Commentary

Jeff Walz keeps Cardinals believing

Originally Published: April 6, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

NEW ORLEANS -- Something nagged at University of Louisville associate head coach Stephanie Norman in the hours before her team was scheduled to play Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. She was in charge of the scout, the fundamental component of any team's game plan, for that particular game. The more she looked at tape, the more convinced she became that a 1-3-1 zone could cause problems for the Fighting Irish.

A few minutes into shootaround the morning of the game, she said as much to coach Jeff Walz.

He told her to put in the defense in what remained of the session.

"We had never, ever in our entire lives -- not in the history of our program in six years since I've been here -- run a 1-3-1," Norman recalled.

[+] EnlargeJeff Walz
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiLouisville's Jeff Walz might be a mad scientist with game plans, but "the main thing you can say about him is he gets his players to believe in him and believe in what they're doing," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.

She then had to ask first-year assistant coach Cameron Newbauer whether he had ever taught the specifics of the zone in his previous coaching stops.

Louisville mixed in the defense that evening. Notre Dame won by 24 points en route to the conference tournament title.

The old basketball adage about a shooter's mindset holds that a player misses 100 percent of the shots she doesn't take. A coach also loses out on the potential rewards of 100 percent of the gambles he or she doesn't take.

And if you think it's difficult to play for Walz, the bellicose, sarcastic sideline ranter, try figuring out what college basketball's mad genius is going to try next.

A few weeks after that loss against Notre Dame, praise rained down on Walz from all quarters when he came up with a game plan that did the unthinkable and eliminated Brittney Griner and Baylor in the Sweet 16. Louisville face-guarded Griner and made her uncomfortable within the rules of the game as applied by the officials that night. The Cardinals played four on five in one sequence. They used an untested inbounds play that Walz had seen Robert Morris run against Kentucky in an NIT men's game a few days earlier -- and he ran it for a freshman. They also hit 3-pointers at a rate that had little do with coaching, except that the Cardinals seemed to believe those shots should drop.

"You can tell he's comfortable doing it his way," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "People have joked that he's the mad scientist with game plans. And I think the main thing you can say about him is he gets his players to believe in him and believe in what they're doing. You get the feeling, if he said, 'Hey, our game plan is going to be we're going to fly in from the moon and run around in circles,' they would do it for him."

He doesn't ask for much. I thought he was asking for the world, but all he asks you to do is play hard.

-- Louisville senior Monique Reid on coach Jeff Walz

That belief is the other part of the equation. Nobody -- not Walz and not his players -- will contend he is easy to deal with on the basketball court on a day-to-day basis. To say he's demanding barely scratches the surface.

When she was a young girl, Monique Reid dreamed about playing basketball for the University of Louisville. She looked up to players such as Sara Nord, the freewheeling guard who was the program's leader in assists and steals when her career came to a close. What Reid instead found her freshman year was a crazy man yelling at her more than anyone ever had.

"He was really hard," said Reid, who then paused for a moment's contemplation and added for emphasis. "Really, really hard."

Walz readily admits as much. He saw a team back then that had two veteran stars in Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham but needed at least two freshmen to play beyond their years to make the whole good enough to contend in March. He was merciless on Reid and fellow freshman Becky Burke, the rebukes ringing out from across crowded arenas. But both were there playing major minutes as the Cardinals knocked off Maryland in a regional final and Oklahoma in the 2009 Final Four to reach the national championship game for the first time.

Sophomore guard Bria Smith feels as much verbal heat from Walz as anyone these days, a guard asked to tread that line between scorer and playmaker alongside Shoni Schimmel. As Smith put it, "I think everybody has those days where they're like, 'Ugh, I don't know if I want to do this,' or, 'Ugh, why is he getting on my back?' But it's to push us to be in the position where we are now. We're very lucky to have someone like him."

Walz attributes much of his style to Paul Sanderford. It was the former Nebraska and Western Kentucky coach, who took the latter program to three Final Fours, who gave Walz his first college coaching jobs as an assistant at both schools. Sanderford could be loud and tough, but it was rarely without reason.

[+] EnlargeJeff Walz and Muffet McGraw
AP Photo/Joe RaymondLouisville coach Jeff Walz might be a "bellicose, sarcastic sideline ranter," but he also has a lighter side that keeps the Cardinals (and Irish coach Muffet McGraw) laughing.

"I became a big believer that you can really get these college students, these 18-to-22-year-olds, to do more than they ever dreamed they could if they know you care about them, if they know you genuinely are there for them," Walz said. "So when we step on the court, our players know it's basketball. It's all about basketball, and we have a job to do. But they know when we step off the court, I'm there whatever they need. We're going to laugh. We're going to joke. They're going to make fun of my stuttering. I'm going to make fun of their hair if I have to, whatever it might be."

Such is a method to the madness. Louisville doesn't have as much talent as the teams it beat in Oklahoma City to reach New Orleans, a point Norman said the coaches and players are humble enough to recognize. It probably doesn't have as much talent as the team it will play Sunday evening or whichever of the two others it would play should it advance to Tuesday's final. But perhaps no other team would listen to a coaching staff install a foreign 1-3-1 defense on the morning of a game and so unflinchingly believe it would work. Or, when it didn't, believe with equal conviction that the next tweak, the next brainstorm that came to Walz in the middle of a timeout, would work.

"You've got to be focused, mentally focused and ready to go," Reid said. "And you've just got to believe in what he's saying. Sometimes it might sound crazy, but the stuff works. I laugh sometimes because he draws up stuff and I see the looks on people's faces, and I'm just like, 'I've seen this before; it works.'"

The Cardinals believe the most daring, unconventional, brilliant basketball mind in the business can lead them to any win. And they believe that isn't the only reason he's there.

"He would take the shirt off his back [to give us] if he knew we didn't have any clothes or anything to wear," said sophomore Sara Hammond, another who routinely draws the coach's ire. "He goes above and beyond to do everything for us."

It makes him difficult to play for at times. It makes him even more difficult to beat.

"He doesn't ask for much," Reid said. "I thought he was asking for the world, but all he asks you to do is play hard."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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