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Fresno State's student-run newspaper

The Collegian

Fresno State's student-run newspaper

The Collegian

Fresno State's student-run newspaper

The Collegian

Jacqueline Carrillo/The Collegian
Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and men’s basketball Head Coach Vance Walberg hold up basketball jersey on April 12.

Column: Vance Walberg is a good hire

Walberg will bring excitement back to Fresno State men’s basketball.

Following back-to-back underwhelming seasons, the Fresno State men’s basketball team made a much-needed coaching change. After six up-and-down seasons under former Head Coach Justin Hutson, the university announced the hire of former Clovis West High School varsity basketball coach Vance Walberg.

With all of the question marks surrounding Fresno State athletics, hiring someone with Walberg’s experience and expertise is a much-needed step in the right direction for Fresno State.

Walberg began his coaching career at 22 years old and has accumulated nearly 50 years of coaching experience between high school, junior college, college and the NBA. He spent time as an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets (2012-13), Philadelphia 76ers (2013-15) and Sacramento Kings (2015-16). 

Following his various coaching stints in the NBA, Walberg returned to Clovis West in 2016, where he previously coached from 1989 until 2002. Walberg cemented himself as one of the best high school coaches in California during his time at Clovis West.

In his 21 seasons at Clovis West, Walberg totaled a 559-104 record. Clovis West wasn’t the only time Walberg enjoyed coaching success in the Central Valley. Walberg also coached four seasons as Fresno City College’s head coach from 2003 to 2006 and went 133-11, including a perfect 34-0 season in 2005 that ended with a state championship. 

In the basketball world, Walberg is known as the mastermind behind the innovative dribble-drive offense that is now used by colleges such as the University of Kentucky and the 2012-13 Nuggets, who ranked first in the NBA that season with 106.1 points per game.

Outside of his offensive genius, former players of Walberg praise him for his competitive nature and for being able to build a strong team culture for his players and staff. Max Phillips played for Walberg at Clovis West from 2016-20 and credited him for pushing him beyond his limits.

“He’s going to push you past where you think your limits are and give you 100% in everything he does,” Phillips told The Collegian. “He’s just a competitor at the highest level.”

The respect for Walberg goes beyond players who have played for him. Opponents also recognize the competitiveness that Walberg brings every single game. 

Jalen Douglas had several battles against Clovis West and Walberg during his time at San Joaquin Memorial. 

“As a player, you can tell that he’s relentless,” Douglas said. “He sticks to his offense and trusts his players to execute. All of my games against him have been close ones, and the entire time, he’s being a high-energy coach being loud and assertive to his players.” 

One of the biggest complaints in the final season of the Hutson era was attendance numbers rapidly declining. In his first season in 2018-19, the Save Mart Center drew an average attendance of 5,807 per game. His last season saw a decrease of over 2,000 per game with just 3,471

With Walberg now on board, expect to see a lot more people pack the Save Mart Center in the upcoming seasons.

One of the concerns some may have about hiring Walberg is his age, as he will be 68 by the start of the 2024-25 season. While some may see age as a negative factor, it can be a positive. 

In a time when young coaches leave mid-major schools for larger opportunities at bigger programs, hiring someone older likely means that he won’t leave Fresno State for another opportunity this late in his career.

An example of this happened this season. Former Utah State Head Coach Danny Sprinkle led the team to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Given his age, 47, and his success, Sprinkle departed from Utah State after one season. 

Having stability in a coaching position is an underrated aspect of sports, specifically collegiate sports. There will always be roster movement in college sports with players transferring or graduating. 

A head coach with stability also means more roster stability. Additionally, having a group of players that the Red Wave can get behind and support for a few years will energize the crowd. 

When Sprinkle came to Utah State from Montana State, he brought along the star center, Great Osobor. Osobor won Mountain West Player of the Year in his only season at Utah State. Given that Sprinkle left, Osobor entered the transfer portal.  

Two of the most popular players among the Fresno State men’s basketball team this past season were Isaiah Hill and Leo Colimerio. What made these players fan favorites is that they both played at Fresno State for four seasons, where the fans watched them grow and develop. As a sports fan, being able to witness players grow through the years gives fans more of an attachment to the players.

A coach like Walberg, who is unlikely to leave for a bigger school, especially because of his ties to the area, will give the fans a coach they can get behind.

Even though the other finalist, Ryan Pannone, would’ve been a great hire, his quick rise in the coaching ranks likely meant he would’ve used Fresno State as a launch pad for a bigger coaching opportunity.

Skeptics may also point to Walberg’s poor record coaching at the university level as a cause for concern. His lone head coaching stint at the division one level came while at Pepperdine. During his one-and-a-half seasons at Pepperdine from 2004-06, he had just a 14-35 record. 

Obviously, that record isn’t the best, but when you look at how Pepperdine has done in the 16 years since his departure, it’s hard to place the blame solely on him. 

In the 16 seasons since Walberg left, Pepperdine has only had three winning seasons and no NCAA Tournament appearances.

Phillips believes Walberg will excel as a collegiate coach a second time around.

“I think his coaching style will translate perfectly [to college],” Phillips said. “He’s going to be given the opportunity to go out and recruit players that will fit his style. They’re going to play fast and tough. It should be fun to watch.”

Walberg will have a busy off-season bringing in players. As of April 8, Jalen Weaver is the only player who averaged more than one point per game slated to return to the team.

The respect for Walberg goes far beyond his former players. Newly named University of Arkansas head coach John Calipari praised Walberg. Calipari implemented Walberg’s dribble-drive offense during his tenure at the University of Kentucky, where he coached several NBA all-stars. 

“Vance Walberg is one of the most talented coaches in our country who has been ahead of the trends. His style of play will help get recruits and be appealing to the fans,” Calipari said via Fresno State Athletics. “He is a gatherer who will bring people together for a common cause – Fresno State basketball.”

Although Walberg will bring immediate excitement back to the valley, it is unrealistic to expect success right away. 

Great things take time to build, and for Fresno State to build a winning and sustainable basketball team from the ground up, it will take a year or two to see the results pay off in a Mountain West conference that is growing in talent every year.

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About the Contributor
Dylan Gonzales
Dylan Gonzales, Opinion Editor
My name is Dylan Gonzales and I am the Opinion Editor. I have been writing for The Collegian since Fall 2022. Prior to becoming Opinion Editor I was a reporter for two semesters. I am an MCJ digital journalism major. My dream job is being a sports columnist for The Athletic.
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