Ex-Kansas star starts career as head coach

By CARLOS FRIAS, Cox News Service, Friday, November 10, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. Rex Walters is looking for a routine.

As a player in the NBA and at Kansas, his job was usually clear-cut. Show up and shoot the ball.

But on this particular day, he's wondering if all the banners are hung announcing Florida Atlantic's exhibition game. He also has a booster to court, a recruit to contact and an injured player to check. Plus, there's that little matter of actually coaching a game.

Walters doesn't need music to pump him up. He needs a nap. So, two hours before the Owls' 87-70 exhibition victory Nov. 2 against Florida Tech, Walters closed the blinds in his office, turned off the lights and set his alarm for a 20-minute snooze. Count nap time as the first pre-game ritual established by the first-year coach. "As a head coach, I felt like I needed it to clear my head," he said.

Walters, 36, has been on a fast break toward his first season as a head coach ever since he took over the Owls program from Matt Doherty, who left after one season to coach at Southern Methodist. Tonight is the first game that counts for Walters as FAU opens the season at Oklahoma State. Walters has been dreaming of this moment since he was a kid, and later, as his basketball education accelerated while playing for several top coaches.

"I saw a coach. He never expressed it to me, but you can tell certain guys that might go on," said Heat coach Pat Riley, who had Walters on his teams from 1998-2000. "As a player, he was a very feisty individual and very smart. ... Worked very hard team-oriented guy and I'm sure those are the values and qualities that he'll put in the program."

When Walters retired from the NBA, he asked Riley for advice about breaking into coaching. Riley's response? "Just coach," Riley told him. "Don't try to find the perfect job. Just go find a job, be an apprentice, be an assistant just learn the trade for two or three years, then start pursuing things.'' Walters started out as an assistant at Blue Valley Northwest High in Overland Park, Kan., before spending two years as an assistant at Valparaiso and joining Doherty's staff last season.

Now, as a head coach, he can begin applying all that he absorbed about the game under the masters. From Riley, Walters said learned how to motivate players while keeping a respectful distance. "He could make me believe I could run through a brick wall," Walters said.

From Roy Williams, North Carolina's coach who was Walters' coach at Kansas, "love, passion and commitment. I know how much he cares about every single one of his players," said Walters, who said he hears from Williams at least once a month. From Chuck Daly, who coached Walters with the New Jersey Nets, he observed "how to manage all those egos." Daly made the Nets a winner while juggling various personalities, including Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson and Jayson Williams. From Larry Brown with the Philadelphia 76ers, Walters learned how to teach the game. "He could see the whole game," Walters said.

Then there's Doherty, who was out of coaching after a disappointing stop at his alma mater, North Carolina. When Walters asked Doherty to call FAU on his behalf about the vacant head coaching job before the 2005-06 season, Owls officials became enamored with Doherty. Doherty put in a good word for Walters, but before he talked to FAU about possibly taking the job himself, he called Walters to ask for his blessing. He also told FAU he'd want Walters as his top assistant. "I wouldn't have taken the job without Rex," Doherty said.

Walters figured he'd help Doherty turn around the program, then wait for his chance. Last season, FAU was 15-13, including a 14-6 record in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Walters picked up on Doherty's intense organizational abilities. "I feel a responsibility to mentor young coaches. ... To coach my coaches," Doherty said. "I want them to learn from my mistakes."

When Doherty decided he couldn't pass up SMU's offer, he urged FAU to make Walters the head coach. So now it's Rex Walters' show and he can expect some fitful naps. "As an assistant, you coach without the pressure of winning and losing," he said. "As a head coach, everything is on your shoulders I understand that now. It's all with you every second of the day."

Beginning tonight, he'll try to remember all that he has learned along the way. "I don't have all the answers, but I've been around a lot of great people," Walters said. "We've just got to continue to grow together."

Carlos Frias writes for The Palm Beach Post.