Fast and Furious
When hoops historians look back on the 2007-08 college basketball season, they may conclude that its most significant moment came on an Indian summer evening in October '03. At the head of a heavy oak table in his Memphis steak house sat Tigers coach John Calipari, who has led teams to both the Final Four and the NBA playoffs. Next to him was an obscure junior college coach from Fresno named Vance Walberg. For six days Walberg had observed Calipari's practices, continuing an annual pilgrimage that had given him deeper insight into the work of two dozen elite college coaches, from Bob Knight to Dean Smith to Billy Donovan.
But now, after the appetizers and the porterhouses had been cleared from the table, Calipari asked Walberg something that no other coach had bothered to ask him. "So tell me, Vance," he said, "what do you run?"
Walberg laughed. "You don't want to know," he replied. "It's a little bit off-the-wall."
"No, really," Calipari said. "Show me."
And so, using a pepper shaker as the basket, white sugar packets as offensive players and pink Sweet'n Low packets as defenders, Walberg explained his quirky creation, a high-scoring scheme featuring four perimeter players and a host of innovations. Unlike Knight's classic motion offense (which is based on screens) or Pete Carril's Princeton-style offense (which is based on cuts), Walberg's attack was founded on dribble penetration. To Calipari, at least, it embodied two wholly unconventional notions. One, there were no screens, the better to create spacing for drives. Two, the post man ran to the
But there was plenty more. As Walberg pushed the packets through the phases of his offense, Calipari experienced a new kind of sugar rush. Walberg's scheme was madness. It was genius.
And it was unlike anything Calipari, an old-school motion and play-calling acolyte, had ever run. "The players are unleashed when they play this way," he says, "because every player has the green light to take his man on every play." When Calipari junked his playbook and switched to Walberg's offense, his mentors thought he had lost his mind. "You've won hundreds of games playing a certain way, and now you're going to change?" Hall of Famer Larry Brown asked him. "And it's a junior college coach from California? What are you, crazy?"
Now look. Through Sunday, Calipari's Tigers were 23-0, ranked No. 1 in the nation and aiming to become the first team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991. But Memphis is only the tip of the Walberg iceberg, a spreading mass of teams using the Dribble-Drive Motion offense -- Calipari's felicitous term -- at every level of the game.
In Jersey City legendary coach Bob Hurley, who adopted DDM two seasons ago, has taken St. Anthony (19-0) to No. 1 in
In California's Central Valley, where Walberg, 51, coached for 13 seasons at Clovis West High and four at Fresno City College, his high-pressure offense and defense have changed the way an entire region plays basketball. "It totally blew up here," says Fresno Central High coach Loren LeBeau, one of Walberg's former assistants. "We're in the top league in Fresno, and four of the six teams are running this style." Under coach Tom Gonsalves, the girls' team at St. Mary's High in Stockton has gone 25-0 and risen to No. 9 in the nation using DDM. Another practitioner, coach Jeff Klein at Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, describes the system this way: "It's almost like Vance invented a new language."
The Denver Nuggets are running elements of DDM, and so are the Boston Celtics. "[Calipari] and I fax each other," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, one vocal DDM skeptic has changed his mind. "If I were fortunate enough to get back into coaching, I'd seek Vance's help in a minute," says Brown, who joined Calipari and Walberg last September at a clinic in Mississippi attended by more than 400 high school coaches. "When I was coaching UCLA, everybody ran the high-post offense and the 2-2-1 press because of Coach [John] Wooden. He won 10 national titles, so you could understand that. But to see all these people who are incorporating what Vance does is mind-boggling."
It's enough to make you wonder: Who the hell is Vance Walberg? How is his offense spreading around the nation? And if his brainchild is the hottest thing in U.S. basketball, why is he out of a job?
Where do innovators come from? An original idea -- the new new thing -- can be sparked anywhere, but the majority of college basketball's greatest innovators share a common trajectory: Unlike most of today's top coaches, who rose through the college ranks as assistants, they became head coaches early, often in anonymous hoops outposts. Carril was 24 when he became the jayvee coach at Easton (Pa.) High, the same age Knight was when he took over his first team, Army. Two of today's most respected innovators are Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, exponent of the Swing offense, who became the coach at Sun Valley High in Aston, Pa., at 26, and Michigan's John Beilein, who won the top job at Newfane (N.Y.) Central High at 22 and later came up with the Five-Out offense.
No matter how obscure the team, "when you're a head coach you get to tinkering with what you want," says Walberg, who was 22 when he took over at Mountain View (Calif.) High. As a high school grinder over the years -- he even coached badminton at one point -- Walberg dabbled in variations of the flex offense and Knight's motion, among other schemes, but his real break came in 1997, when he had his Clovis West team use a cutting-edge "four-out" offense (i.e., four perimeter players) of the kind now favored by Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus.
"It was pure luck," Walberg says, despite all evidence to the contrary. His best player, a heady, relentless point guard named Chris Hernandez (who would later star at Stanford), was such a skilled dribble-penetrator that Walberg moved his post man to the weakside block, clearing two bodies from Hernandez's path to the basket. When Hernandez broke down his defender he had several options: 1) shoot an open layup, 2) pass to the post man (if his defender left him to stop Hernandez), or 3) kick the ball out to an open teammate on the perimeter (if his defender had sagged to help out on Hernandez). The open player could shoot a three-pointer, but if one wasn't available, the team would attack again.
Because there were no screens and attackers were spaced so far apart, the formation opened yawning gaps for penetrators, as long as they had the talent to beat their defenders and the smarts to read defenses on the fly. "I wish I had chosen a fancier name than AASAA, but I wanted kids to understand that it was attack-attack-skip-attack-attack," says Walberg. "What am I trying to say? Get to the rim. It's basically
Walberg's invention shares some elements with European-style drive-and-kick formations and the fast-paced spread offense of Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, parts of which are being used by Duke, Texas and UMass. But Walberg is sui generis. Since '97 he has added myriad phases, wrinkles and -- perhaps most important -- an elaborate set of competitive practice drills (with names such as Blood, Cardinal and Scramble) that hone the fundamentals necessary for the offense. "Have you seen Vance at practice? Oh, man," says Brown. "His drills are all building blocks to his offense and defense, which is the key to coaching."
In fact, Calipari says he now does far more coaching in practice than during games, when he used to bark out play calls nearly every trip down the court. "The biggest strength of this offense," Walberg says, "is I feel we're teaching kids how to play basketball instead of how to run plays."
Dribble-drive is tailor-made for today's high school and college teams, which favor speed in the absence of classic back-to-the-basket big men, but it isn't for everyone. It requires quick, smart and talented guards who have a feel for the game. (See: Memphis point guard Derrick Rose.) It requires agile big men who can shoot from the perimeter and race downcourt. It requires deep benches and three-point shooters who can punish sagging man-to-man defenses and the inevitable zones. Not least, it requires complete commitment from coaches, who have to give up the control that comes with offensive play-calling and conventional half-court defenses.
Indeed, Walberg is so committed that he might need to
Walberg may have been a mad scientist, but he won games at an astonishing rate, usually with less talent than his opponents had. In the five years after it adopted his offense, Clovis West went 159-18, and during Walberg's four seasons at Fresno City College (2002-06) the Rams went 133-11, winning the '05 state juco title and regularly averaging more than 100 points a game. Nuggets assistant John Welch constantly observed Clovis West practices during his days at Fresno State under Jerry Tarkanian. He recalls, "People used to think it was funny: Why is a college assistant always over there with a high school coach? But I've been around some unbelievable coaches -- Tark, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, now George Karl and Tim Grgurich -- and I've learned as much from Vance as from anybody else."
By the summer of 2003 Welch had joined Hubie Brown's Memphis Grizzlies staff. One day he called his friend Calipari. "I've always respected Johnny Welch," says Calipari. "He's a basketball Benny, knows coaches, studies the game. He says, 'Look, I've got a guy coming in here, and I want him to spend some time with you. You ought to look at his offense.' "
Why change? It may seem obvious now that they're coaching the nation's top-ranked teams in college and high school basketball, but Calipari and Hurley didn't need to overhaul their systems. Calipari, 49, had won 336 games in college and the NBA and had reached three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four when he and Walberg sat down for dinner that night at Cal's Championship Steakhouse. During his first three seasons at Memphis, however, Calipari had coached in only one NCAA tournament game. "It's like you're a teacher, and you're teaching for 15 years, and your lesson plan never changed," he says. "This has been invigorating for me because it's gotten me to think, to study the game again."
Hurley, 60, had won 22 state championships, nearly 900 games and two mythical national titles as head coach at St. Anthony when he adopted dribble-drive in the fall of 2005. "I've had very few original thoughts in my life," Hurley says, "but I'm smart enough to take from people who are successful and seem to have a greater view of the game. We got to a point where kids spent more time in the weight room than out on the court working on skills. [Dribble-drive] gets you working on skills. You can move your center around. It doesn't have to be mud-wrestling where just the stronger, more physical, more athletic kids win."
Both coaches have added their own elements to Walberg's framework. Hurley uses what he calls "a European-style pick-and-roll," while Calipari departs from Walberg orthodoxy in several ways. Instead of going straight into the offense, Memphis sometimes swings the ball around the perimeter or springs the point guard with (gasp!) a ball screen. And instead of sending his post man straight to the lane's weak side, Calipari allows him to go on what Memphis calls a "rim run," in which the penetrating guard throws a lob in the vicinity of the basket for an alley-oop dunk.
A born promoter, Calipari also came up with the name Dribble-Drive Motion for the offense. "It's just easier to understand," he says. "AASAA? Come on, what are you talking about?" Owing to the offense's continuous patterns, reads and backdoor cuts, he also branded it "Princeton on steroids."
Whatever you call it, Calipari's team is smitten. "It turned out to be great for us," says swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, one of the nation's most gifted penetrators. "It's about spacing and players making plays. A lot of players who are in conventional styles get bored sometimes because they feel like they can't show what they can do, but this offense lets a player show his strengths."
Although Calipari didn't adopt Walberg's scrambling full-court defense (he's convinced that winning at the highest level requires stopping opponents in the half-court), he did transform his defense in one major way. He says that during his days at UMass, from 1988 to '96, he wanted his teams to be
Opposing teams can play their own defensive trump cards, of course, and the most common gambit against Memphis's DDM attack has been to ditch man-to-man for zones and hybrid junk defenses, which clog the Tigers' driving lanes. Memphis has seen them all: 2-3 zones (Gonzaga), 3-2 zones (East Carolina), 1-3-1 zones (SMU), the triangle-and-two (USC). Arizona tried a two-man zone, with its post defenders stationed on the blocks. During its victory over Memphis in the 2006 NCAA West Regional final, UCLA used a one-man zone, keeping a big man in the lane.
The most successful defense against the Tigers this season was USC's triangle-and-two, which helped the Trojans take Memphis to overtime on Dec. 4 before losing 62-58. "We got tentative against USC," says Calipari, who calls more set plays against zones and says he has installed countermeasures for the triangle-and-two. (When Middle Tennessee State brought it out later in December, Memphis won by 24.) Besides, he adds, "if your primary defense is man but you're playing us zone, how will you be any good at it? And if you do stay in the game, what are you thinking with four minutes to go?
Perhaps, but it's also true that zones are more likely to expose the Tigers' potential Achilles' heel. Memphis shoots only 34.2% from three-point range. "John's got just about all the pieces," says Walberg, "with the exception of a knockdown shooter." Then again, a bad shooting night may not be enough to stop a team with perhaps five future NBA players. "Whatever you're running, you'd better have guys who can play," says Calipari. "If you forget that, you don't have to worry about being innovative."
The same could be said for Hurley's team, which includes six seniors (five of them guards) who have accepted Division I scholarships. Yet Hurley points out that talented players can always improve their skills, and he swears by Walberg's high-intensity practice drills. In fact, some coaches think Walberg's drills are his crowning achievement. "It's like a franchise for McDonald's," says Welch. "Not only are you getting a system, you're getting built-in drills to teach your system."
For all their success using DDM, Calipari and Hurley have one major difference. Calipari made three trips to visit Walberg in Fresno, studied his game tapes and spent hundreds of hours speaking to Walberg about his offense. But Hurley and Walberg have never sat down and talked. One day last year they finally connected over the phone. "I love your Blood drills," Hurley told Walberg. "They're really great."
For a moment there was silence on the other end of the line. Walberg didn't know whether to be proud that Hurley had fallen for his creation or horrified that one of his most closely held secrets had crossed the continent. "Blood drills?" he said at last. "Bob, how do you know about Blood drills?"
Herb Welling doesn't look like one of the most wired social connectors in U.S. basketball. By day he's a security guard at Omaha Central High, where he moonlights as an assistant coach for the boys' basketball team. A short, pear-shaped man, Welling, 45, wears tight purple Omaha Central T-shirts that make him look like a smaller cousin of the McDonald's character Grimace.
But underestimate Welling at your peril. He's the tactical brains behind Omaha Central, which has used DDM to win the last two Nebraska state titles and draw sellout crowds of rabid fans (including the Sage of Omaha, investor Warren Buffett, who knows a good product when he sees one). For years Welling was the righthand man to Howard Garfinkel at his famed Five-Star Camps, where Welling met the top college and high school coaches in the country. "Herb and I talk once a week," says Hurley. "He originally called me, and we started talking about [DDM]." Before long, Welling had sent Hurley more than 200 pages of notes on the offense.
But how had Welling "cracked the code," as he puts it? DDM wasn't something you could master from a phone call or a few game tapes or even from attending a clinic, which reveals no more than 10% of the scheme's secrets, according to Calipari. Welling had never visited one of Walberg's or Calipari's practices, but he remained undaunted. "I'm kind of psychotic for finding out stuff," he says. "At school they call me the Minister of Information."
Basketball coaches are a secretive lot. Indeed, for Walberg, sharing has always been a double-edged proposition. "I want to help people because a lot of people helped me," he says, "but [DDM] is kind of my ace in the hole." Before dribble-drive broke nationally, Walberg would host dinners at his home for interested coaches from Fresno-area high schools and junior colleges, often sharing information liberally -- perhaps too liberally. "Vance is too unselfish with his offense," says his friend Brad Felder, the Hanford (Calif.) High coach. "In the long run it will hurt him because the longer [the offense] is out there, the more others will adapt."
These days Walberg and Calipari have a policy: They'll let coaches observe their practices; they'll send them game tapes; they'll answer questions and host clinics. But Walberg and Calipari won't give out their playbooks, and they refuse to make instructional videos. "I want to wait a few years," says Walberg, who estimates he gets more than 300 calls a year from coaches seeking info about his offense. "I talked with John, and we didn't really want it out."
Adds Calipari, "If I wanted to do these tapes, I could make a ton of dough. But that's Vance's money. That's not my money."
Perhaps, but the two coaches didn't account for Welling, whose pursuit of the prize was relentless. In 2005, after first hearing about Walberg's offense at the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in Las Vegas (where his stepson was a camper), Welling started breaking down game tapes that Walberg had sent him. Then Welling met Duane Silver, a retired high school coach in Waco, Texas, who had written a booklet on the drive-and-kick offense and maintained a coaching website. Silver introduced Welling to John Jordan, the coach at St. Francis High in La Cañada, Calif., who attended Walberg's clinics and drove six hours nearly every week to scout his games and practices in Fresno.
Jordan sent Welling a 100-page dossier on Walberg's offense and defense, which landed, in turn, on Hurley's desk in New Jersey. "Then I got various materials that they don't even know I have," says Welling. "We had about every clinic that Walberg's ever done. We had his practice booklet and a lot more. It would blow you away, but then I'd have to shoot you."
The Minister of Information also has Walberg's lingo down cold, from
That's right: Herb Welling, a security guard from Omaha, is outselling videos by Wooden, Carril, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams. Told of Welling's success with his invention, Walberg -- who turned down a Sysko's offer -- manages only a thin smile. "Well," he finally says, "I guess that's America."
The way Walberg sees it, though, that's the least of his concerns at this point.
Dear Mr. Walberg,
I am very sorry to hear of your resignation. I am just a small-school high school coach that studies the game more than most. I know you are an unbelievable innovator in a time of no innovations in basketball. You are brilliant! You can tell me to go to hell, but I must know the real reason you resigned. You didn't give it much time to recruit your style of players. I am 12-1 using your offense! I hope you coach again, you have been very nice to me with your help. You can e-mail me or just leave me wondering. Best of luck in the future. I hope you coach again. Thank you.
In diagrams the dribble-drive is represented by what coaches call a squiggle: a zigzag line with an arrow at the end. It's an apt symbol as well for Walberg, who's trying to move forward while whipsawing from one emotional extreme to the other. On the one hand, he's enjoying the ultimate in mainstream professional respect. The top teams in the NBA (the Celtics), college (Memphis) and high school (St. Anthony) are running his stuff, and it's spreading like a benign virus through the sport he loves. Yet at the same time this is the most excruciating moment of his 30-year career. On Jan. 18, midway through his second season at Pepperdine, Walberg abruptly resigned.
Both he and Pepperdine athletic director John Watson insist that he wasn't forced out, but Walberg says his dream job on the majestic shores of Malibu had become untenable. After winning 92% of his games at Fresno City College, his rebuilding Waves teams had gone 14-35. But it wasn't just about the losing. Since the summer of 2006 Walberg had lost six players through transfers and one through expulsion, erasing the depth that his attacking style demands. Meanwhile, at least one parent -- Terry Tucker, the father of two Pepperdine players -- was unhappy about things Walberg had done in practice: making one player suck his thumb for acting like "a baby," calling another player "a p---y" and labeling another "a turnover midget."
Though Walberg apologized to the last player and Watson took no disciplinary action -- he ruled that Walberg's actions were "inappropriate" but not abusive -- the tension and the losses were a volatile mix. During the three weeks before his resignation, Walberg says, he slept no more than 2 1/2 hours on any night. Why wouldn't his players commit all the way like he had? "It just became really tough," Walberg says, struggling for words. "My wife and kids, we talked and talked. It was like a big part of my life was being taken out of me. I love coaching so much. You can't imagine not getting your players to buy in. They weren't bad kids, but I just couldn't get 'em over the line."
Those squiggles on the page are worth only so much, after all.
Walberg doesn't know what comes next. His friends say he was happiest at the high school and juco levels, where his teams won and the gyms were always filled. But he could also end up as an NBA assistant or perhaps join the Memphis staff. Walberg won't have trouble finding work. And for now, when he despairs, he can always flip on the TV and watch Calipari's team run the offense that he laid out in sugar packets on a restaurant table five seasons ago.
"No matter what, I'm super happy for John," Walberg says. "At least I know it works."