Model Of Consistency: UC Santa Barbara's Bob Williams Hits 300 Wins
Wins and losses are numbers used to gauge the success of head coaches in every sport, at every level. But they reveal just a smidgen of the legacy that attaches to that coach.
Tell Bob Williams that he just won his 300th career game at UC Santa Barbara, and he’ll tell you that he’s too engulfed in the preparations for win No. 301 to really notice all that much. No one can fault the mindset of the 18th-year head coach for not wanting to dwell on a number. His livelihood, in large part, rests on the ability to win more and more games.
So let the record show that last Thursday night at UC Riverside, Williams joined exclusive company, becoming only the third head coach in Big West men’s basketball history to win at least 300 career games. Let that simmer for a bit. Two conference legends – Pacific’s Bob Thomason and Jerry Tarkanian of Long Beach State and UNLV – are the only others to have achieved the milestone.
Consider that accomplishment the dessert, the proverbial icing on the cake for a man who has spent 42 years of his life in the coaching business.
The main course – the place from which Williams has experienced the most fulfillment – was created through the myriad of relationships he has built with the players who have toiled in his program at UCSB. His impact on them, and vice versa, symbolize the true meaning of being a Gaucho.
The journey to 300 victories is far more satisfying than the number itself because those kids whom he coached and mentored became young men, and then grown men who took what they learned in his program and moved forward.
“I think it’s pretty easy for me,” said Williams. “It’s the quality of people that have played for me. I’ve hung my hat on that for a lot of years now. I really do like that part of the legacy of what I think we’ve built at Santa Barbara, is the quality of people that I’ve had the opportunity to coach, and what I’ve been able to learn from them, and hopefully what they’ve been able to get out of our program.”
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
Williams arrived at UCSB for the 1998-99 season. The program had not recorded a winning season in five years, and had finished the 1997-98 campaign with eight straight losses.
The then-44 year old Williams had just led UC Davis to the Division II national championship, and now he was tasked with rebuilding a UCSB program that, while struggling at the time, had experienced a handful of banner seasons under the previous regime of Jerry Pimm.
But the beginning was rocky.
The Gauchos started that season 0-8. Four of those losses came by one point, and all in the final three seconds of the game.
For the coach, it was a litmus test of did he belong at the Division I level? Did the school make the right hire? For the players, they had the pressure of proving that they could be winners. That the previous struggles weren’t entirely on them.
The turning point came on Dec. 19, 1998. The Gauchos lost, 66-65, at Saint Mary’s. The players were in the locker room.
The starting backcourt tandem of Derrick Allen and Larry Bell cried. Players yelled, not necessarily at each other, but more so out of frustration that they had just lost another heartbreaking affair.
The team’s leading scorer – and team leader – senior B.J. Bunton, had his arms around Allen and Bell. Williams walked into the locker room with his staff.
“(Bunton’s) talking to the team, and he’s passionate,” said Williams with a slight quiver in his voice. “And he’s telling them, ‘We will be alright.’”
Williams turned around and left, and told his staff to do the same.
“Then I knew we’d win because you had that kind of emotion,” Williams recalled. “That’s the key in coaching. You’ve got to get a team that plays with that kind of feverish emotion and buys into each other if you’re going to have that kind of success.”
Williams withstood the urge to overthink or overact as a corrective measure for a team that badly needed a win.
He also did not recruit Bunton, Allen or Bell. They signed as Gauchos under Pimm. So that put additional stress on them to perform for a coach who they were still getting to know.
Allen remembers the scene in the locker room at Saint Mary’s.
“Bob Williams stepped in, saw what was happening, and walked out. Said we will let these kids handle it,” Allen said. “The wins started coming after that.
“Him showing the confidence in us gave us more trust in him.”
Bunton echoed those feelings.
“We used that as an opportunity to come together. We solidified as a unit and my teammates really honed in on that,” said Bunton, now the Principal of Wheatley Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. “From that point on, it was all about working together and having a common goal, which was to continually improve and winning our conference.”
The Gauchos defeated Western State (CO) and Williams’ alma mater, San Jose State, in their next two games. Then, after splitting the first weekend of conference play, they became the only Big West team to sweep a notoriously brutal road trip at high elevation locales Nevada and Utah State. UCSB beat the Wolf Pack by two points and the Aggies in overtime by one point. Suddenly, the Gauchos had reason to celebrate.
And celebrate they did at Utah State, one of the loudest arenas in the Big West and a place where opponents rarely won.
This time, smiles and hollers of joy emanated from the Gaucho locker room.
And Williams, in another moment of coaching wisdom that he had only just begun to acquire in his Division I incarnation, allowed his players to savor the celebration.
“That’s one of the defining memories of his career at Santa Barbara,” said Allen. “He walked into the locker room at Utah State where guys were sitting on top of lockers in a melee because we were so excited to actually win that game in the style we won that game.”
UCSB finished the 1998-99 season with wins in 15 of its last 20 games, and the team won the Big West Western Division.
Williams captured the first of three Big West Coach of the Year awards.
As the coach to lead Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans to its first league championship, Allen’s mantra for success is simple.
Successful coaching is about relationships.
Relationships are about being able to bring the best out of your players, and knowing that the path to maximizing talent and potential utilizes different maps sometimes.
Allen is known as perhaps one of the toughest, if not the toughest, guards to ever play at UCSB. Allen, who took the junior college route to get to UCSB, saw his friends playing on television at the Division I level and knew he had the ability to join them.
“They’re eating pregame meal steaks. I’m eating McDonald’s,” said Allen.
So he already had a chip on his shoulder. But then he arrived on the Santa Barbara campus a Pimm recruit. He didn’t really fit the style that Williams wanted to play. And he initially was on the third string.
But Allen showed up to work every day, and Williams took notice of the guard’s dedication. Allen pushed himself because he wanted to prove to Williams that he belonged in the program. Williams motivated Allen to become the best player he could be.
Williams taught Allen about staying humble, about being respectful to teammates regardless of how much playing time they received, that everyone ran the same line drills, executed the same plays in practice. Allen learned the value of functioning in a team atmosphere, of treating people with dignity and respect.
Allen has handed down some of the same life lessons to his own players.
And if any further proof is needed that relationships are important to sustaining the long-term viability of a program, consider that Allen calls Williams every Father’s Day.
“He has no idea the impact he’s made on my life,” said Allen, who also served one year as UCSB’s Director of Basketball Operations for Williams. “I’ll take a bullet for Coach Williams.
“We built the relationship with Coach Williams where we would run through a wall for him to this day because honestly you’re making a phone call 15 years later to a guy who coached us, but didn’t recruit us, and we talk highly of him years later. He was our mentor. He was our leader.”
Williams tried to establish a connection with Bunton from the get-go. The 1998 Division II national championship game had taken place in Louisville, where Bunton grew up, and Bunton was home at the time he received a phone call.
It was Williams on the other end.
“He called me and said, ‘I was in your city’, and UC Davis just played in the national championship,” Bunton reflected. “(He said) ‘my understanding is you are one of the senior leaders on the team, and I’m looking for leadership this upcoming year.’
“For me, it was reaching out to me early and really trying to cultivate a relationship with me from day one, which really spoke volumes to me to the type of coach he would be for us.
“From that point on, I said I could play for this guy because he’s always showing confidence and belief in me without knowing much about me.”
THE BIG DANCE
The first couple of Gaucho teams under Williams paved the way for future squads.
Williams admitted that the 0-8 beginning caused some pressure and second-guessing. After all, he did not play Division I hoops. He had two years of Division I assistant coaching experience as the right hand man to Tom Asbury at Pepperdine. All of his head coaching experience to that point had been attained at the junior college, Division III and Division II levels.
He wanted to establish credibility at the Division I level, prove he could win some games. Pointing to his resilient staff at the time, Williams knew it could get done. Marty Wilson, now the head coach at Pepperdine, Jon Wheeler and Greg Clink played key roles in keeping everyone’s energy levels up and focus intact.
The recovery and turnaround in that first year instilled just as much confidence and belief in the program as the difficult start had generated doubt.
“It really did establish our tenure,” Williams said. “Gave us something to sell to, rather than trying to sell recruits on a vision. We’re selling recruits after one year on this is what we think we can do.”
As a result, the Gauchos landed players such as Mark Hull, Adama Ndiaye, Branduinn Fullove, Nick Jones and Jacoby Atako.
Those five comprised UCSB’s starting lineup for its NCAA Tournament First Round game against mighty Arizona in 2002. In 2001-02, Williams also guided UCSB to the first 20-win season of his tenure and the program’s first Big West Tournament title.
The 14th-seeded Gauchos bombarded the Wildcats with 16 three-pointers, including eight from Hull, who scored 32 points and was unaffected by a broken nose he suffered two games prior.
The Gauchos trailed by just two, 78-76, with 1:44 left and had a chance to pull within one on a free throw. But the free throw was missed, and UCSB came up just short in a heartbreaking 86-81 loss.
“We were right there in the game,” Williams said. “And that group had an awful lot of momentum, and an awful lot of belief in themselves.”
It’s a game that still gnaws at him.
“I do think that could be a game changer, if you beat Arizona,” Williams said. “Now you don’t know what happens. You don’t know what happens in the NCAA Tournament, you don’t know what happens the next round; you don’t know how that affects your recruiting, but it certainly can’t affect anything negatively.”
UPS AND DOWNS
Williams has been blessed with a lot of talented teams at UCSB. He has had five 20-win seasons to his credit. His teams have finished .500 or better in 14 of 17 seasons.
The Arizona game may have been the biggest disappointment, but there have been others too. Of course, there are going to be when you’ve coached over 500 Division I games.
The Gauchos won the Big West in Hull’s senior season, 2002-03, but ran into Kevin Bromley’s Cal Poly Mustangs and lost in the tournament semifinals. UCSB settled for an NIT bid that year.
Williams realized how difficult making the NCAA Tournament could be.
“We kind of took for granted this is going to be a period of time where we will make runs; we will be in the tournament,” Williams said. “And we sobered up in a hurry. Don’t take it for granted in this business. You might think you have answers. Certainly, it doesn’t take very long before those answers have turned into more and more questions.”
UCSB captured the regular season crown again in 2007-08, winning 23 games, the most under Williams.
Again, the program’s hopes of reaching another NCAA Tournament were derailed. This time, it was a scrappy UC Irvine team coached by Pat Douglass, a man whom Williams had encountered in Division II when UC Davis and CSU Bakersfield were waging battles.
“That might have been my best basketball team I had at UCSB,” lamented Williams.
That 07-08 team not only was supremely talented, with players such as Chris Devine, Alex Harris, James Powell and Ivan Elliott, it was resilient.
Williams recounts how that group played with the flu for basically a month. They couldn’t figure out the cause of the illness until they realized that the managers were washing the water bottles in cold water, and the players kept passing the bug back and forth.
“And they still won the league,” Williams said, proudly. “They were that tough of kids, and I had a lot of respect for that.”
But the Gauchos wouldn’t be denied a trip to the Big Dance for much longer.
A transfer named Orlando Johnson joined the program, and two solid recruits in James Nunnally and Jaime Serna formed the backbone of back-to-back NCAA Tournament squads in 2010 and 2011. That group nearly made it three straight, but lost in the 2012 Big West Tournament finals to a Casper Ware-led Long Beach State outfit.
Looking back on what he has accomplished at UCSB, perhaps the most defining characteristic is consistency. Fifteen of his 17 teams have finished in the top four of the Big West. Simply put, Williams has taken one group of really good players to the next group of good players, and the program has factored into the conference race if not winning it altogether.
That can be tough to do in today’s collegiate basketball landscape, especially for a mid-major.
There’s a tradition that Williams and his seniors have maintained over the years. There’s a place in town called the Tee Off where coach takes them for dinner and a cocktail once they’re done with their eligibility. Many of his former players come back there, and it’s an aptly named place for Williams, an avid golfer.
He’s willing to take phone calls from his former players at any time, whether it’s for advice on a job interview or providing support for a problem they are trying to handle.
“My firm belief with all players that give their time to you, you need to present your time to them when they need it,” Williams said.
That goes for the star players who have graced his program, to the walk-ons.
In fact, some of Williams’ biggest contributors have been walk-ons. He’s had some alpha dogs like Alan “Big Al” Williams, Devine and Hull.
But a bevy of unheralded players have played key roles on some of his best squads.
According to Williams, Jordan Weiner was a crucial piece on the back-to-back NCAA Tournament teams. Williams described him as having “a little ponytail coming out of high school, weighed all of about 155 pounds.”
Chrismen Oliver, a fifth-year 5-foot-8 guard, walked on and eventually earned a starting role in his final season.
Both Weiner and Oliver were pushed around like little kids in practice before hitting the weight room and getting strong, and becoming key contributors.
Bray Skultety is another great example of an unadvertised player who flourished under Williams. Skultety hadn’t played in a game of organized basketball for six years, and spent the first three years at UCSB as a student, not a student-athlete.
But he became a rotational player, and blocked a career-high three shots against Arizona in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
Devine, a more sought after recruit by other programs, had the attention of others but not necessarily the commitment.
The 6-8 forward hailed from Eagle River, Alaska.
“Nobody went and did an in-home visit in Alaska but us, and that’s why we got the kid,” Williams said. Devine earned All-Big West honors all four years and finished among the school’s all-time top scorers and rebounders.
Hull ended up being one the all-time greats at UCSB, but he only had one other Division I offer, from Big West rival UC Irvine. He’s the school’s all-time seventh-leading scorer.
The consistency of the program’s success relates directly to the consistency with which Williams has gotten the most out of his players, no matter how lightly or highly recruited.
FROM DAY ONE
Talk to Matt Stock about Coach Williams, and the word comes up again.
“He’s a model of consistency where both on and off the court he just always does things the right way,” Stock said.
Stock should know. He has been a Williams’ sidekick from day one. Stock has filled roles of Director of Basketball Operations, strength coach, and now assistant coach.
The rumor is that Coach Williams has mellowed somewhat since arriving on the Goleta campus in 1998. Williams himself says that he went from a 44-year old “father figure” to a 62-year old “grandfather figure.” Former players who revisit say that the group before them had it much harder.
Don’t tell that to Stock.
“If you hear some of our staff today, you would not think he’s mellowed at all,” Stock quipped.
But then he expanded.
“He had more energy when he first got here and had to change the culture, so he was definitely a little more edgy and feisty more consistently early on.
“To say that he’s mellowed, it’s hard for me to say because he just knows what he’s doing. He still gets the same results. Maybe he doesn’t yell and scream as much as he used to, but the players still respond and understand what he’s trying to accomplish.”
What’s this about being a grandfather figure?
“I just like to call it now that he’s a mentor,” Stock laughed. “Graduate to the mentor.”
Whatever the method, whether raising his voice to get his point across, or putting his arm around a player and having a more quiet conversation to draw out that motivation to improve, it’s clear that Williams has the respect of his staff and players, of the gamut of people that have played a role with the UCSB program for the last 18 years.
That is a legacy to be proud of forever.
And yes, don’t remind him. He also has 300 career victories.
by Mike Villamor, Big West Assistant Commissioner/External Affairs