For Love of the Game

January 1, 2006 by  
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At the time, Willis Wilson wasn’t piloting the Rice Owl basketball fortunes as the primary bench boss, but merely serving as the on-the-floor point guard with the ever-alert eye for the open teammate or the opportune jump shot. However, one game night his junior season, something else caught his eye. Rather, someone else.

“I remember sitting on the bench as a player and saying to myself, “That’s the kind of girl I want to marry,”” reminisces Willis with total recall of the initial glimpse of his future wife, Vicki, in the crowd that evening at Autry Court. “She had a lot of personality – just a presence.”

This team captain was accustomed to orchestrating the Owls offense, clock-working the orange, dishing and distributing – and he soon devised an off-the-court plan that would deliver nothing less than a large dose of destiny.

“My senior year (1982), it was homecoming, and I knew she was going to be at this party,” remembers Willis. “I told my friend, ‘I’m going to go find that girl.’ To this day, she doesn’t believe me that I went over there to find her.” Believe this. What Willis eventually found was a lifelong love – for the gal and, soon thereafter, the game. Now a near quarter-century later both remain at the bedrock of much more than merely his professional success.

Love and basketball
“It’s different, in the sense of what I thought my life would be,” Vicki says now, as she and Willis prepare for their 20th year of marriage. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. There are no regrets. My life is very fulfilling, but in a different way than if you had asked me when I was 17 or 18 years old what I thought it would be.” Vicki and Willis had only begun dating in 1982. His first taste of the marketplace following graduation – a stint in human resourses – was sour. Willis redirected his sights on law school and was preparing for the LSAT when he accepted a part-time coaching position at Strake Jesuit High School. Fate had hit absolutely, positively nothing but the bottom of the net.

“I was varsity assistant,” Willis says. “And fell in love with it. High school was the best experience I ever had in coaching. It was so rewarding – just the opportunity to work with kids who were so hungry and just soaked everything up.”

Not so rewarding were the initial financial stakes. This Will Rice College Fellow with a bachelor of arts degree in political science was soon selling women’s shoes at Foley’s to make the month-to-month ends meet – and also working at an auto parts warehouse as a staff of one. Willis soon returned to the Rice campus as the basketball program’s graduate assistant coach, in order to qualify for the monetary stipend. But Vicki could see then that law school was forever scratched from the to-do list.

“He found his passion,” Vicki says, “and that’s very important when you’re out there trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. He was making all those sacrifices just to find something he truly loved; and he was lucky because not everybody gets that.”

A different passion was consummated when the two were married in August 1986. Soon, they began Willis’s less than arduous climb up the coaching ladder: five years as a Rice assistant, one year away on the staff at Stanford. Then, he received the quick call in 1992 to return to his alma mater and a first-time opportunity to front a program. For the last 13 years, the head coaching chair at Rice has afforded the Wilsons with a luxury rarely found in the profession – stability that so many in the nomadic lifestyle never experience.

“I have friends that have moved every three or four years,” says Vicki. “We have friends we talk with all over the country – Oklahoma and Missouri and California – who have paraded from one coaching post to another. We were prepared to do the same. You just have to learn to trust – and trust your own instincts.”

Often times, the truest form of trust is that the home front is secure while hours and hours and weeks and days and months are invested in the win/loss livelihood of college hoops. Vicki soon discovered the routine that so many wives in the coaching world relate as routine: that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not occasions reserved for family, but team travel and tournaments; that spring breaks are not so much March getaways, but potential runs to March Madness and the basketball post season; that summers are not built for recreation, but recruiting windows.

“With Willis’ job, the family can’t always do the regular things that others take for granted,” says Vicki. “You can’t leave at drop of a hat on a Friday night. You can’t just meet friends for dinner or have them come over for a weekend cookout. It’s been long enough now that my family and friends are finally starting to understand that Willis isn’t going to be around.”

In Willis’s absence, Vicki wears enough hats to rival a Hedda Hopper review. Mother to daughter Kristin, now a junior at Clements High School; and seventh grade twins, Zachary and Keenan. Tutor. Advisor. Chauffeur. Cook. Household Financial Planner. Disciplinarian. Organizer Supreme.

“At first, you’re a little frustrated by it,” she says about performing solo duties due to the demands made by Willis’s profession. “Then you’re a little mad about it, but it all just has to get done, so you just do it. Just move on. And the kids just had to learn that everyone has to pitch in, and everyone has to learn to work together.”

“I’m often asked, ‘What does your wife do?'” says Willis. “It would be hard to detail and describe all the things that Vicki does. It’s hard for people to understand how productive she is every day. She probably accomplishes more than I do.”

Yet this fall, Vicki also found the time within the daily grind and demands to reach out to a family of nine from New Orleans and help them deal with the strains of evacuating in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and relocating to Houston.

“I am the glue,” admits Vicki. “Willis and I discuss things, certainly, but the household routine, the bills and the weekly organization all fall under my umbrella. I don’t know what you do to prepare for it. It’s such a learning experience. Different things come up, and you just have to deal with them.”

“Vicki is very driven,” says Willis. “When I really got into this coaching thing, I think it was very difficult for her to relate and see how she was going to be productive and successful. But, I think, over time she’s gotten accustomed to it.”

Being the wife of a coach is unsung and unheralded. There are no cameras demanding TV close-ups or day-to-day accounts of a job well done.

“In a lot of jobs, you go to your job; you perform your job; and you reap the rewards of that job,” says Willis. “When you’re very independent, it’s easy to say, ‘No, I can’t lie in the wings. I want to be productive, and I can be productive.’ That was the biggest challenge for Vicki, to discover that compromise.”

The challenges for Willis are immense: establishing and maintaining a program at Rice, given the strict academic rigors and the absence of a winning tradition. Yet, he stands as the school’s all-time winningest coach, having just tutored the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. He has navigated the Owls to 60 wins the last three seasons, Rice’s most successful stretch since the FDR administration.

And behind the scenes is a surrogate mom to the program who is much more than mere cheerleader. “I’ll get many (of the players) who will just pick up the phone and call just to talk,” says Vicki, “just to discuss a problem or an issue they’re trying to sift through. It’s been very fulfilling watching so many come in as boys and leave as men.” Not unlike a certain guard from the early ’80s who cast an unknowing glance to the crowd and hit the biggest winner of his life. H

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