Allister doesn’t miss college basketball
If coaching an NCAA Division I program is the principal criterion for a dream job for basketball coaches, then Derek Allister must already be in heaven.
Three years ago, South Tahoe High’s boys’ basketball coach was beginning his fourth and final season at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Allister was competing against big-time programs such as Minnesota, Texas Tech and Arizona State and occasionally his games were being shown on the sports junkie ESPN network. As an added bonus, his university actually paid him a handsome fee to live out the so-called dream job.
But the dream actually became a facade the deeper Allister went into his 17-year college coaching career and the further it took him away from his family.
“As a Division I basketball coach, for 17 years I did nothing but coach basketball. You don’t teach, you don’t do anything but coach basketball for 365 days a year. You’re totally immersed in the game from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. I can’t think of one of two vacations I took in 17 years.
“While it was great and I was glad I did it, I’m glad to be out of it.”
Today, Allister is living out his dream, coaching high school basketball near one of the world’s most spectacular lakes — Lake Tahoe. He can go home after teaching and coaching at South Tahoe High and share evenings with his wife, Joann; there’s even time to watch son Kevin play middle school basketball and take in his second daughter Jessica’s softball games at Stanford. Heck, he can even kick back and watch Indiana play Maryland on ESPN and not feel guilty.
From coaching to managing
Allister’s love of college coaching began to diminish when he became head coach of Stephen F. Austin in 1996. He became a business manager and didn’t have the personal contact with his players that he enjoyed as an assistant.
“I don’t have to compromise myself ethically anymore and that is part of being a college coach,” Allister said. “I’ve done things I could never tell my mother about. I’ve used kids, I’ve manipulated kids, manipulated the rules, but at that level it’s a business.
“As a head coach, all of a sudden you become a manager and have to go to power lunches with guys in suits.”
Trying to teach a player a valuable life lesson also became a dilemma because of the influence college boosters have on a program.
“When you want to bench a kid because he got in trouble or didn’t practice hard, and then you lose a game and the guy who just gave $25,000 to your program walks into the locker room and says, ‘What’s going on? Why didn’t so and so play?’
“Ethically, I don’t think I should have to answer that question when I’m trying to teach a young kid a lesson. You get caught in the middle between knowing you have to win for your school’s sake and for your family’s sake and being a coach and being a teacher and trying to teach kids how to live their lives.”
Even a 75-74 upset of Texas Tech in 1998-99 in what many in those parts call the school’s greatest win didn’t make head coaching any more enjoyable.
“We were ecstatic for about 10 minutes,” Allister said. “I always remember this: Thirty minutes after the game was over, we rolled out of the arena and I was sitting in a motel room by myself, eating pizza, drinking Dr. Pepper and watching a tape of Arizona State, who we had to play two nights later in Tempe.
“People on the outside can revel in the win for days, but as a coach you’re not really having much fun. As soon as you win, your thoughts immediately turn to the next win. It’s just a rotten way of life.”
Contradiction of working for the NCAA
The hypocrisy between trying to direct a successful Division I program and following NCAA rules also wore on Allister.
“That NCAA rulebook is an inch thick and there’s not a college coach in America that doesn’t unintentionally break the rules. Some intentionally break some of the rules and there are those who obviously abuse the rules totally,” Allister said. “The problem with the NCAA is you have Division I schools being run like businesses being managed by an organization that holds schools up to a standard which is idealistic, and those two just don’t mesh.”
Learing to say no
Allister has had his fill of college basketball and can’t envision a scenario where he would return to the season that never seems to end.
“If you’ve been around this country, you know Tahoe is pretty nice. How does it get any better than this?” Allister said.
That doesn’t mean that friends and colleagues aren’t trying to pull him back into the game.
“Most of the time it’s a 10-second no, I’m not interested,” Allister said.
His longest deliberation was 10 minutes when Boise State coach Greg Graham inquired about his availability for an assistant position.
“That one took about 5 minutes,” Allister said.
In the past three years, Allister has also rejected coaching opportunities at Stanford, Oregon, Pacific, Northern Arizona, Wagner and Texas-San Antonio.
“He is showing great commitment and he’s a great coach,” said STHS junior forward Dan Tilles. “He’s definitely someone we respect and take seriously because of where he has been and what he’s accomplished.”
Allister’s NCAA ride took him to Washington State, California, Nevada and finally to Nacogdoches, Texas, where he became a Division I head coach for the first and only time. In four seasons at Stephen F. Austin, the Lumberjacks won 32 games and lost 74. Allister resigned in 2000 while in the midst of a miserable 6-21 season.
“To be one of 320 coaches who lead your profession, that’s pretty cool, but I hated being a head coach at that level. In college basketball you’re a business man and a manager and at the high school level you’re a teacher and a coach. I’m much more comfortable being a teacher and a coach. It’s weird to go through 17 years and learn that,” Allister said.
Coming full circle
Allister rebounded that summer, taking a perceived drop into the high school coaching ranks in South Lake Tahoe. But to Allister, it was a level he had sorely missed since leaving after coaching his fourth season in Yerington in 1981.
“Here, I can truly teach these kids how to be adults. I can teach them values and lessons and I can do that because winning to me isn’t one of the top goals or priorities of this program. The kids are the top goal,” Allister said.
He didn’t mind being the one to follow 25-year Viking coaching legend Tom Orlich, who produced 521 victories and two state championships. Allister also didn’t mind that South Tahoe’s talent pool was nearly empty and he was left with a handful of troubled players to mold into respectable adults.
“It’s more fun now because I know more now. To be honest, I don’t know how I did it back then,” he said.
In Allister’s system, star players don’t receive preferential treatment. That was never more evident than in the Vikings’ season opener Tuesday night in Yerington when Allister confined highly recruited 6-foot-7 center Curtis Johnson and 6-5 Slovenian transfer Niko Klansek to the bench. Predictably, the Vikings lost 77-64 to the smaller school.
“Coach is very good that way. He’ll get the point across no matter what, and he’ll teach everybody on the team the value of being together,” said STHS senior point guard Chris Perry.
Allister has yet to leave four players out on the floor to teach a player a lesson in unselfishness like Gene Hackman did in “Hoosiers,” but it’s probably only a matter of time before he will.
“I believe in teaching lessons through the game of basketball,” Allister said.
Big-time college basketball taught Allister a lesson as well, and now the Vikings are benefiting from his wisdom and the concern he has for them.
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