. They wound up seeking refuge together from one of Arizona's monsoonal storms during a summer recruiting trip.

"We went to this great steak place called What's Your Beef," he said. "He turned me on to his favorite drink, which is iced tea and lemonade.

"He helped me get the Davis job, made a call for me."

And some day, when Williams reflects on his long career, it will be Pimm that he thinks about, and not the record he took.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com

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