Dickey: Walters can fix USF

Rex Walters faces a Herculean task in restoring USF men’s basketball to its one-time glory, but the Dons’ new coach seems to have the energy and vision to carry it out.

As we talked in his office this week, the 38-year-old often cited the Dons’ tradition, including back-to-back NCAA titles with the Bill Russell-led teams in the mid-1950s. But the shutdown of the program in the ’80s because of recruiting violations and the messy situation around the firing of Jessie Evans, which is now in the courts, are more relevant now.

Walters has been working on damage control, holding “Meet and Greet” sessions with alumni and even having lunch with the most vocal critic of the USF program, Art Zief, a retired attorney who said he has contributed $14 million to the university.

A San Jose native, Walters hit the ground running with his recruiting, signing five players in the month following his April 14 hiring: 6-foot-7 forward Angelo Caloiaro (Mitty High School of San Jose), 6-2 guard Dontae Bryant (Eastern Arizona College), 6-3 guard Kwame Vaughn (Skyline High of Oakland), 6-4 guard Chris O’Brien (Northwood High of Irvine) and 6-6 forward Blake Wallace (Irvine Valley College).

“We plan to take care of our backyard in recruiting,” he said, “but we won’t be afraid to recruit nationally. When I was coaching at Florida Atlantic, people always asked me where the school was. I don’t have to explain where USF is.”

Walters also plans to recruit players with what he calls the “complete package.” Aware of USF’s reputation as The City’s school, with so many USF graduates in the judicial, legal and police professions in San Francisco, he said, “We want a team and players The City can be proud of. We don’t want headlines about players being arrested or flunking out of school. We want players who are not just good players, but good students.”

He practices what he preaches.

“My first year at Florida Atlantic, I suspended my best player for 10 games because he didn’t want to go to class. Last year, I suspended my second-best player because he didn’t want to work hard in practice.”

Walters coaches a fast-paced style.

“I believethat’s the style players want to play and fans want to see,” he said. “At Florida Atlantic, our average score was in the 70s. I’d like to see it in the 80s here.”

The West Coast Conference has seen an influx of younger coaches: Randy Bennett at St. Mary’s, Bill Grier at San Diego, Kevin Keating at Santa Clara. Walters will be the youngest of the group.

Gonzaga [with Mark Few] raised the standard in the conference,” Walters noted. “There are a lot of conferences in the country that are wannabes, but I believe our conference can be a very strong basketball conference.”

Again, that’s an echo from the past because, when USF was building national champions in the ’50s, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s also had strong teams.

Interest in Bay Area college basketball has historically been linked to the success of Cal, with its huge alumni base in the area, and USF, the San Francisco school.

Both programs have been down in recentyears. Cal chose a proven coach, Mike Montgomery, to restore its program. Walters is more of a gamble, but I think he was the right choice for USF. With time, I believe he’ll bring the Dons back.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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