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Walz excited about his third trip to Final 4

If you look at Jeff Walz’s coaching resume, it is a very impressive one already.

And the youthful-looking U of L women’s basketball coach is only 46 years old.

After guiding his Cardinals to last Sunday’s 76-43 victory over Oregon State in an Elite Eight matchup at Rupp Arena, Walz can now add another NCAA Final Four trip – his third as head coach — to his resume. In 2009 and 2011, Walz, who is a native of Fort Thomas in northern Kentucky and played basketball at Northern Kentucky University, sent Louisville to NCAA runner-up finishes.

His current 36-2 Cardinals — who have won 11 straight games, including winning Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament titles — will face Mississippi State in a national semifinal showdown on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

“I think a program that had never been to a Sweet 16 until 11 years ago (when Walz took over the U of L job in 2007) can now say every player that’s finished four years has had the opportunity to play in a Final Four,” said Walz, who was recently named the ACC Coach of the Year. “I think that’s pretty impressive.”

Asked about his current squad, Walz said, “I can’t say enough about their character. The basketball stuff is there, that’s great. It’s their character. It’s who they are. It’s what they do off the floor. You can’t be a great basketball team and have the results you want if you don’t carry it over in your personal life. And we truly do have wonderful young women who are wonderful role models to my children, to (associate) coach (Sam) Purcell’s children and that means more to me than winning basketball games.

“It’s a wonderful experience to have the opportunity to get back to a Final Four again, but I want to thank them for being the people they are.”

Walz — who currently has a 27-9 career record (.750) in the NCAA Tournament, ranking among the best in all-time winning percentage — is about to enter another milestone —his 300th career victory. Under his leadership, the Cardinals have compiled a remarkable 299-95 mark over the past 11 years.

All-American senior Myisha Hines-Allen said her coach’s tourney success comes from his eagerness to study the game when he was a player at NKU where he had a full athletic scholarship.

“He knows the game,” she said. “He wasn’t getting a lot of playing time, so instead of pouting about it, he actually sat down and learned the game, and that’s why I think he’s so successful now because he’s not worried about what happened that last play but how to beat this team doing something else. If it’s not working, he knows like what to do. He’s actually watching and coaching us up to win.”

Walz, to his credit, doesn’t let basketball consume his personal life. He has a family to spend time with, including four children. Moments before last Friday night’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen matchup with Stanford, he had a daughter sitting on his lap on the bench during his team’s pregame practice. Walz – who doesn’t wear a suit jacket or tie — says he doesn’t feel much, if any, pressure or stress during March Madness.

“Not one bit,” he said when asked about feeling stressed out.

Why?

“I haven’t missed a shot in 22 years,” he quipped. “You know we’ve done all of our (pregame) work, and then my time comes when the game starts. Before that, I’m not one of those (coaches), that you can’t talk to me, don’t do that. That’s why I love coaching women’s basketball. You asked me that question about would you be interested in a men’s job (at U of L). No. I want to sit there with my daughter to experience it. That’s what it’s all about. Memories like that that I’ll be able to sit there and share with her in 10 years.

“You know, coach Purcell’s daughters got on the big screen (at Rupp Arena) and our players were watching the (first) game out in the hall, and they all just started (to say), ‘Oh, your girls are on, your girls are on.’ That’s what it’s all about.

“Sure, if you don’t win enough games, you get fired. It’s part of it. But I love what I do, but it’s not my life. I tell people all the time, I’m going to play the Powerball (in Kentucky Lottery). I’ve got my tickets. I think it’s $485 million and there’s a chance if I win, Steph (associate head coach Stephanie Norman) might be coaching tomorrow (meaning the Elite Eight game). I’d like to go count (the money). I’ll ask for it all in 5s and 10s.

“I love these kids. I love what I do. But I think family is the most important thing. You’ve got to make sure you have a good balance.”

After beating Oregon State, the personable coach also held his two daughters while having a postgame interview with ESPN’s Allison Williams.

By the way, Walz is not the only member in his immediate family with an impressive basketball background. His younger sister, Jaime Walz Richey, is now a successful girls coach at Highlands High School where her teams have won over 300 wins in her 16-year coaching career.

She also had a storied career as a prepster at Highlands, earning Gatorade and Parade Magazine national player of the year honors in 1996. She was also named Miss Basketball while setting all-time scoring records with most career points.

And when Jaime arrived at Western Kentucky University, her brother was just beginning his second year at WKU, serving as an assistant to coach Paul Sanderford, who had taken the Lady Toppers to three Final Four appearances in 1985, 1986 and 1992, including one national championship game appearance.

She has been inducted to several sports hall of fames, including the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

Jaime and the rest of the family are enjoying the March Madness this year, and they have been following Jeff and the Cardinals very closely in the NCAA tourney.

Added Jaime on Monday night, “I was able to attend both of the (Lexington Regional) games at Rupp. Our whole family was there – mom and dad, two older brothers, Scott and Brian, along with all of our spouses and kids. Fifteen of us. He has seven nieces and nephews that were all there and will be in Columbus, also.

“I haven’t missed a Final Four that he has coached in as an assistant or head coach. I was in Boston when he won the national championship with Maryland as an assistant coach, in St Louis in 2009, in New Orleans in 2013 and was there for the upset of Baylor in Oklahoma City and then Tennessee in the Elite Eight.”

Jaime has several stories or memories about her older brother, Jeff.

She said he used to make her cry while playing horse in the backyard. “He wouldn’t let me win,” Jaime recalled.

She commented Jeff once owned his grass-cutting business. “I spent a lot of hours cutting grass with him.”

As for their careers, Jaime said, “I think the best one (story) is how our lives have come full circle. Jeff used to come and follow my high school and college playing career, and now I’m able to follow his coaching career. As a player you dream about playing in the Final Four and I was never able to get there, so it’s pretty neat to be able to have a brother that has coached in three of them so far in his coaching career.”

Jeff Walz was asked Sunday what has been the most rewarding part about this year’s U of L team.

“It’s getting these young women the opportunity to experience it (Final Four),” said Walz, who also recruited high school stars Maci Morris of Bell County and Blair Green of Harlan County before they signed with UK. “As a player, it’s 10 times better than as a coach. Are you kidding me? I mean, it’s great. Don’t get me wrong.

“But as a player you have control over everything out there. And I want them to have that opportunity to experience what it feels like. It’s a whole new thing. You get the opportunity to go to the Final Four, everything that comes with that is awesome. And I’ve told them the past two times, soak up every second of it.”

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Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle.com@gmail.com.