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Coaches' intersection

USC's Floyd, UC Riverside's Wooldridge started as Louisiana Tech teammates, reconnected on the Chicago Bulls' staff and match wits today on opposing sides

December 29, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Jim Wooldridge can still picture newlyweds Tim and Beverly Floyd loading up the U-Haul in Ruston, La., and heading west on Interstate 20, bound for El Paso.

It was the summer of 1978, and the former Louisiana Tech teammates were at a crossroads in their fledgling coaching careers, with Wooldridge staying behind to be a graduate assistant at his alma mater and Floyd leaving for a job as an assistant coach under Don Haskins at Texas El Paso.

"He was going off to chase his dreams," Wooldridge recalled.

Their glory road would intersect again in 1998, when Floyd became coach of the Chicago Bulls.

"He was the first guy I called," Floyd said of Wooldridge, who would join his staff for two years before becoming the head coach at Kansas State.

Tonight they will be on the same sideline again, albeit on opposite ends of the court -- Floyd with his No. 24-ranked USC Trojans and Wooldridge with his upstart UC Riverside Highlanders, who will be vying for an upset at the Galen Center.

While a victory might be a longshot for Riverside, Floyd said he had no doubt that Wooldridge, 52, would eventually pile up wins with the Highlanders just as he has at previous stops.

"He came up through the school of hard knocks and has been at tough jobs and has affected change everywhere he's been," Floyd said.

Wooldridge helped establish Central Missouri State as an NCAA Division II power, won a Southland Tournament championship at Texas State, and in 2004-05 guided Kansas State to its first winning season in six years.

Floyd, 53, has had more visible success, taking Iowa State and USC to the Sweet 16 and leading the New Orleans Hornets to the NBA playoffs.

Off the court, the coaches could pass as siblings; both are gentlemanly and speak with a distinct Southern twang, though only Wooldridge's hair is graying.

"He's a year younger -- although he looks older," Floyd noted.

Retorted Wooldridge: "I look about five years younger."

Their coaching aspirations can be traced to their playing days. Wooldridge was flipping through an old Louisiana Tech media guide recently when he was struck by their answers to the question, "What do you want to be when you graduate?

"He said he wanted to be a college coach. I said I wanted to be a pro coach," Wooldridge said.

They became teammates and fast friends at Louisiana Tech when Floyd transferred from Southern Mississippi.

"Had he pushed me harder in practice at Louisiana Tech, I'd have probably been in the NBA," joked Floyd, a seldom-used player who called himself "the first five-year redshirt in the history of Division I.

"He's not a very good player. He's a much better coach than he was a player."

Told of Floyd's remarks, Wooldridge responded: "That's probably not too correct. In all reality, I don't think either one of us were very good. I got to play a little bit more than him."

They stayed in close contact after their playing days ended, though there was at least one instance in which Wooldridge wishes that wasn't the case.

Wooldridge was a graduate assistant at East Central University in Ada, Okla., when he received a call from Floyd, who had the same post at Texas El Paso. Floyd told his friend about a prospect who wasn't good enough for the Miners but might be able to help East Central.

"He said he reminds me of Billy Cunningham," Wooldridge remembered. "The kid came up and he was just awful. I called Tim back and I said, 'Are we talking about the same Billy Cunningham? The one in the NBA or someone else?' "

Floyd remains tormented by the memory. "I think he was more like Ernest Borgnine," Floyd said of the prospect. "Jim's never let me forget it."

Nevertheless, Floyd quickly rose through the coaching ranks and asked Wooldridge to join him when Floyd succeeded Phil Jackson with the Bulls in 1998. Though their first two teams finished 13-37 and 17-65, Wooldridge remembers those years fondly.

"I think it probably was the best experience I've had as a coach because one, I was proud he asked me to go, and two, just the way he handled things, I learned more from him in that two-year span than maybe ever before as a coach," Wooldridge said.

"Even though we were having a difficult time winning, I learned a lot about how to communicate and coach under those conditions."

Wooldridge faces a similarly daunting rebuilding task with the Highlanders (3-7), who won only seven games last season and are still recovering from the September 2006 car crash that killed one player and injured three others.

"This job is like every job I've ever had. It's a rebuild-the-program job, and we're in the infancy of this process," said Wooldridge, who learned about the job opening from Floyd. "We've got to rebuild the program from scratch. I think our team is making improvements, but we've got a long, long way to go."

Just as Floyd did when he set out on that interstate so long ago.

TODAY

vs. UC Riverside, 5

Site -- Galen Center.

Radio -- 710.

Records -- UC Riverside 3-7, USC 8-3.

Update -- Senior guard Larry Cunningham averages 15.6 points for the Highlanders, who are 0-6 on the road and are coming off a 71-53 home loss to Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 22.

--

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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