By Chip Rogers
Jan. 3, 2003
When fans go to a game and see the coaching staff in action for 40 minutes, often the presumption is that it is the end result of a project. In reality, though, those 40 minutes are only a fleeting, yet very public, portion of the work of a coach.
Successful coaches, no doubt, know the X’s and O’s of the sport. They develop systems, read and adjust during the course of a game, and communicate their knowledge to their players.
Yet there is much more to the job than that. Coaches fill the role of teacher and parent, mentor and confidant, and they are there to share in the thrill of victory and console in the moments of defeat.
“Walt is our father figure,” said Virginia head coach Pete Gillen. “He yells when the players need yelling, and he gives them a hug when they need a hug. His being a tremendous player gives him a great advantage in being able to relate to the student-athletes of today. He has an incredible rapport with the players, and the tough love that he shows them is crucial to our success.”
In his fifth season as an assistant coach at UVa, Fuller embraces that role. “I want to help our players have positive experiences and really appreciate their lives as student-athletes,” he said. “It is great to see the student-athletes graduate and do something with their lives.”
Fuller himself has followed through with his own philosophy. While playing at Drexel University, Fuller was a two-time captain who helped the Dragons to an East Coast Conference (ECC) title and an NCAA berth in 1986. He completed his career ranked first in school history in games played (116) and was second on the school’s career free throw percentage list (80.5%). He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player after the 1986 season and received the Dragon “D” Award as the team’s top defensive player.
“My being a captain really prepared me for coaching,” said Fuller. “I had my teammates coming to me for advice and looking to me for leadership, and these are the same things that happen to me as a coach.”
After completing his playing eligibility , Fuller served as a graduate assistant coach for the 1986-87 season at Drexel in 1986-87. He completed his undergraduate work that season and pursued a master’s degree in business administration.
“I realized as a player that I wanted to stay a part of the game,” recalled Fuller. “I got a taste of what life was like on the other side of the bench, and I really enjoyed it.”
Fuller remained a part of the game as a marketing representative for the Philadelphia 76ers’ basketball organization for two years before working as a financial planner for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company from January through September of 1989.
Eager to help make a difference in players’ lives, he returned to his alma mater as a full-time assistant coach before the 1988-89 season and spent six seasons there. While on the staff at Drexel, Fuller helped the Dragons reach the NCAA tournament in 1994 after winning the North Atlantic Conference (NAC) championship with a 25-4 record.
“Winning that championship was a special moment,” recalled Fuller, “especially as a graduate of that program. Going to the NCAA Tournament added to the experience and made it all very special.”
Fuller moved on to the College of William & Mary the next season where he worked with then-head coach Charlie Woollum. Fuller was an assistant coach at William and Mary for four seasons from 1994-98. In his final season, the Tribe posted a 20-7 record and tied for the Colonial Athletic Association regular season championship.
Less than a month later Gillen was hired as Virginia’s head coach. In May of 1993 Gillen tapped Fuller as an assistant.
“Fuller is a tremendous addition to our University of Virginia staff,” said Gillen upon announcing the hiring. “He is a very hard worker who can help us improve our basketball program in many areas.”
Following the departure of Tom Herrion in the summer of 2002 to become the head coach at the College of Charleston, Fuller assumed the role of Gillen’s top assistant. He continues to earn Gillen’s praise.
“Walt is our top assistant coach,” said Gillen. “He also is our recruiting coordinator, a role that is crucial for a college basketball program. He has done an excellent job as a member of the staff for the last four years.”
Likewise, Fuller is quick to credit Gillen and others for the opportunities they have given him. “Having the chance to work with and learn from Pete [Gillen] has been a great experience,” said Fuller. “I have been very fortunate to have worked with great coaches, starting with my own coach at Drexel, Eddie Burke. When I returned to Drexel I had the opportunity to work with [then-head coach] Bill Herrion. He is a great defensive coach with a solid defensive mind, and I learned a good deal from him as well.”
“Coaching is a labor of love,” said Fuller. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I am working because I love what I do so much. No question that it is not a ‘nine-to-five’ job, and there are many valleys as well as many peaks. Anyone who wants to be a coach has to realize how much they love what they do and live what they love. And I love it.”
“[Walt] has a terrific future in the game and will make a fine head coach down the road,” said Gillen. For now, though, Fuller’s talents and heart remain in Charlottesville where he has helped the Cavaliers to three consecutive postseason appearances and high national rankings. It’s not tough to love that at all.