Wade Houston is many things. A basketball coach, a father, a successful businessman are all on the list. The former University of Louisville player and assistant coach led Darrell Griffith, Bobby Turner and Male High School to the 1975 Kentucky State Championship. He was on the Cards staff for the 1980 and 1986 national championships. Houston left UofL in 1989 to become the head coach at the University of Tennessee. He was the men’s coach; Pat Summitt the women’s coach. Houston coached his son, Allan, the Vols all-time leading scorer, a five-time NBA All-Star and 2000 Olympic gold medal winner. For a time the Houstons lived just doors from Muhammad Ali’s childhood home in Louisville. His wife, Alice, grew up in the house.
What was it like working at Tennessee with Pat Summitt?
I looked at it more as a learning experience. Just to have my office two doors down from Pat’s office was really helpful. We’d just sit and talk about different aspects of the game. She had won all these championships and was such a legendary coach and iconic figure. She wanted to know about our 2-2-1 press that we ran at UofL, which Coach Crum was so famous for. Our switching man-to-man defense. So just basic basketball questions.
What stood out about her?
Her intensity. I had never seen anybody as intense, but at the same time her players called her Pat. She was as hard on them as any coach I had ever seen, but off the court, it was always Pat. Very unique relationship she had with her players, but very successful.
How amazing is that sustained success?
She built it. So it wasn’t like she inherited teams and All-Americans after All-Americans. I think I read or heard where she drove the bus when she first started coaching there. She did everything that she had to do to build a program.
You have been around some great ones. Is it fair to include her on the list of the best ever in any sport?
It is fair. Her record proves it. Her success is unparallelled. The number of games that she won, men and women. I’ve been around a lot of outstanding people. It’s just ironic that in a two week period, Muhammad Ali, who we lived two doors from here in Louisville, and then Pat both passed away.
Where did you live two doors from Ali?
When Ali lived on Grand Avenue. Alice and I lived there with Allan. We lived two doors from Ali. He had moved away, but my wife had grown up with Ali. She lived there as a child when he was living there.
Being one of the first black players at UofL, what did Muhammad Ali mean to you?
It was amazing. Truly amazing. I didn’t think about it so much as a Civil Rights icon, but just the amazing boxer and the amazing athlete that he was. When I got here in ‘62, he beat Sonny Liston in ‘64 in Miami, but he had just won the Olympic gold medal in 1960. Every year he was just becoming a better boxer. The first time I saw him fight, I said I had never seen someone 6’3”, 215 pounds, as quick and as athletic. He would come back to the neighborhood, come back to the house. He came back to Allan’s second birthday party when we were living there. Then to watch him give up so much by the draft issue and taking a stance on what he believed in. It was unheard of, athletes didn’t do that.
You coached Bobby Turner at Male High School and UofL, how good was he?
Bobby was a tremendous player. I considered Bobby to be the glue that kept us all together on that Male team. We had Darrell, who could just do everything, tremendous player, tremendous athlete. Bobby was just a hard worker, a tough, hard-nosed guy.
You were there for earlier success at UofL and alongside Denny Crum for much of his success there, what is his legacy at UofL?
Denny has so many good attributes. I was a young coach when I came on the staff, just learning the ropes. I loved recruiting. The longer I was there I tried to learn more and more about the game itself and coaching. Denny could do it all. Just sitting on the bench with him and to watch him make decisions based on the play, he was seeing two plays ahead. Knowing what we had to do, who needed to be in the game at certain times. He could add a wrinkle to a play, just from a timeout, that would work. He could see the game as it flowed and make game time decisions.
Is there one recruiting story that stands out?
Bill Olsen found Derek Smith through a football player who was from Hogansville, Georgia. He told Coach Olsen, after watching our guys play in pickup games, he said, there’s a guy down in Hogansville better than all these guys. We were playing Georgia Tech and Bill went by to see him. We heard that Georgia and some of the other schools were starting to show some interest in Derek. When it was time to sign Derek, I had never seen a school or a coach put so much pressure on a 15- or 16 year-old young man to sign at a different school than they put on Derek. They tried to lock us out of the room to talk to him. I knew he was mentally tough at that age.
Does it stir up some emotions when you see that they are tearing down Crawford Gym?
Yes, because I broke the ground for that building with Dr. Davidson, so it has a special meaning for me. It is sort of emotional because you know there were so many good memories and so many good pickup games. That’s where Allan first had a chance to start to play against older guys. Derek Smith would come get him and take him up to play. VT