Commentary

Stutter or not, Louisville coach Walz a real statement maker

Originally Published: March 21, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Inspiration can be a tough word to say when you stutter.

Trust me, I've got about 30 years of experience, so I don't stammer that sentiment lightly in talking about the man who is making his words count for Louisville this season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Walz
AP Photo/Jessica HillLouisville hired Jeff Walz on March 27, 2007. Less than a year later, he led the Cardinals to their first Sweet 16.

"Where I used to be compared to where I am now, you know, it's twofold," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said over the phone. "If you would have told me 20 years ago, when I was even a freshman in college, that I would be coaching and having to get up in front of people and talk and do a press conference, I would have told you you were crazy."

I didn't know for sure, especially without being able to see whether his eyes darted one way and the other like an hourglass icon on a computer screen as his mind searched for an alternative, but I was almost sure "twofold" wasn't his first choice of words.

For many who stutter, accessing a mental thesaurus capable of producing a replacement word on short notice is as second nature as reciting social security numbers and home addresses.

I'm used to spotting that; I'm just not used to spotting it in the world of big-time college coaching.

In his first year as a head coach, Walz has the Cardinals in the Sweet 16 after an 81-67 win over Miami (Ohio) in the first round and an 80-63 win over Kansas State in the second round. With such success comes a bevy of attention, including a seemingly endless stream of news conferences and interview requests at this week's New Orleans Regional. And when Walz takes the microphone before his team meets top-seeded North Carolina, a few unsuspecting pens will pause over their notebooks the first time the former Northern Kentucky basketball player, who looks like he still could survive one of his own practices, hits the verbal wall in a sentence.

"I'm learning and trying -- I've gotten more comfortable with talking to the media," Walz said. "But at times -- I'll tell ya, the one thing I hate, and I've got to try and get better at it, is as soon as the TV camera flips on the light, it's a disaster. I am a TV person's worst nightmare for trying to get an audio clip from. It's like, 'We only need five seconds,' and I'm like, 'Look, I can't get anything out in five seconds.'"

Language is so completely a human innovation. Maybe dolphins, gorillas and other animals communicate with varying levels of complexity, but we are unique. And as powerful as the written word can be, no means of communication is as universal as the spoken word.

Stop for a moment the next time you are at a party or in a restaurant and listen to the totality of the sound, each word and tone expressing some distinct thought. The fact that not all of it is profound material -- in some ways, the fact that almost none of it is profound material -- only magnifies the point. The marvel of the spoken word is so ingrained in our humanity that we freely waste it talking about the weather, traffic and "American Idol. "

When someone sprains an ankle, we don't say he lost his ability to walk. When someone sprains a wrist, we don't say she lost her ability to write. But when someone has an inflamed larynx, we say he lost his voice.

So imagine the internal 10-car pileup that occurs when that wiring doesn't work -- has never worked. And then multiply the feeling by the contents of every sentence of every day.

"You try to explain to somebody, and I'm like, 'Listen, I know what I want to say,'" Walz said in a voice halfway between amusement and frustration.

birthday card
courtesy of Louisville AthleticsWalz said he has always had the support of players and staff wherever he has been, and "about cried I was laughing so hard" when his players presented him with this birthday card earlier this season.

The roots of stuttering remain a medical mystery. The uncertainty over its cause, along with the fact that different people with different levels of disfluency react differently to speech therapy, only fuels misunderstanding. It often is at its worst in high-pressure situations, but that's an effect, not a cause. Stuttering is not some inherent psychological flaw shared by people without steely nerves or confidence. Its manifestation in high-pressure situations is a reflection of years of experiences.

"When I was in school, I used to dread when the teacher would go around the room and start with the first person, and you would have to read a paragraph," Walz said. "And then the other one was, there might be times where I'd want to ask a question … but I'll know it's not going to come out before I even open my mouth. I know what I want to ask, but I won't even ask it because I can't get it out."

The most consistent message I got from various incarnations of speech therapy is to let disfluency happen. Don't try to avoid stuttering; just learn to get through each incident in as relaxed a manner as possible. The thing is, that's easier said than done on an everyday basis. Whether it's measuring up menus in terms of both what sounds good and what won't take three minutes to say, or trekking through every aisle at Home Depot rather than asking for directions, some days it's just easier to get through with avoidance. And that doesn't begin to account for the unavoidable moments in life, tasks at work that pass without notice as routes to real stress for most but loom as constant uphill hikes for those who stutter.

"The hardest thing for me, and this is the honest truth, when I'm recruiting and I start to call a kid for the first time, saying, 'Louisville' -- I'm telling you, it kills me," Walz said.

"I joke with my staff; I'm like, what I want to do is call up and say, 'Hey, Graham?' and you say, 'Hey, yeah,' and then I press play on my tape recorder and go, 'This is coach Walz from the University of Louisville,' and then press stop. Because then, I'm fine after that. I'll stutter some, but it might take me a minute to get 'Louisville' out."

What is remarkable about Walz is how at ease with himself he appears in public, joking during an answer at a news conference that he might just keep talking because he's on such a roll without stuttering. Talking to him on the phone, even as he jokes that e-mail is his preferred means of communication, he offers up a familiar litany of stresses and frustrations, but here he is, running a college basketball program that is four games from a national championship and drew a crowd of 19,123 to Freedom Hall earlier this season.

Those who are fearless are far less compelling than those who overcome fear.

"I'm going to have to do it, and if someone doesn't like the fact that I stutter, well then, they can leave," Walz said. "It's just a part of you."

And in some ways, Walz might be a better coach for the stuttering. He talks about the comfort level he has around his family and his players and assistants, the people who know the man behind the stutter. And when you spend countless hours stressing about saying your school's name on the phone or getting up in front of a booster club to speak, a late deficit in front of a hostile crowd isn't likely to unhinge you.

Moments of unanticipated stress can be the times you feel most normal.

"My players will tell you, and the players at Maryland will tell you, too, I'll stutter when I get really excited," Walz said. "But the stress of the games -- I enjoy the games. … The coaching part of it, I don't mind it. I'll stutter at practice at times, but the kids know what I'm going to say, so I can stop my sentence, and they'll be like, 'Coach, I got you.'"

From his initial stop as an assistant at Western Kentucky, through tenures at Nebraska, Minnesota and Maryland, to now running things at Louisville, Walz said he always has had the support of the players and staff at each school. It's not hard to see why, with his intensity on the sideline tempered by a hard-earned sense of humor off the court.

"The kids gave me a birthday card," Walz said of his Louisville charges. "Because you know, I'm pretty tough on them; I work them hard, but they know I care about and love them. So they gave me a birthday card; it says happy birthday, and it's 'H-h-a-a-h-h-a-p-p-y Thirty S-s-s-s-i-x-t-h,' and it's like I'm stuttering. …

"When they gave me the card -- when they gave it to me, they were scared to death, like, 'Oh my gosh, is he going to think it's funny?' And I'm telling you, I about cried I was laughing so hard.

"If I'm going to get a rib at you for doing something wrong at practice, off the court, I've got to be able to take the same stuff back."

And things always could be tougher. For instance, you could stutter and be color-blind.

"Not only do I stutter, I'm red-green-brown color-blind," Walz said, chuckling. "When you stutter and you're color blind, you've got to be the butt of a lot of jokes."

But when those things are parts of someone like Walz, it's also going to inspire a few folks. Count me among them, no matter how long it takes to say it.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.