As college basketball fans gather far and wide to witness the spectacle that has come to be known as March Madness, LMU Baseball welcomed coach emeritus Paul Westhead back on campus to throw out the first pitch to open the 2016 West Coast Conference slate. Twenty-six years ago this month, then Head Coach Paul Westhead led the Lions on a historic and memorable run in the 1990 NCAA Tournament, reaching the Elite Eight while capturing the hearts and cheers of fans nationwide. Though the Lions lost to eventual NCAA champion the UNLV Running Rebels, the 1990 Men’s Basketball Team and Coach Westhead serve as icons to LMU’s basketball history and tradition of excellence. While that time has long passed, it will never be forgotten. I had the chance to catch up with Coach Westhead after baseball fans witnessed his mean sinkerball in action.
I finished my time at the University of Oregon coaching the women’s basketball team after the 2014 season ended and I am now back at home in Palos Verdes waiting for my next basketball job. In the meantime, I work out my grandkids teaching them how to play basketball and swim so I am keeping myself busy. I’m looking for one more gig.
How does it feel to be back at LMU?
It’s changed so much. The campus used to be Gersten Pavilion, a few dorms, Hannon apartments, some buildings, and a little library. Now it’s so much bigger and more spread out. But just interacting and seeing some of the students here like the group that sang the national anthem before today’s baseball game, there is still a great student body. That’s what has always made LMU a terrific place.
What do you remember most about the NCAA tournament?
Well we were in the NCAA Tournament for several years. We had a couple of nice runs and several good teams. Our first win in the tournament against the University of Wyoming stands out. In some respects, you never forget the first win. It was a great win and some folks will remember that we were down by as much as 13 points in the first half and came back to take an 11 point lead at the half. There was a sequence at the end of the first half in the final 16 seconds that was score, steal, score, steal, score in rapid succession that was very memorable. And of course our last year with Bo Kimble leading the way with a great group of guys, we went as far as we could to the Elite Eight.
Game can be watched here.
How has college basketball changed since you last coached?
The only thing I would say that has really changed is that the players seem to be bigger, stronger and more physical. The inside game is tougher, but they’re not playing as fast. We played at a breakneck speed and pushed the ball. Now it’s much more controlled and more half-court offense. Teams now run a play and when it doesn’t work, they run another play. There are a lot of high ball screens and pick and rolls. The game is still very interesting, but the speed game seems to have vanished.
I think there are many reasons why teams don’t play ultra-fast. The main reason is that it’s too hard and players don’t want to play that hard, they don’t want to practice that hard, they don’t want to commit that hard. So I had the good fortune to start with a group of guys like Mike Yoest, Mark Armstrong, and Enoch Simmons to name just a few. We were then able to build our program off that with other guys like Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble, Jeff Fryer, Terrell Lowery, Tony Walker, and the rest of our guys. It just became a windmill of play fast, play faster, play faster. Most players don’t want to do that and therefore, coaches are stuck and can’t get their players to play fast.
Who’s your pick to go all the way and why?
I think the winner will come out of the West and I might be the only one that will say that. I am still an Oregon Ducks fan so I’ll pick the Ducks. Their only challenge is going to be in the second round if they play the St. Joseph Hawks from Philadelphia where I played for Dr. Jack Ramsey (former longtime NBA Portland Trailblazers coach). The Hawks have such a tradition that I am fearful for the Oregon Ducks. St. Joe’s is a team that always upsets others. But if Oregon can get past St. Joe’s, I think Oregon might win the whole thing.
What Shakespearean story, character or passage would most parallel college basketball today?
That’s an interesting question. What jumps at me is there are some things in Henry IV Part I where Prince Hal loves his friend Sir John Falstaff and wants to have just fun and make it easy. And yet the prince’s father, the King, wants him instead to straighten out and work hard to become a good king. So that’s what’s going on in college basketball now. There are some teams that just play open and free and easy and there are teams that are very structured like Duke and Kansas. Oregon is a little free, that’s why I’m looking to Oregon to show a little of their “Falstaff”.
Coach Westhead is a two-time honoree to LMU’s Athletics Hall of Fame, having been inducted individually as a coach and as part of the 1990 men’s basketball team. Coach and his wife Cassie reside in Palos Verdes, CA.