So palpable was the tension between Riley Wallace and Gib Arnold 11 months ago that a group of concerned coaches at the NCAA Final Four sought a neutral party to sit between them as a human Switzerland, lest some of the elbows being thrown not be confined to the court.
Ultimately Wallace chose to sit elsewhere after some pointed words were said to have been exchanged.
We bring this up because, from such a frayed start between University of Hawaii men’s basketball coaches past and present we have what appears to be a thaw of Cold War proportions. Call it the beginnings of Rainbow Warriors rapprochement at the most significant of junctures.
Word in coaching circles is that Wallace, chairman of the selection committee for the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, has stepped up big time on behalf of the Rainbow Warriors and, by extension, their first-year head coach.
So much so that it will be a surprise if the Rainbows — win or lose in the opener of the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Las Vegas tomorrow — don’t host a first-round game when the CIT tips off next week.
Truth be told, after six long years without advancing past the WAC tournament, UH would probably accept playing at Siberia State right now if it meant a guarantee of being in the postseason. That’s how much one of the 140 berths surrounding March Madness means to a program desperate to validate itself.
Wallace, UH’s longest-serving (20 seasons) and most victorious (334 wins) head coach, knows better than anyone what a postseason berth can mean to a program in the Pacific. He exulted in nine of them and felt the sting of disappointment from the rejection of several.
Which is part of why, you suspect, Wallace, with an investment of half his life in UH, feels a sense of ownership in UH basketball. And why, when his ex-assistant Bob Nash was shown the door and Wallace’s favored replacement, Kyle Smith, was passed over, the old coach was frank about expressing his emotions.
To the surprise of few who know him or have felt his barbs, Wallace was terse when Arnold sought him out in the spirit of inclusion upon taking the job. Wallace reportedly told the young coach he probably didn’t want to have that conversation just then and turned a Yukon shoulder.
To his credit, however much his blood might have boiled, Arnold kept his tongue and went about plowing his energies into rebuilding the ‘Bows into an 18-11 team.
Whether Wallace and Arnold will ever be back-slapping buddies remains to be seen. But from Wallace’s positive comments about Arnold’s role in Hawaii’s rise, you sense at least grudging respect.
More than that, there is also the necessary realization the UH basketball program has enough handicaps and isn’t blessed with the kind of resources to support a winning program amid internecine squabbling.
When Red Rocha died last year, Wallace became the godfather of UH basketball. Putting aside previous differences and rolling up his sleeves on behalf of his beloved ‘Bows — "for-Gibbing and forgetting," as Wallace has put it in lighter moments — demonstrates an understanding and acceptance of that role.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.