Marty Wilson has known for about a year now that he was going to become Pepperdine’s head coach. Before the start of last season, Wilson learned that longtime mentor Tom Asbury would soon be retiring. The administration quickly assured Wilson that he would be promoted at the end of the season, confirming the succession plan described to him years earlier would indeed take place.
After first arriving at Pepperdine as a player in 1984 and two stints as an assistant coach at the school, Wilson was named the program’s head coach in March in an announcement that wasn’t at all surprising, yet still has him pinching himself.
“It means the world,” the 45-year-old Wilson said. “Because I have so many great memories as a player and as an assistant at Pepperdine, trying to relive those with the current team, I smile every day.”
Wilson’s expected ascent to becoming Pepperdine head coach came in stark contrast to the first time he unceremoniously got the same job on Jan. 20, 1996. He was then an assistant with the struggling Waves when, hours before a game against Santa Clara, head coach Tony Fuller announced his stunning resignation to the team.
“It felt like someone hit me in the chest, and I kind of stumbled back surprised,” Wilson said, recalling the news left him in tears. “After I gathered myself and Coach Fuller left, I remember just grabbing the guys and talking to them, telling them none of us knew.”
Even at such a young age, Wilson was such a natural leader that he was told about 90 minutes before tip-off that he would become the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Wilson finished the year with a 3-10 record, cherishing the wins he had during that uncertain time.
“I didn’t feel overmatched because I knew the talent we had,” Wilson said. “I might have been a little cocky or confident. I wanted to show our players that we’re not just going to bounce around because the coach stepped away.
“I had to be strong for them. If they saw me being weak, they were going to be weak. Ultimately, it was a great experience for me.”
It was Asbury who had prepared him to exude that kind of coaching presence. Wilson had an injury-plagued career playing point guard for Pepperdine in the 1980s under Jim Harrick and Asbury, who got him started in the coaching business at age 23 as a restricted-earnings assistant. Wilson helped the Waves make NCAA tournament appearances in 1991, 1992 and 1994 before he became a full-time assistant under Fuller.
“He [Asbury] said, ‘Do what you did as a player,’” Wilson said, recalling Asbury’s advice when he began his coaching career. “Teach them what you were taught as a player. Coach Asbury gave me a lot of responsibility right away, which gave me a lot of confidence right away.”
After taking over for Fuller, Wilson’s team ended up pulling off an upset win in the West Coast Conference tournament and reaching the semifinal round. But after the season, Pepperdine hired Lorenzo Romar and Wilson wasn’t retained.
Wilson ended up an assistant coach for two seasons at San Diego, eight seasons at UC Santa Barbara and three seasons at Utah before returning to Pepperdine as the coach-in-waiting.
“He’s paid his dues,” said UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams, who was a Pepperdine assistant under Asbury during Wilson’s playing days. “He’s been a great assistant for a long time. He’s everything a program’s looking for -- high character, great work ethic, understands the game, knows recruiting, was a player himself. It was a great choice.”
As it so happened, it was another midseason resignation by a Pepperdine coach that ultimately brought Wilson back to campus. Vance Walberg stepped down in 2008, and not only did the school self-impose recruiting sanctions due to NCAA rules violations, but also it was facing more NCAA sanctions due to a low Academic Progress Rate score.
Asbury was brought back as the head coach to heal the program, and Wilson became his associate head coach. The program was at a low point, and in the tumultuous 14 years between the Asbury’s head coaching jobs in picturesque Malibu, Calif., there had been seven different head coaches.
Pepperdine was 32-66 with Asbury over the past three seasons, but he managed to clean up the program and take the time to groom Wilson as a head coach before stepping down at age 65. The Waves still haven’t had a winning season since 2005, but could be getting closer coming off a 16-win campaign.
“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Wilson said. “A lot of people had no idea how bad it was when we got back. I really didn’t know how bad it was until three or four months into it.
“We’ve turned the corner, and now we have to build upon it. The message and the vision have been well-received.”
Wilson continues to have a daunting task ahead of him, as the Waves lost their top three scorers from last season. Senior Lorne Jackson needed knee surgery in July after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and is expected to miss the season. After taking over for Asbury, Wilson also parted ways with Keion Bell, who had averaged 18.9 points before being given a season-ending suspension due to conduct detrimental to the team.
Pepperdine’s team motto this season as established by Wilson is, “Both Feet In.” When the team gets together at practice, all members make sure to stand with both feet within the center circle.
“It’s just a mindset,” Wilson said.