Friday, June 05, 2009

1988-1992 - Looking Back at Villanova While Once and Future Assistant Chris Walker Was a Wildcat - Part 1 - Freshman and Sophomore Years

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

With the now-confirmed return of once and future assistant coach Chris Walker to Villanova, as reported by VUHoops, I thought that it would be worthwhile, to look back at the era when Walker was a Wildcat-

from his arrival in the fall of 1988, to his graduation in the spring of 1992...

Note: This doesn't focus on Walker as an individual player, but instead, on the overall seasons and state of the program during his four years. That four-year span saw major changes for Villanova, in terms of the coaching staff, its relationship with the Big Five, and the fundamental nature of the Big East.

Villanova When Chris Walker Was a Wildcat - Overview

Walker's career bridged eras at Villanova. He was recruited by the legendary Roland V. Massimino, known universally as Rollie or "Daddy Mass", the winner of the magical national championship in 1985.

Walker's four years also represented the final four years under Rollie, who departed under acrimonious circumstance after the 1992 season. Rollie left for Nevada-Las Vegas, where he succeeded Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian. The program moved forward under Steve Lappas, who had been Rollie's assistant for several years, including the national title year in 1985, seven years earlier.

Walker's tenure also bridged eras for the Big East and Big Five. When Walker arrived, the Big East had just nine teams. The Big Five was still intact, although most of the games were no longer played at the Palestra.

However, by the time Walker graduated, the Big East had expanded to include Miami (Fla.), setting off the complicated saga which led to the considerable 21st-century turmoil and convulsions we've experienced recently. And equally importantly, Walker's senior class was the first Villanova class since 1955, not to face all four City Series rivals, as seniors.

Fortunately, after facing fully justified criticism for doing so, during the entire 1990s, Villanova finally repented and returned to the full round-robin in 1999-2000!!!

It was the Golden Age of the Big East, and Villanova was a middle-of-the-pack squad during those four years. Nonetheless, the strength of the conference was such that Walker's Wildcats received two NCAA bids and a NIT bid, while he was there.

Chris Walker's Freshman Season - 1988-89

The Wildcats had just come off one of the most successful years in school history, as 1987-88 had been a great season. Villanova ultimately finished with a 24-13 record, had been nationally ranked, and reached the Elite Eight for the second time in four years.

It was also a banner year for Philadelphia basketball, as Temple had been ranked #1 nationally, for most of the season, before also falling in the Elite Eight. In addition, La Salle was still a power at that point, with Lionel Simmons leading the way.

Not surprisingly, then, Walker's freshman year was a rebuilding year at Villanova. The team ended the regular season with a mediocre 16-15 record. They needed to win the Big East tournament to go to the NCAAs, but lost in the quarterfinals to Pittsburgh (it was only a nine-team tournament), and so headed to the NIT. The Wildcats defeated St. Peter's and Penn State, before falling to Michigan State, ending their season.

Chris Walker As a Villanova Wildcat - Sophomore Season - 1989-90

Walker did not start as a freshman, but he moved permanently into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Although the Wildcats finished the regular season with just a 17-13 record, the top-to-bottom power of the Big East was so formidable, that Villanova was a bubble team- even with that record.

Villanova was able to secure a NCAA bid, by beating St. John's in the quarterfinals and losing to Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. Unfortunately, they fell to a LSU squad featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Jackson, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Part 2 of Villanova When Chris Walker As A Wildcat will be coming up soon, so please check back... it will cover his junior and senior years, which neatly coincides with the two final years of Massimino's coaching tenure at Villanova...

Go Wildcats!

Of course, also check back for the latest posts in the Senior Farewell series, in which I'll be looking back at the Villanova tenures of the other two departing Wildcats, Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham. The Frank Tchuisi and Shane Clark series are already completed, as well as the first half of Anderson's tenure.

Cunningham will be coming up last, as speculation about his draft position in the June 25 NBA draft will be reaching fever pitch as the month goes on...

There are two ways you can contact Villanova Viewpoint. One is by commenting on this blog. Comments are encouraged, and will always be answered. Also, you can e-mail (Important note: This is a different e-mail address than before. Please use this new one.)


Anonymous said...

The Walker era at Villanova is quite shadowy for me. A number of things contributed to that: I was in DC at the time and the general incompetence and corruption of DC government under Marion Barry meant the nation's capital did not have cable. (Complicated story.) So no way to watch the games. I was trying to get a writing and editing business off the ground at the time also. And in the middle of all this I married for a second time and my wife and I welcomed a new son.

So life was busy and full and the only way to follow the Wildcats was in the press.

Massimino's leaving for UNLV was huge, but a mixed blessing. Easy to follow in the press.

Apparently students on campus were delighted to see him go. He could have remained till the day he died, as far as I was concerned. The championship in 1985 had earned him that right.

Still UNLV's recruitment of Rollie was a huge feather in the cap of Villanova. It marked Villanova as a place, and Massimino as a coach, known to run a clean program. The Tarkanian era had besmirched UNLV badly and the UNLV president practically got on his knees in public as Rollie's suitor. So that was a plus.

The minus was that I thought Rollie would be like an innocent among wolves in the UNLV environment. Those of us who see college athletics through the prism of Villanova, or through private and religiously affiliated education, have NO CONCEPTION of the power of athletics on big state university campuses (or huge private factories like USC). It has to be seen to be believed -- the accumulated power of the politicians, building contractors, restaurateurs, hotel chains, sports columnists, automobile dealers, and booster clubs around a big public sports program overwhelms academic values. There's no way presidents and faculty members can stand up to these commercial pressures -- and most presidents actually don't want to. They like the results. They just don't want to be embarrassed by what has to be done to keep the cash flowing, donors happy, and legislators who control the purse strings entertained in the president's private box.

The phenomenon of the 900-lb gorilla known as the athletic department running the university is especially acute in the West (where there really aren't that many small private schools).

I thought Rollie would be in for a surprise in this environment because for the first time in his career he would be running into people even rougher and tougher and more competitive than he was. Las Vegas, of course, Sin City, only added to the complexity because it brought big time gambling into the mix.

So, Rollie had to succeed or he'd be gone. And basically that's what happened. He didn't win enough; his style was too sluggish for a Mack Arena crowd raised on the run-and-gun Rebels; ticket sales fell through the floor; and season ticket holders whined. Then his enemies produced an under-the-table agreement to pay him more than was publicly acknowledged, and he was gone.

In the meantime, there's an embarrassing public search at Villanova for Rollie's replacement. Rollie clearly held out for his son to replace him and made it clear to his friends and the young coaches he'd mentored that he didn't want to see them getting in junior's way.

Rollie acted as though he were bigger than Villanova in all this. I had some problems with that; Lappas defied him and took the job.

Although Lappas seemed to have righted the ship after about three years, the job always seemed too big for him. I supported him to the bitter end, but he didn't handle the pressure well, simply in terms of how he presented and carried himself. And he never really got over Villanova's shocking first-round ouster by Richmond when he put a legitimate Final Four contender on the floor -- and the fans never forgave him for it, either.


greyCat said...

That post Coach Mass job search was indeed embarrassing Seamus, but very typical for old-line (ie private, often Catholic schools) basketball powers. These schools never thought that the job search would be (almost...) as much recruiting as selecting. Credit the good Sons of St. Augustine, that if they didn't get it quite right the first time (Coach Lappas, who as I recall lost that first round game to Old Dominion, not Richmond), they certainly did the second time. Fellow conference members Providence, Seton Hall, DePaul and St. John's, each of whom possesses a comparable roundball tradition, have missed on their second choices as well.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point greyCat. Had not thought of it that way, but you're right -- fellow smaller Catholic schools have certainly had their challenges getting the coach right. St. John's is the one that surprised me most in that list.

Of course I don't follow these other places as closely as Villanova, but it was tough reading in the paper about one big name after another telling Villanova to get lost (Pete Gillen at Xavier and the coach at GWU among them).

You're right on Old Dominion too. Memory goes as you age. My bad.

Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Seamus and GreyCat-

Thanks for leaving such detailed and well-thought-out comments. All comments are welcome, of course, but it's particularly good when the analysis in the comments is of such fine quality.

I learned a great deal from the content in them - particularly in the details of the coaching-succession dynamic with Rollie and Lappas...

I think that Seamus's summary of the end of the Lappas era is about as good it can get.

On the question of the Villanova/Old Dominion first-round NCAA tournament game in 1995-

It took place on Friday, St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1995, and it was a 89-81 loss in triple overtime. Villanova was the #3 seed, Old Dominion the #14.

I would agree that in retrospect, the ODU loss was what fatally sunk the Lappas regime. The magnitude of the upset - Villanova was arguably the hottest team in the nation entering the tournament, having just won its first Big East tournament title, before or since - cannot be overstated.

Had Lappas's subsequent strong teams in 1996 or 1997 made deep tournament runs, it's possible that he might have recovered, with the fan base, but the loss was hung on him relentlessly for the rest of his tenure...

Any more thoughts, please feel free to add them...

Go Wildcats!

Anonymous said...

Well Villanova Viewpoint, your comments are so astute and well reasoned that you keep us on our toes!

"Had Lappas's subsequent strong teams in 1996 or 1997 made deep tournament runs, it's possible that he might have recovered, with the fan base, but the loss was hung on him relentlessly for the rest of his tenure..."

I agree with that completely. Lappas was entitled to a mulligan (and I think most fans were willing to give it to him), but then the Tim Thomas team lost the second game to UCLA (another game they should have won) and the doubters lost all patience.

Unpleasant couple of years, winding up at one point with boos raining down at the Pavilion with the team still on the floor (against VPI, I think). Supposed to be aimed at Steve, but the team was in the firing line too.


Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Seamus-

Thanks for the compliment. I do my best... It's a shame, because those teams were very talented and it's unfair that those early-round losses overshadow their very impressive tenures here...

Go Wildcats!

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