Of all the hugs received by Rodney Terry during Fresno State’s Mountain West Conference tournament celebration, none came from a deeper and more heartfelt place than the one given him by Jerry Wainwright.
OK, maybe Brenda Phillips – Terry’s mother, who was in attendance in Las Vegas – can stake a better claim.
Wainwright would be a close second. Terry’s coaching mentor is family in every way except blood. When Terry was an assistant under Wainwright at UNC Wilmington from 1998 to 2002 – his first full-time college job – it was the first time he had lived outside Texas.
During Terry’s second season at the Colonial Athletic Association school, he was instrumental in landing a national top-30 recruiting class that powered the Seahawks to NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000 and ’02.
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Now the roles are reversed with Wainwright as associate head coach helping Terry take Fresno State to the tournament for the first time since 2001.
To have him here with me on the back end of this right now means so much.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry, on assistant Jerry Wainwright
“We’re really close; we’re family,” the 69-year-old coach said. “He’s really close to my younger son, and his mom and my wife are close. What he did for me …”
Wainwright paused, his voice quaking and eyes watering, before finishing the thought: “Very seldom in life do you get the chance to maybe help pay back. It’s hard, especially in this business. Now we’ve kind of come full circle.”
Full circle, with an extra circling back.
A member of Terry’s original staff in 2011-12, Wainwright left the Bulldogs after one season. He had a great experience, walking 3 miles to and from his apartment to campus instead of driving, but missed his family in the Midwest. It didn’t help that his wife, Debbie, was away most of the time tending to family health issues.
Wainwright spent the following two years as Marquette’s director of basketball operations and one in retirement before returning to the Bulldogs and Terry’s side last June.
“I came back because I really liked this team,” he said.
The Berwyn, Ill., native, who made seven postseason appearances (three NCAA, four National Invitation Tournament) while amassing a 245-225 record in 16 seasons as a Division I coach, does more than provide a steady bench presence.
3 Combined NCAA Tournament appearances by Jerry Wainwright as a head coach at UNC Wilmington and Richmond
Wainwright has played a large role in the development of Fresno State’s big men and is a stern, demanding taskmaster during practice.
With 6.3 seconds remaining in Saturday’s 68-63 victory over San Diego State in the Mountain West final, when Julien Lewis stepped to the free-throw line trying to extend a three-point Bulldogs lead, the senior guard turned toward the bench and locked eyes with Wainwright.
The coach gave Lewis a look that said, “You got this” and, of course, Lewis made the first free throw. Before the second, Lewis glanced over again but this time Wainwright didn’t make eye contact.
“Coach didn’t need to look because he knew I was going to make it,” Lewis said.
Sure enough, he did.
Speaking about Wainwright’s impact, Terry said, “He really helped establish the culture we wanted for this program. He left and went to Marquette and went to the dance and Elite Eight himself there while we were over here trying to still build this team. But to have him here with me on the back end of this right now means so much.”
Very seldom in life do you get the chance to maybe help pay back.
You could tell how much it meant by how Terry and Wainwright embraced during the postgame celebration.
“I’m just so proud of him and of this team,” Wainwright said. “He was unbelievable with the kids this year. He made some good game time decisions and some really good decisions based on culture.”
Unlike Terry, who celebrated the conference tournament title by leaping up and pumping his fist, Wainwright only gradually gathered to his feet.
Asked why, the veteran coach revealed the wry sense of humor for which is he well known.
“Everyone says, ‘Coach, why didn’t you jump up?’ Well, my knee wouldn’t allow me to jump up for a $1 million check,” Wainwright cracked. “I’ve got to save my jumps for when my wife asks me to do something.”
Or maybe he’s saving it for the Sweet 16.