October 13, 2011 6:32 AM
UCSB's Bob Williams counted his first outing as a
head basketball coach as a total loss.
He was only 24 when he took the wheel of both his white camper van and the Lincoln High Lions of San Jose, losing his way to his first league coaches' meeting.
"I was a Santa Cruz beach kid," he explained. "I was as directionally challenged as any individual that you will ever find."
Williams, who had actually gotten his directions from rival coach Bob Burton, went 20 miles the wrong way and arrived just as the meeting broke up.
"The coaches walk by, and I'm trying to introduce myself, and they don't say much - they just get into their cars and are gone," he recalled. "I go, 'What was that about?' And Bobby goes, 'I told them you were too busy practicing to come join us at this thing.'"
But Williams wasn't about to miss Wednesday's John Wooden Luncheon at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
Not with Burton still a rival, now coaching at Cal State Fullerton.
And not with UCSB star Orlando Johnson back, too, as one of 50 finalists for the John Wooden Award.
Williams is also anxious to get started on Friday with the first official day of practice for his Gauchos basketball team.
"This year, having a player who's up for the Wooden Award, makes this luncheon even that much more special of an event for us," Williams said. "I told all the coaches I know, 'Boy, that day Orlando called me on a Sunday afternoon and said, 'Coach, I'm taking my name out of the NBA Draft,' I realized how much smarter I became that day... how I was going to be a much better coach."
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 guard, has led the Gauchos to two straight NCAA Tournaments, winning Big West Conference Tournament MVP honors both years. He averaged 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season.
But Williams wasn't the only Big West coach talking about his first Wooden Award nominee on Wednesday: Point guard Casper Ware of Big West regular-season champion Long Beach State, one of four 49ers who will be starting for the fourth-straight year, is also up for the award.
"Those four kids will have the opportunity to rewrite the record books at Long Beach State," 49ers coach Dan Monson said. "With that being said, they've never been to the NCAA Tournament.
"They need a new coach or something to help them a little bit... or get Santa Barbara out of our way."
Williams, now 58 and starting his 14th season at UCSB, has his own quartet of fourth-year seniors, including returning starters James Nunnally (16.3 points, 5.7 rebounds) and Jaime Serna (7.7 and 4.3). And fellow senior Greg Somogyi, a 7-3 center, has reportedly grown as a basketball player.
"James is a gifted athlete and has really grown up and has a much greater maturity level now," Williams said. "We're excited about James. We have Jaime Serna who's back with a better focus than ever, and he's looking really good. He's 6-7, 255 now. He's a man. He's a big, strong dude.
"And we have Greg Somogyi... He's back, a little bigger, a little stronger, and let's see if he has a bigger presence."
But he said he's also counting on several newcomers, including transfers Nate Garth, a junior point guard from the University of New Mexico, and Keegan Hornbuckle, a sophomore forward from the University of Colorado. Five freshmen, he added, "could also all see action this year, and are good players and could be real factors."
But Williams has learned something in the 34 years since missing that first coaches' meeting: There's plenty that can lead you astray in basketball, tough competition included.
"You sit here and listen to Mons talk about Long Beach, and we have to keep it in perspective," he said. "They won the league last year. They were exceptional. They've got four starters back - we've got three. Mons is a really good coach, too, and he's built a powerhouse.
"Coach Burton at Fullerton not only has a few transfers, he has really good transfers, and they will be in the hunt... Cal Poly is going to be really good, too. I think it's the best the league has been since I've been here."
Burton said much the same. But he's also coached long enough - longer than Williams has owned a driver's licence - to give everyone one last set of directions on Wednesday:
"Everybody up here likes their team," he said. "Check back with them in two months."
There's a lot of road to cover between now and then.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Season tickets for UCSB basketball are available now! The Gauchos have an exciting home schedule that includes UNLV, San Diego State, Santa Clara, Portland and eight Big West games. There are several creative ticket plans available, including the Big West+1 plan that gives fans the opportunity to watch all eight Big West games and either the contest against UNLV or San Diego State.
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