Remembering Ned Wulk

Dec. 12, 2003

By Brian Gomez, TheSunDevils.com

Remembered most for being a 'gentleman,' Ned Wulk forged enough memories as Arizona State's men's basketball head coach to pack the walls inside old Sun Devil Gym and touched enough people to fill every seat at Wells Fargo Arena.

Wulk's numbers (406 wins in 25 years) were staggering, but his greatest satisfaction came from the progress in others, rather than his own personal accomplishments. These are the stories of the players, coaches and friends that Wulk influenced:

Lafayette Lever: Despite showing promise early in his collegiate career, Lafayette Lever, an eventual first-round draft pick, couldn't earn praise from his hardnosed coach.

'You're not that good,' Wulk told Lever first at ASU, then later when Lever played in the NBA. The tough love made Lever gain an ever greater appreciation for Wulk, especially after he played in the last game Wulk coached, an 68-60 home win over No. 4-ranked Oregon State on March 6, 1982.

'As you walk off that floor, the memories are still there,' Lever said. 'Maybe I wasn't that good, but I was good enough to learn from someone who was that good.'

JOE CALDWELL: Playing at ASU in the early 1960s when racism was at its peak, Joe Caldwell learned how to handle adversity from Wulk.

Caldwell vividly remembers a trip to Hardin-Simmons when he went swimming in a predominantly white pool.

'The pool was full of people, so I jumped in the pool, and when I came up, all the people were standing on the side of the pool,' Caldwell said. 'Then I heard my coach's voice: 'Joe! Get over here!' I said, 'What's the matter?' He said, 'Look what you've caused.'

'It was just how he smoothed it over. Most people get hateful and say stupid things, but the way he did it leads to a good memory.'

ALTON LISTER: Faced with an opportunity to leave early for the NBA, Alton Lister stayed at ASU for another season because of the values conveyed by Wulk.

Lister said he appreciated Wulk's 'honesty, integrity and loyalty,' principles that stayed with him throughout his professional career. Lister ranks fourth in blocks (148) and fifth in rebounds (776) on ASU's career charts.

'He punished me when I was being lazy because when I first got there I had no clue about working,' Lister said. 'He used to make me run bleachers and do all this extra work. I took being lazy to another level, but he really helped me understand what it took to be a good player.'

TOM KUYPER: Tom Kuyper didn't get a chance to play because Wulk used all five starters for the entire game, but can proudly say he was part of one of the greatest wins in school history.

Behind a five-man lineup consisting of guards Lever and Byron Scott, forwards Johnny Nash and Sam Williams and Lister at center, ASU knocked off No. 1 Oregon State in the 1981 Pac-10 finale in Corvallis, Ore. It's the only time the Sun Devils have beaten the nation's top-ranked team.

'I didn't leave the bench,' said Kuyper, who now works as a color commentator for the Sun Devil Sports Network. 'I would always sit next to coach Wulk, hoping he would put me in. That was my game plan.'

BRUCE HAROLDSON: As Wulk's first, full-time assistant basketball coach, Bruce Haroldson witnessed, and sometimes literally felt, the enthusiasm Wulk brought to ASU.

Haroldson remembers the times when Wulk's late wife, Fern, served recruits Sunday breakfast and stuffed their bags with grapefruits and oranges before their visits were over. He also recalls the numerous occasions in which his body took a beating as a result of Wulk's energetic style on the sideline.

'He didn't just get off the bench, he erupted,' Haroldson said. 'I got my glasses knocked off and I got hit with arms. I felt like an offensive lineman pass blocking as he tried to storm out onto the floor.'

Brad Nahra: Brad Nahra came to ASU long after Wulk retired, but still grasped an understanding of the immeasurable impact Wulk had on the program.

Nahra was a two-time recipient of the Ned Wulk Award, an annual honor presented by coaches to the player who best epitomizes what it means to be a Sun Devil. He received the award in his sophomore and senior seasons.

'Coach Wulk represented everything that was good in the history of ASU basketball,' Nahra said. 'It was just a privilege to sit down and talk to him, and know that he was there supporting us and that he still followed the program.

BILL FRIEDER: Credited with helping bring Wulk back into the program after Wulk's 1982 retirement, former ASU head coach Bill Frieder tried to bridge the gap between Wulk and the University.

Frieder made sure Wulk was a fixture at practices and games as the Sun Devils attempted to redefine themselves as a basketball powerhouse. His efforts helped Wulk gain the recognition he deserved.

'ASU kind of ostracized him, but when I got the job in 1989, one of my first orders of business was to bring Ned and his people back into the program,' said Frieder, who coached the Sun Devils to two NCAA Tournament berths and three National Invitation Tournament appearances in eight years at the helm. 'He was very appreciative and very gracious, and he gave us great support.'

GENE SMITH: Although ASU Athletic Director Gene Smith had limited interactions with Wulk, he remains an advocate of trying to establish a commitment to coaches, similar to the loyalty the school's administration had toward Wulk.

Wulk's teams endured their fair share of losing seasons, but managed to weather the storm to the tune of nine NCAA Tournament appearances. Under Wulk, the Sun Devils came within one game of making the Final Four on three different occasions.

'Institutions have to be patient with a coach,' Smith said. 'There are going to be up and down seasons, and when they're down, they need to still make a strong commitment to that coach, believing that it's going to be back up, otherwise you have coaches changing every four to six years.'

Rob Evans: Having played against Wulk's teams at New Mexico State and coached against them later in his career, ASU head coach Rob Evans considered Wulk a close friend.

Even before Wulk tragically passed away last Saturday, Evans tried to convey the importance of Wulk's messages to his players, some of whom weren't even born by the time Wulk's coaching career ended.

'He is Sun Devil basketball, and he always will be,' Evans said. 'There's nobody that will be bigger than him.'

Reach the reporter at brian.gomez@asu.edu.

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