On March 3, head women’s basketball coach Bill Westphal’s illustrious – and sometimes tumultuous – coaching career reached its conclusion.
The Sea Lions ended their season on a loss to Academy of Art, 70-77, in the PacWest Playoffs. This 2015- 2016 season marked the seventeenth consecutive year that Westphal has led PLNU to the playoffs in both NAIA and Division II formats.
But coaching wasn’t the first vocation that Westphal chose before embarking on his path at Aviation High School in sunny Redondo Beach.
In fact, far from it.
Westphal was a full-fledged beach athlete before he got into basketball.
“I would spend most of my summers at the beach. It was a pretty new high school. And it was exciting times,” said Westphal. “It was just a time of discovering yourself – of what you wanted to do and become. At some point during my sophomore year, I made the conscious choice to become a basketball player. So I backed on the beach scene somewhat – the surfing and volleyball, backed off of that- and played basketball pretty much year around.”
From there he would go on to gain a scholarship to play for the USC Trojans in 1962 and subsequently join the Athletes in Action Basketball team for two years. After graduating, he saw relatively quick success as coach at Occidental College from 1973-1980.
In 1982, Westphal –who was 36 years old—was added as an assistant coach for the San Diego Clippers. According to him, the job came as a ‘lucky break’ from his brother.
One of his most memorable experiences was coaching Bill Walton– an NBA hall of fame player.
“He was a hippie flake,” he joked. “You know, he sat under a tree in the yoga position with his bicycle behind him meditating instead of going to practice because his foot hurt. He was a nice guy, but out of the 60’s. He’s like Dick Vitale (now), he’s larger than life, but he’s a good guy.”
After the Clippers, Westphal would embark on what would be a long career. However, Westphal’s journey wasn’t always rosy prior to his arrival at PLNU in 1997 as the men’s assistant basketball coach.
During his 42-year coaching career, Westphal frequently traveled from schools for different coaching jobs.
At one point, however, he gave up coaching entirely.
After coaching at Western Washington University –his subsequent job after leading Occidental College from 1982-85 – Westphal took a year off of coaching to work in the restaurant business.
“It was the first time I was ever out of coaching when I went into the restaurant business with Appititos, our biggest competition was Subway,” said Westphal. “For one year I was hired as a director of training. They thought that a coach could be a good trainer of restaurant managers if he incorporated coaching skills into training high school graduates who wanted to be a manager of a restaurant.”
The job, perhaps unlike any of his prior work experiences, detailed traveling throughout Phoenix, Arizona, to inspect multiple restaurant locations to survey customer demographics, worker behavior dynamics and conceiving of training manuals for employees.
This was short-lived, however, after the business suffered and another coaching opportunity became available at Occidental College.
“After Western Washington, I was over it: I wanted to be a businessman
and make another life,” said Westphal. “But it’s weird, I did some psychological tests, some books and yet everyone came back and said ‘you should be a coach.’ So however many years that is, I’ve gotten back at it and never gotten out of it until now.”
Then Westphal would undergo what would be possibly the most challenging opportunity of his career: to fill Paul Westphal’s shoes at Grand Canyon University.
Over two prior seasons, Paul Westphal (Bill’s younger brother, who went on to play and coach in the NBA) had accrued a 63-18 record, which included an NAIA championship.
“It was a step-up from anything I’ve ever done because I’ve never had (to recruit players with) scholarships before or had the expectation of winning. I’ve never had really good players either. I’ve had smart people, but we had to teach them how to play.”
Yet he succeeded, perhaps exceeding many of the fans’ expectations.
In two seasons, Bill Westphal led the team to 55-15 record, two NAIA championships and numerous weeks as the number one seeded team in the country.
However, despite these accolades, Westphal lived in a routine of what he said was, “every day was a different drama” at GCU.
According to an article from the Phoenix New Times, many of the GCU players caused problems off the court which contributed to Westphal’s eventual termination, including “charging about $500 in liquor and snacks to several rooms, according to Westphal and the guilty players.”
The situation worsened to the point where Westphal decided to leave the bench during a game to sit in the stands.
“I used to be reluctant to go to the office because I did not know what drama I was going to have to deal with that day. I got so tired of it that I am sure I got angry sometimes, frustrated and it wasn’t that much fun, honestly.”
At this time he was left scrambling to redeem his prestige with a new job and career reputation.
After a termination that “put his head-coaching career in limbo and his professional reputation at peril,” according to the Phoenix New Times, Westphal began to pick up the pieces.
“In those days, maybe getting fired was getting a little worse than it was now. If you got fired, it was like you were a black sheep, you did something really bad and it was hard to overcome. So I thought I was out of coaching (again) and I sued them (GCU). I am not supposed to talk about the results, but I used that money to start the Westphal Brother’s Basketball Camp in Prescott, Arizona.”
For the next nine years, Westphal tremendously grew his camp from what was a small gathering of a group of employees and customers to a staff of 40 people and an average of 1,920 campers per summer.
In addition, he returned to coaching at the high school level at Brophy College Prep, Phoenix, Arizona.
Then, finally, Westphal arrived at PLNU for what would be the longest coaching tenure of his career. His choice to lead the Sea Lions as the assistant coach was influenced by his best friend and former college roommate, John Block, who was the men’s head coach until 2002.
“That was a big passage in my life to leave Phoenix and come to an unknown deal in San Diego. And now there’s another big passage of leaving San Diego and going on with whatever is next. But this has been a good thing and it has lasted a lot longer than I thought it would.”
After John Block was terminated, Westphal chose to explore a different avenue, one that he had no prior experience in despite having decades of coaching.
Leading a women’s basketball team.
“I think with some of my frustrating experiences with coaching men, I would’ve been out of coaching 20 years ago if the women’s job didn’t present itself. (It) never even occurred to me to coach women. In fact I thought it was really stupid, but it turned out that’s what kept me in coaching for a long time.”
After his induction onto the team in 1999, the rest, as they say, is history.
Two-time Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) Coach of the Year, a “Final Four” run in 2004-05, 338-171 overall record and an upset over the top ranked school in the nation are just a few of Westphal’s impressive achievements throughout his career at PLNU.
After reflecting on his career, there were few things that he said that could’ve been changed.
“2005 was probably my favorite year – when we went to the NAIA – coaching here. Just real memorable people on that team. And even this team has some really special people on it. The memorable times come from the years where I really enjoyed some of the players.”
Westphal has said that he’s not sure what the future holds for him after coaching.
Danny Barnts –Assistant Athletic Director for Communications- said the athletic department has been attempting to find a replacement for the legendary coach—a void that will take a special person to fill.
“Our Athletic Director Ethan Hamilton and the search committee are in the first stages of the interview process,” said Barnts via phone. “We hope to have someone in place shortly.”