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With three Elite Eight appearances, ASU’s Wulk was Valley’s first basketball patriarch

Editor’s Note: Frank Kush, football. Ned Wulk, men’s basketball. Bobby Winkles, baseball. Along with track and field coach Baldy Castillo, this group helped elevate Arizona State University athletics into a nationally known program from the late 1950s on. This Cronkite News special multimedia report explores their careers and legacies.

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TEMPE – When Arizona State basketball plays at Wells Fargo Arena, the Sun Devils aren’t just defending their home court. They’re defending the legacy of Ned Wulk.

While names like Lute Olson and Jerry Colangelo come to mind when talking about Arizona’s basketball legends, those who lived in the Valley during the ’60s and ’70s might pick Wulk as the state’s patriarch of hoops, fondly remembering his seasons in the old Sun Devil Gymnasium.

ASU has changed with time, but Wulk, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 83, remains a presence on campus. The university named Wells Fargo Arena’s hardwood Ned Wulk Court in 1998 to honor a 31-year coaching career that put Sun Devil basketball on the map.

“When he came here, ASU had never had real basketball tradition,” said Art Becker, who played power forward for Wulk’s teams in the early ’60s and played six seasons in the American Basketball Association. “He was unique to ASU and turned the program around from mediocre to outstanding.”

Along with ASU coaches Baldy Castillo (track and field), Frank Kush (football) and Bobby Winkles (baseball), Wulk helped build one of the most successful college athletic programs in the country during a time when little attention was paid to college sports west of the Mississippi.

At 495-342, Wulk still has the most wins by any coach in ASU history. His teams also made three appearances in the Elite Eight.

Wulk coached basketball, baseball and freshman football at Xavier University in Cincinnati before moving his family to Tempe in 1957 to coach basketball for Arizona State College at Tempe, which became Arizona State University in 1958.

With enrollment barely above 10,000 and a scarce interest in basketball, he took the Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in his fourth season. His teams became known for an aggressive style of play that included full-court presses and fast breaks.

“There was maybe 150 people at games when we first moved out here,” said Wulk’s daughter, Stephanie Weurding. “By the ’60s it was so packed they’d have to put the game on TVs in the MU (Memorial Union) building so people could watch.”

The Suns didn’t come to the Valley until 1968, so when Wulk’s frenetic teams, known affectionately as the “cardiac kids” for their superior conditioning, started winning early there wasn’t enough room in the old gym.

Despite Wulk’s success, Joe Caldwell, an All-American at ASU and the second overall pick in the 1964 NBA draft, said some of the coach’s practice habits might not be allowed today.

“There was no drinking water during practice. He wouldn’t allow it,” Caldwell said. “Good luck trying to sneak one.”

“Oh, you didn’t want to get caught getting a drink of water,” Becker said. “He cast his discipline with a broad brush.”

Caldwell and Becker played for what is considered to be one of ASU’s greatest basketball teams in the 1962-63 season. Its record of 26-3 is still the school’s all-time best, and the Sun Devils beat John Wooden’s UCLA team 93-79 in the second round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Oregon State in the Elite Eight.

Wooden, whose Bruins repeated as national champions the following two seasons, ran up the score on Wulk in a 1964 regular season rematch without taking his starters out, winning 107-76.

“Before Coach died, he said he should’ve played us all the way through the UCLA game when we were winning by 30,” Caldwell said. “He said, ‘That son of a bitch ran up the score on us next time we played.’ That’s what he always called Wooden after that.”

Wulk wasn’t without his own share of criticism. Caldwell said some of his fellow black teammates, such as his roommate Gerald Jones, felt Wulk treated them unfairly in terms of playing time and in other ways.

“I never noticed or felt anything like that. As long as you focused on your job, everything was all right,” Caldwell said.

While Wulk’s offensive and defensive schemes created excitement on the court, Alan Schmelz, one of Wulk’s players who went on to play Major League baseball, painted a different picture of the coach’s personality.

“Our assistant coach, Bill Mann, understood the kids better than Coach Wulk did,” Schmelz said. “We won, so you couldn’t say a lot, but he wasn’t always creative.”

Despite his differences with Wulk’s disciplined approach, Schmelz, who won a national championship with ASU’s baseball team in 1965, said he appreciated some of Wulk’s values as he matured.

“He taught me that there has to be structure. If you go out there and let people go in different directions, you’ll never achieve anything,” Schmelz said. “You certainly don’t think about it at the time because it’s a challenge, but as you get older the structure is very important.”

Wulk’s approach demanded respect from his players, with some taking his principles with them into careers after basketball. When Dennis Dairman, now a semi-retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge, has to make a difficult decision on the bench, he said he still remembers something his coach told him 45 years ago during practice.

“He told me, ‘Sometimes there is no easy way. You just have run through it,’” Dairman said. “You can look all you want for an easy way out, but sometimes you just have to make that tough decision and move on.”

Wulk struggled through the ’60s to stay above .500 after Becker, Caldwell and Dairman left, and he started campaigning for a new basketball arena. The old gym, which doubled as the school’s physical education building, sat fewer than 5,000 and was falling behind compared to facilities at other universities.

“One of our summer vacations we went to basketball arenas around the country with Dad taking notes,” said Weurding, Wulk’s daughter. “That was huge for him, to get that built.”

Weurding said Wulk was offered at least two jobs at the professional level during his time at ASU, and the University of Wisconsin came calling as well, but he never considered leaving Tempe once the new arena was completed in 1974.

Wulk’s team won its first 20 games at University Activity Center, which is now named Wells Fargo Arena. That record for consecutive wins in the building still stands, and Wulk continued to churn out quality teams with players like Lafayette “Fat” Lever, Byron Scott and Lionel Hollins, with the latter two currently coaching their own teams in the NBA.

Despite all of the milestones he reached, Wulk didn’t have a chance to claim his 500th win at ASU. After a 13-14 record to end the 1982 season, Wulk sensed a lack of support in the school administration. With Wulk just five victories shy of 500, ASU announced it was promoting him from head basketball coach to an adviser for athletic facilities.

Wulk declined.

Still dissatisfied with the thought of retirement, he finished his final few years at ASU teaching in the physical education department before retiring altogether.

Former players said they expected more from the university.

“He should have a statue for what he did at ASU,” Becker said.

“I don’t think he was treated fairly, regardless of my opinion of him,” Schmelz said. “He should’ve been allowed to achieve the 500 wins.”

In the 32 years since Wulk’s ouster, ASU has never made it past the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament or reached the No. 3 ranking his team attained in the 1980-81 season.

Weurding said Wulk’s family takes solace knowing a part of him will always be with ASU whenever the Sun Devils play on Ned Wulk Court.

“That’s where he was happiest – in the arena,” she said.

Wulk’s son, Greg, has been a season ticket holder at ASU basketball games since he graduated from the university. He said his dad never missed a game until his death.

“He was a Sun Devil until the very end,” Greg Wulk said.