Paul Wallrof: A coach with heart

By Mary Boone

Paul Wallrof uses plain words to talk about the game he loves: “It saved me.”

Such a statement may seem like the sort of hyperbole that’s common in newspaper sports pages, but if you talk with Wallrof for more than a few minutes it becomes clear that he’s not exaggerating. Playing and coaching football truly transformed his life.

“I wasn’t good at football, I wasn’t a great student, and I didn’t have much drive,” recalls Seattle native Paul “Big Wally” Wallrof, a member of the Puget Sound football coaching staff from 1966 to 1985. “When I got out of high school, I didn’t have many choices, so I went to work in a local furniture factory. I spent eight hours putting glue and dowels in holes,” he recalls. “After just one day of that, I knew I needed to get myself on another path.”

Wallrof enrolled at Everett Junior College, where he joined the football team.

“That’s where it started,” he says. “The coach made you go to classes. Some guys hated that, but I was the kind of kid who needed somebody looking over my shoulder.”

In May 1952, Wallrof was heading to the University of Washington when he was contacted by the local draft board.

“I went in for my physical and was in such good shape they told me I had three days to enlist or they’d draft me,” he says. A friend was enlisting in the Marine Corps, so Wallrof followed.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. They straightened me out in a hurry,” he says. “All it took was a couple days of boot camp and I was a different guy.”

Wallrof’s first stop after basic training was Jacksonville Naval Station, where he tried out for and made the football team. He subsequently played for Marine teams in Memphis, Santa Ana, Calif., and Japan. He was on his way to Korea in July 1953 when the Korean War Armistice was signed; he headed back to the States to serve his last six months.

“After the Marines, I figured there was nothing the University of Washington could do to me that hadn’t already been done, so I talked to the line coach and got a three-day tryout,” he says. “I was in real good shape from being in the service and I could really run, so I made the football team.”

Wallrof graduated from UW in 1958, then taught and coached in Seattle public schools for seven years, the whole time taking afternoon and summer courses to earn his master’s degree.

In 1966 Wallrof got a call from an old friend: the University of Puget Sound was looking for a football coach.

“It was a dream come true for me,” says Wallrof, who as head coach from 1973-77 compiled a 31-18-1 record. “At big schools coaches come and go like they’re playing a game of musical chairs. I didn’t want that for my family. I really wanted to go someplace I thought I could stay for a while. I found that at University of Puget Sound.”

What players found in Big Wally was a coach who was equal parts mentor and friend. In supporting Wallrof’s recent induction into the University of Puget Sound Athletic Hall of Fame, former Director of Athletics Doug McArthur ’53 wrote: “I have been involved with CPS and UPS coaches since the 1940s, and no coach has been as cherished by his players as Wallrof. John Heinrick was a legend. Bob Ryan was highly respected. Wallrof was loved.”

Ed Raisl ’78, a defensive tackle for the Loggers from 1974-78, says Wallrof was “extraordinarily loyal and exceedingly sincere.”

“Big Wally is the guy you’d want in a foxhole with you,” says Raisl. “If you needed a shirt, he’d take his off his back and give it to you—even if it was a lot bigger. Whenever he said something, you knew it was from the heart.”

Casey Sander ’79, who played fullback for Puget Sound from 1975-78, considers Wallrof a surrogate father.

“He was there for me when I got married, when I went through a divorce, when my mother died. Wally was always there for his guys. He still is,” says Sander. “I started playing professional baseball at 17 and at 20 I was released from the California Angels. My brother, who played for Puget Sound, told Big Wally about me, so he came to see me play one night. He wanted to see if I could still run, which I could,” says Sander. “Just when I had given up on everything, I got a call from Wally offering me a scholarship. He believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.”

Brian Threlkeld ’83, who played offensive tackle during Coach Wallrof’s years on the Logger staff, remains fiercely loyal to him. “My first impression of Wally was that he was the epitome of a blood and guts, old-school football coach. He was stolid and twice as tough as you could ever hope to be.”

That image changed as Threlkeld got to know Wallrof, and one incident in particular impressed him.

“We were in Davis, Calif., in September 1981, on a bus driving to the U.C. Davis campus, and Wally was talking to some of the guys about his years at the University of Washington. Wally had played for Jim Owens back when Owens was taking UW teams to the Rose Bowl, and he told us about a time when the Huskies just blew it and lost a game they really should have won. He said Owens practically ran the team to death the next week as punishment for playing so poorly.

“It struck me,” says Threlkeld, “to hear Wally say, ‘What was the point? It’s not like the players wanted to lose.’ That attitude was the antithesis of my first impression of Coach Wallrof. He wasn’t drawn in to the delusion, all too common among coaches, that he wanted to win more than his players did. And it said a great deal about the respect and decency with which he treated us.”

Raisl admits Wallrof may not be the winningest or most analytical coach ever to head the Logger football program, but he and others say no one can match his spirit, enthusiasm, or sense of humor.

“Big Wally had this raw, unbridled emotion,” says Raisl. “There was a period of time when he was the assistant coach, and he’d be up on the roof at Baker Stadium with a headset, calling plays down to the field. He’d get so excited up there that he ran back and forth and the people in the stands could only hear this stomping. They got him down from there, I think mostly for his own safety.

“At the same time, he could be so serious and emotional,” recalls Raisl. “He had a hard time finishing team speeches. His voice would shake and he’d tell us, ‘You guys are a lucky bunch.’ He was so happy for us.”

Stories of Wallrof’s antics are plentiful.

He used to haul a record player into the locker room and spin cuts from Buzz Martin’s LP Where There Walks a Logger, There Walks a Man. Players and coaches alike sang along to Martin’s warbly “Hoot Owlin’ Again” and “Whistle Punk Pete.” Wally invited players to his house for steamed clams, and he often celebrated wins at the Cloverleaf Tavern, where legend has it he once slid down the shuffleboard table like a human puck.

The Goofy Goose Drive-In, a burger joint on Sixth Avenue, even named a hamburger after him. The “Big Wally” remains Tacoma’s answer to the “Big Mac.” Zoomies on Vashon Island has a Big Wally burger on the menu, too, created, they say, to honor “the great coach Paul Wallrof.”

Linebacker Ross Shafer ’75 says his most vivid memory of Wallrof came during a game against San Diego International University, when he intercepted a pass and ran it back 25 yards.

“Wally was so enthusiastic that he ran onto the field, tackled me, and drove me into the ground. From that point on, I was scared to death to intercept passes,” jokes Shafer. “He was so passionate that he made you want to play well. When he looked you in the eye, it was so intense and so motivating that you wanted to go out there and be Superman just to make him proud.”

Offensive guard Kevin Billings ’77 says he began to understand Big Wally’s universal appeal when he invited his former coach to Washington, D.C., to see the 2001 Army-Navy game.

“As luck would have it, my son made the varsity wrestling team, and his first matches were that weekend,” recalls Billings. “A friend of mine said he’d take Wally to the game, and the two of them ended up riding there on the secretary of the Navy’s train.

“Wally was the hit of the trip,” says Billings. “When I ran into Secretary [Gordon] England a few months later, I had a chance to personally thank him for his hospitality to Coach Wallrof. The secretary said, ‘You have to be one of the luckiest guys I know to have played for such a great man.’ In the wake of 9/11, and with everything the secretary of the Navy has on his mind, to remember Big Wally in such fond fashion spoke volumes about the guy we all love.”

Wallrof says he only did for his players what his coaches had done for him.

“I believed in them and taught them to believe in themselves,” he says. “That, and I earned their trust and respect by trusting and respecting them.”

Even now, at age 73, Wally can’t get coaching out of his system. Heart problems have forced him to tone it down a notch, but he’s in the midst of his second season of coaching a youth program—for third through sixth graders—on Vashon Island, where he lives with Nancy, his wife of 48 years.

Wallrof also plays golf, fishes, digs clams, and is an active volunteer with the Diabetes Foundation and Tacoma’s Nativity House, where he serves on the advisory board. This fall he’s looking forward to watching his grandson play football for Western Washington University.

“I’m not very good at sitting on the sidelines,” says Wallrof. “But this is my grandson, so I’m going to try real hard to be good.”— Mary Boone

Wally-isms
When it comes to quotations, John Bartlett has nothing on Paul Wallrof. The former Puget Sound football coach’s offbeat sayings are the stuff of local legend. Sometimes Big Wally got so fired up during games and practices that his zeal interfered with his ability to communicate. The coach’s arms would flail and words tripped over his tongue, resulting in what his players call “Wally-isms.” Logger alumni share a few of his more memorable messages:

“Stand on your helmets and put the sideline under your arm.” — A slightly out-of-order pre-game direction once given to players before the playing of the national anthem.

“If you can’t run any faster than that … then … hurry up!” — Wally’s remedy for slothfulness.

“You’ve been sitting there a while and it’s time for a break, so everyone just get up, stretch your legs, and stay in your seats.” — A mix-up that humored players and tickled Big Wally most of all.

“Logger up or anything like it.” — Be a man or at least try to get close.

“200 million people in China don’t even know we played today.” — Wally’s way of telling the team to keep losses in perspective.

One phrase Big Wally never tripped over was his signature call to the team. He yelled: “What’s the word?” The team (and often the fans) responded: “HIT!”

Longtime Logger fans may also remember: “So what?” When the other team scored or Puget Sound fumbled, Wally was known to yell the phrase over and over.

“So what if they got a touchdown?” explains Wallrof. “I wanted to remind our guys that we couldn’t give up. So what if they intercepted a pass? We couldn’t just sit there and take it, we had to take control and move forward.”

Celebrating Coach Wallrof
At the UPS football game on September 17, Wally’s former players celebrated their coach’s induction into the Puget Sound athletics Hall of Fame. See www.big-wally.org for memorabilia.