The coaching life of Vance Walberg: sliding doors, the dribble-drive and what matters most

By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor

Vance Walberg sits in a chair in the middle of the Sacramento Kings practice facility, sweat dripping from his face after working out with players 30 years his junior and the echo of dribbling basketballs trying to drown out conversation but the current Kings’ assistant coach and former Clovis West High School head coach looks content and relaxed, telling wonderful stories of the glory days of Golden Eagles basketball; those 6:30 a.m. shoot-arounds and punishing practices in the gym, the memorable wins and the gut-wrenching losses, and, of course, the players, those young men who he pushed to the limit mentally and physically, those kids that still seek out Coach Walberg to this very day. He also speaks of the people that mean the most in his life – wife Rose and their four kids—all who bled Clovis West cardinal and gold.

Photo by Joel Nicholson Wearing his trademark one colored sweater during his early coaching years, Vance Walberg is the innovator of the “dribble-drive” offense that piqued the curiosity of prominent coaches from around the country and the world. NBA coach George Karl calls Walberg “one of the top innovators of the game in the past 5-10 years.”
Photo by Joel Nicholson
Wearing his trademark one colored sweater during his early coaching years, Vance Walberg is the innovator of the “dribble-drive” offense that piqued the curiosity of prominent coaches from around the country and the world. NBA coach George Karl calls Walberg “one of the top innovators of the game in the past 5-10 years.”

Memories of the Golden Eagles glory days under Walberg don’t just reside with the coach himself, but with former players, fellow coaches and family members and this much is certain: The legacy of Vance Walberg is evident and vast, a larger-than-life figure who inspired young people at Clovis West in such a way they still talk about him not only as a game-changer on the basketball court but as a life-changer, one whose impact still resonates in the Central Valley. He is revered as a coach and teacher, loved by many and simply adored by his family.

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl, No. 5 on the all-time NBA coaching wins list, thinks so highly of Walberg that he was the first person he reached out to a year ago when he was hired by the Kings.

“Vance, I believe, is one of the top innovators of the game in the last 5-10 years,” said Karl of Walberg. “We all take things from each other and Vance has been one of my top influencers. The NBA is always changing, innovative. Making changes as a coach is always a challenge and his ability to be creative and think creatively is very valuable.”

Most remember Walberg as the wildly successful and innovative basketball coach at Clovis West from 1989-2002 who built a program like no other in the Central Valley with a unique style that caught the attention of prominent coaches everywhere. During his 13 year tenure at Clovis West they went 343-68 with nine league titles, 10 CIF Central Section Championships appearances (including six titles), three showings in the Southern State Championship Game, a birth in the state championship game and earning top 10 rankings in the state six times. Even now, coaching at the top basketball level in the world, it’s clearly evident his time at Clovis West was extremely special – where families were strong and relationships were forever forged.

In the crazy carousel of the coaching world, Vance Walberg has both summited to the mountaintop and been knocked down by the literal sting of a crashing wave, but his days at the bottom were only temporary, never, ever, crushing his spirit. From the highs of his winning teams at Clovis West and Fresno City College, to the lows of being passed for the head job at Fresno State and resigning a dream job away at Pepperdine to now coaching in the NBA, there is little doubt that Vance Walberg is a resilient man. He has a few regrets, yes, but is as resilient as they come.

Reminiscing about Clovis West basketball ignites a spark of renewal in the 55-year old’s eyes and along with him every step of the way was Rose and their children: Jason, Heather, Jamie and Ian, all born five years apart and all Clovis West graduates. He may be coaching elsewhere, but his heart still belongs to the Golden Eagles.

“I do a lot of different clinics around the country and the world talking about the dribble-drive offense,” Walberg says. “I still tell people my most enjoyable time by far was my high school coaching days. Thirteen years of having great kids at Clovis West.”


 

Photo Contributed by the Walberg Family Family has always been the number one priority for Vance Walberg and their annual trip to Tahoe is a yearly highlight. Pictured from left to right are Ian, Heather, Vance, Rose, Jason and Jamie.
Photo Contributed by the Walberg Family
Family has always been the number one priority for Vance Walberg and their annual trip to Tahoe is a yearly highlight. Pictured from left to right are Ian, Heather, Vance, Rose, Jason and Jamie.

Rose Walberg is the perfect coach’s wife, praising players after the game, finding joy in assembling plates of strawberries for players, cooking huge meals for coaches for their annual after-game huddles at their house (“Rose’s Diner” as it was called), organizing the annual team spaghetti feed and creating scrapbooks for the seniors. The Walberg house was a revolving door of Clovis West players and coaches; there was no need to ask permission to raid the fridge, there was always a bed available, and always, I mean always, there was room at the dinner table.

“Everyone felt a part of this family,” said Josh Shapiro, a 1995 Clovis West graduate who would later assist Walberg on the coaching staff and now is the Deputy Principal at Reagan Educational Center. “They had an open-door policy at their house and it all goes back to Rose and the support she gave Vance. We would always say that Rose is the best wife, she is such a neat lady – we all love her.”

In the same fashion Rose’s admiration for her husband runs deep. “He is the most humble and giving person that I know and is always thinking of others,” she says. Case in point: Vance once gave away his personal game tickets to three strangers at a gas station in Sacramento. He also has personally answered over 700 e-mails and phone from coaches wanting to know more about the dribble-drive offense, his claim-to-fame in the basketball world. If coaches like Bob Knight, Dean Smith and Jimmy Valvano took the time to help out a young Vance Walberg, then surely he can do the same.

Walberg receives letters all the time from former players saying how much he impacted their lives. The tough-nosed ball coach may look like a fiery ball of energy on the outside but those letters melt his heart.

Walberg’s oldest daughter, Heather Long remembers the home playoff games and the lines of fans waiting to get in that stretched far outside the gym, weaving around cement fixtures and almost reaching the elementary school across the street. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the latest edition of Clovis West basketball; the Greatest Show on Hardwood, the Hustlers from the West Side.

Long loved watching her dad coach and her brothers’ play, but personally, her greatest Clovis West memory was as a player her senior year right after her team won the 2002 D-1 Central Section basketball title.

“After we had won Valley I ran up to my dad and he had tears in his eyes and looked so proud,” said Long, now the head girls coach at Clovis North. “He was never that dad that said ‘You’re going to play basketball, you’re going to be in the gym.’ It was always ‘Here are the opportunities and if you want to be a part of it, then come to it.”

One gets the idea that Walberg sells himself short in the dad category, diverting praise to his wife of almost 35 years: “I am so lucky; my wife has done such a fantastic job raising our kids and is a big part of our success if you want to know the truth.”

Not so fast says Long, “Everybody who knows my family know that my parents are both special in their own way.”

“He’s a phenomenal coach but he’s a million times a better dad,” continues Long. “I appreciate that even more now as both a parent and a coach. When I look back at those times I look at my dad as a pillar of strength.”


 

Hired in 1989 after coaching for five years in the Bay Area (where he coached Ty, Tim and Tony Amundsen at Newark Memorial, all who would later become successful high school coaches) Walberg found success early at Clovis West and established the Eagles as one of the premier programs in the Central Section.

Playing for Clovis West was both a privilege and an honor, one that required excellence and Walberg demanded it. He even made his players sit in the front row during class, not in the back where temptations lingered, and he was as tough a P.E. teacher as they come.

“He brought so much energy and passion and he never cheated you,” said Joe Aiello, who played for Walberg from 1994-98 and is now the Director of Educational Services for Clovis Unified. “He was giving you all he had and you would look around and say ‘Gosh, if he’s giving that much we want to do that too.”

Photo courtesy of Sacramento Kings Vance Walberg enjoys what the NBA has to offer and the lifestyle that it brings. “I'm up to practice at 6:15 a.m. and then home at 10:30 p.m. on game days. It's pure basketball,” says Walberg. But he admits his favorite period of coaching was at the high school level, including Clovis West High School.
Photo courtesy of Sacramento Kings
Vance Walberg enjoys what the NBA has to offer and the lifestyle that it brings. “I’m up to practice at 6:15 a.m. and then home at 10:30 p.m. on game days. It’s pure basketball,” says Walberg. But he admits his favorite period of coaching was at the high school level, including Clovis West High School.

Walberg would often retreat to “The Cave”—aptly named by Rose—that tiny office space just inside the gym, barely bigger than a janitor’s closet. It was there where his mind was in motion, writing his game notes all over white boards, on pieces of paper, anywhere where there was room. Think of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash Jr. in the movie A Beautiful Mind – but instead of math formulas picture basketball diagrams.

They even reached the Southern Regional Division 1 Final in 1995, losing 71-51 to eventual state champion Mater Dei behind the play of Nathan Fast, who would later play at Santa Clara University. But reaching the Saturday game of the state playoffs revealed a hard truth—they would never win a state championship against the mighty and athletic teams of Southern California with their current system. Clovis West was good, but not that good. So Walberg went back to the drawing board.

Spreading his players out on the court and breaking down defenders with a relentless attack, Walberg created what he liked to call AASAA (Attack, Attack, Skip, Attack, Attack), which later morphed into the phrase “dribble-drive.” The perfect style for his fundamentally sound teams was born.

Walberg admits that the dribble-drive offense wasn’t created for anyone but Clovis West, but it sure caught on like wildfire. In a 2008 story famously published in Sports Illustrated, Walberg demonstrated his creation to Memphis coach John Calipari in 2003 using a pepper shaker and packets of sugar at a local eatery after a Memphis practice. So impressed, Calipari implemented the concept into his own game plan.

And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect when, in 1997, a trio of players was about to enter high school: Walberg’s oldest son Jason, a talented left-handed shooting guard named Tyrone Jackson and a four-year varsity player named Chris Hernandez—a player who became face of Clovis West basketball. Hernandez once sliced his hand open on a chair in the weight room the morning of a playoff game. He played that night with nine stitches. Oh yeah, they won the game.

“He didn’t care if he scored, as long as we won,” said Walberg, stopping short of saying Chris was his favorite. “He was a 4.0 student and as hard as he worked in the classroom he worked on the basketball court.”

“Was Chris the best basketball player I ever coached? Yes, without a question.” said Walberg. “But, what makes Chris special to me is that he and my son were best friends and his dad, Jose, and I were very close.”

That 2001 class won 134 varsity basketball games, including, at that time, a state record of 39 in 2000.

Hernandez, who would attend Stanford University earning All-PAC 10 honors his sophomore, junior and senior years was involved in legendary games against Modesto Christian (which some consider the greatest game ever played at the Clovis West gym) and two epic match-ups versus Compton-Dominguez in 2000 and 2001. The Eagles would win both games, with Compton-Dominguez featuring Tyson Chandler, a 7-foot phenom who would later become the No. 2 pick in the NBA out of high school.

But in 2002, the year Heather graduated and one year after Jason, it was time for Walberg to move on to the next level in the basketball coaching ladder. One of Vance’s regrets was never getting to coach his youngest son, Ian, who was just entering Clovis West.

But when Walberg moved to Fresno City College the wins kept coming, and boy did they, reaching ultimate heights with a perfect 34-0 record and a state championship in 2004. In five years the Rams went 155-18 with Jason averaging over 20 points per game for his dad, earning him a Division 1 scholarship to St. Mary’s College.

Furthermore, in the summer of 2005 the stars in Fresno seemed to align and the head coaching position at Fresno State opened up. Walberg seemed an absolutely perfect fit for the job. Radio stations were clamoring. Fans were ready to arrive in droves. “Give Vance a chance” was the mantra. But disappointment ensued when they gave the job to Steve Cleveland, the squeaky clean coach from BYU, himself a former Clovis West basketball coach.

“I loved Fresno and I thought it would have been great,” said Walberg “I was obviously disappointed but it was a part of life. We were bringing in 1,400-1,500 people [at Fresno City College] per game at the Junior College level which is unheard of. With the style we played I knew the fans of Fresno [State] would have absolutely loved it.”

But when one door closed another opened up and Walberg was hired for his first Division 1 coaching gig at Pepperdine University. He was joined by Jason, who gained another year of college eligibility after his two years at St. Mary’s, Heather, who entered a Master’s program and Jamie, now an undergrad student. His daughters would both serve as team managers from the beginning.

But then a perfect storm of unfortunate events occurred and Walberg resigned in the middle of his second season. Pepperdine was 13-33 and some very good players either were hurt, transferred or were kicked off the team during that time. After so many years of winning, was the pressure proving too much?

Vance Walberg was such a fighter, a resilient man in every sense of the word, so there must be an underlining reason for this sudden resignation.

There was. In fact, only a few know the true story surrounding an event that he kept secret from everyone except those he loved the most.


 

Walberg was hired at the Malibu, CA school on April 19, 2006 and put in three and a half months’ worth of work, never stopping for a day off. On August 2, a day before the first official practice of the year, the entire Walberg clan, all six of them, went to Zuma Beach for a day of relaxation and water fun. What happened next changed the course of Vance Walberg forever.

“We’re having a good time at the beach and I’m out boogie-boarding with my son, Ian, and I take a wave which wipes me out to the point where I thought I was paralyzed,” says Walberg as he makes a loud clasping sound with his hands. “I went down so hard and then the next wave hits me. Ian pulls me out and if he didn’t I probably would have been dead. I was hurting – scrapped up, two black eyes, shoulder hurting. And the next day we start practice.

“So here’s my first day and I’m hurting and I got John Calipari coming in to watch practice for the next three days, so I just go with it.”

Just go with it – said in true Walberg fashion. He tries to shake it off (actually for the next three years) but what he didn’t realize at the time was that he tore his labrum, his rotator cuff and the impact was so intense that it shoved his diaphragm up next to his heart affecting the right side of his lung. Three weeks later he started to have major Afib attacks, where his heart would be racing up to 170 beats per minute, causing him to become dizzy and weak, the attacks coming at various times throughout the day, including during games. “I never sat down during a game so if you ever saw me sitting down, it was because I was having an attack,” he said. He would tell no one besides his family. His daughters would sit behind the bench and give their dad medicine when an attack surfaced.

The pain and stress of coaching was so severe he would sometimes sleep only one or two hours a night. For Rose, a registered nurse, it was difficult to see her husband in so much agony. “To see that level of pain he was in was difficult,” she said. “You never like to see someone you love in so much pain. When he would walk up the stairs he was out of breath and at that point the nurse part of me stopped; the wife part of me really ached for him.”

Then on Jan. 11, 2007, Walberg’s mother passed away. He went to the Pepperdine Athletic Director and resigned in the middle of his second season.

“It was a perfect storm of bad stuff,” said Long. “Which stunk because if anybody deserves something to go right it’s him because he’s helped a lot of people.”

It wasn’t until Walberg wound up coaching at UMass with Rose joining him on the East Coast that doctors found the source of his medical issues and performed a five-hour corrective surgery. He was back on the bench five days later doing what he loves – coaching. Resilient Vance at his best.

Another door opened and it was time to test the NBA waters and he volunteered for the Denver Nuggets and coach George Karl. Yes, volunteered. As in zero pay. After Karl earned Coach of the Year honors in 2011, the entire staff, including Karl, was let go unexpectedly. Using his east coast connections, Walberg landed a paid coaching gig with the Philadelphia 76ers and when Karl was hired mid-way through the 2014 season by the Sacramento Kings, Walberg was a must-hire.

Walberg admits that he’s ready to run his own program sometime in the future, but at what level, well, he’s open to the possibilities. And he’s proud of the fact that his wife, the one who has stood by her man through thick and thin, is able to relax and enjoy the Sacramento Delta Breeze and the freedom to visit her three grand kids at a moment’s notice.

It is true – Vance Walberg has won a lot of basketball games, rubbed elbows with the coaching elite and traveled the world talking about the game he loves. His days at Clovis West are dear to his heart, a special time to be sure, but there is one constant in his life that captures his true passion.

“The family atmosphere is what I miss most and when I go back and see the relationship that I had it’s really neat,” says Walberg. “You put so much time in a program you don’t realize how fast the time goes by. I’ve been super blessed and everything for me has always been about family and it will always be. My biggest accomplishment so far is how my family has turned out – I absolutely love them.”

The Walberg File

Sacramento Kings, Assistant Coach 2014-current

Philadelphia 76ers, Assistant Coach 2013-14

Denver Nuggets, Assistant Coach 2011-2012

University of Massachusetts, Assistant Coach 2008-2011
Pepperdine, Head Coach 2006-08
Fresno City College, Head Coach 2002-06
Clovis West High School, Head Coach 1989-2002
Newark (Calif.) Mem. H.S., Head Coach 1985-89
James Logan H.S., Head Badminton Coach 1983-84
Los Altos H.S., Head Coach 1981-83
Mountain View H.S., Head Coach 1978-81

Sports Editor Paul Meadors can be reached at paulmeadors@gmail.com