Nov. 24, 2004
Each week, broadcaster Andy Demetra gives an all-access look at Gamecock Women’s Basketball in his new column “Beyond The Mic.” Join him Wednesdays throughout the season, as he serves up his insights on the team, its travels, and its triumphs.
Coaching is a calling. Sometimes literally.
For Susan Walvius, the moment came that day on vacation at her parents’ house. Two phone calls, both at the same time. One from a stricken friend, the other from an inquiring coach.
Who knows what would have happened, if not for that remarkable convergence of fate. Maybe Walvius would never have returned to the game she loved. Maybe she never would have realized that a game can, in fact, be your life’s work.
“It certainly pushed me over the fence,” Walvius said.
“[Coaching] was never what I planned to do.”
Doing A Favor
She thought she’d make a living scouting properties, not players.
After a decorated senior season at Virginia Tech, one in which she earned all-American honors, Walvius never thought of basketball as a career option.
“My idea of a career was Corporate America, putting on a suit every day. It wasn’t wearing a sweat suit to work,” she said.
She saw herself working in commercial real estate development, like her Dad. Walvius graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in urban studies, and during the summers she estimated job costs for construction companies.
Then her former assistant coach at Virginia Tech, Lisa Boyer, called. She had just taken the head coaching job at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. She needed an assistant, and was at the end of the line.
“She couldn’t get anybody to take an assistant coaching job. She called a lot of people, and couldn’t find anybody. So she asked if I would do her a favor and fill in for a year,” Walvius said.
“So I did. My first thought was like, ‘How hard can it be? It’d be like getting paid to be on vacation.'”
Back To The Real World
As fate would have it, the vacation turned into a vocation. Walvius began coaching at Bradley in 1986-87. Three of her players were older than her. She spent two years with the Braves, teaching the team’s post players.
Her appearance may have suggested more peer than pupil, but Walvius loved her work. She loved the interaction, loved the way coaching stoked her competitive fire. Yet she still thought of it as a temporary position, a last dalliance with the game she loved before the real world beckoned again.
After two seasons she returned to her native Virginia, taking a real estate sales job with a company that worked closely with her Dad’s. It was lucrative business, and the 23-year-old Walvius took in the trappings.
“I went out, bought a Jaguar, went out and bought all the clothes and did all that,” Walvius said. “And I really wasn’t that happy. It was very unfulfilling.”
Nostalgia pricked at her. Bradley players would call frequently. She’d catch herself checking scores in the newspaper. Weekends would pass eerily without games or road trips.
“I missed the competition. I missed the strategy. I missed the teaching – I mean, all the things that really surprised [me],” Walvius said.
Call Waiting, Career Waiting
She was on vacation from her job at her parents’ house in Woodbridge, Virginia, in 1989. The phone rang downstairs. Walvius picked up. It was her old teammate at Virginia Tech, Maureen Donovan, with some devastating news. She had developed Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer that attacks the body’s lymph system.
“She wasn’t doing well,” Walvius recalled. “She had tumors in her lung, and it was an advanced stage of cancer.”
The two teammates talked for an hour. Walvius remembered Donovan sounding upset. A revelation sank in.
“It really put in perspective how short life is. There are no guarantees. You go around one time. So you need to do something you enjoy.”
As the conversation wore on, Walvius began thinking about a return to coaching. An hour in, the phone beeped. Walvius clicked to the other line.
It was Linda Ziemke, the newly hired head coach at the University of Rhode Island.
“She said, ‘Susan, do you have any interest at all in getting back into coaching?'”
Walvius told her to call back in a bit.
Walvius and Donovan both made the most of their second chances. Donovan had a bone marrow transplant and beat her Hodgkin’s Disease. Walvius quit her job in real estate sales, taking a “tremendous pay cut” to accept the assistant coaching position at Rhode Island.
A year later, she became the youngest head coach in America when she took over at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her career, now in its 18th year, has wended through Richmond, Virginia; Morgantown, West Virginia; and now, Columbia, South Carolina. Her career win total is 204 and counting.
The same quality that unwittingly attracted her to coaching, then brought her back, still guides her.
“Coaching gives you an opportunity to really make a difference in the next 50 to 60 years of someone’s life,” Walvius said.
All these years later, she’s glad she heeded the call.
Andy Demetra is in his second season as the voice of Gamecock Women’s Basketball on 1320 AM WISW.