Editor in Chief
Tom Asbury sits in his office as a cool Malibu breeze tickles the leaves on a tree outside the walls of Firestone Fieldhouse. His eyes are tired — a depiction of the rollercoaster ride his life has journeyed in recent years — yet they still shine as blue as the ocean that calmly rests in his view. He stares at the few items on his desk, among them a book signed “Go Pepperdine, baby!” by his longtime friend and legendary college basketball advocate and announcer Dick Vitale. Asbury then shifts his eyes, looking around his bare, lonely office as he rocks back and forth in his chair.
“I already moved the desk, and I’m about ready to redo the office to get it back to how it pretty much was when I left here,” Asbury says. “And that was 14 years ago.”
Fourteen years ago, Asbury sat in the same office with the same view — well, almost.
“The tree outside has grown a bit,” he says. “I gotta get out there with a chainsaw and cut off a little bit of that to get a full view of the ocean.”
Still, even though change is present, familiarity calms the returning Pepperdine men’s basketball coach.
“A lot of the coaches are the same. A lot of the people are the same. And basically, the guts of the campus are somewhat the same,” the 62 year-old coach says. “There’s probably a lot of stuff that is new, but the values of the institution are the same. That will never change.”
Ironically, change has become a word all too familiar for those associated with the Pepperdine basketball program in recent years — a program Asbury admittedly views as a “train wreck.”
It’s hard to argue his candid statement, however. After all, Asbury represents the third coach in a matter of months for the Waves, who lost 21 games this season and finished in the bottom half of the standings for the fourth straight year after watching Head Coach Vance Walberg abruptly leave Jan. 18 before interim coach Eric Bridgeland took over for the remainder of the schedule.
When Asbury announced his move back to Malibu on Feb. 19, he knew he was returning to a West Coast Conference very different from the one he left in 1994.
“The coaches either haven’t been tremendously successful or have been trying to get out of here as soon as they get here,” Asbury says. “And I think they’re kind of looking for a link to the past. That’s not only what myself, but my staff, brings.”
During Asbury’s six-year stint as head coach beginning in 1989, the Waves went 125-59 (.679) and clinched a ticket to the postseason five times in six years with three NCAA Tournament appearances and two in the NIT. Pepperdine’s only three WCC Tournament championships came under Asbury, who coached standout players such as two-time All-American and NBA player Doug Christie during his first tenure in Malibu.
The Waves also compiled four 20-win seasons and established a conference record by winning 38 consecutive games from 1991-1993 with Asbury at the helm.
Following his 15-year presence at Pepperdine — the first nine spent as assistant coach — Asbury served as head coach at Kansas State from 1995-2000 and was most recently an assistant coach at Alabama from 2004-2007.
Asbury and his wife, Carlie, had just finished settling in their new home in Tucson, Ariz., when he received a call from Athletic Director John Watson inquiring about Pepperdine’s interest in having him return to the Fieldhouse.
“I watched Pepperdine play on TV, and there was something in the back of my head that thought this situation isn’t working real well, and I thought this may not have a good ending,” Tom says. “So it was a surprise to me when Coach Walberg resigned. And I don’t know that it was a huge surprise they called me because they’re looking for someone who’s had some success here, and they’re looking for continuity.”
As much as Tom felt a sense of comfort with Pepperdine, he needed to make sure his wife was comfortable with the move before making a decision. There’s no denying Carlie’s admiration for Pepperdine, but her recent two-year battle with mesothelioma — a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure — made her husband think about the offer.
“Coaches generally move because of their own interests and their own professional career developments,” Tom says. “This time, I had to really make sure she was comfortable moving. If she hadn’t been comfortable, then we wouldn’t have, but she was excited about it.”
Carlie says she was more than OK with her husband’s decision.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “He knew I’d go along with the decision. I’m really excited to be home. People are always asking where our actual home is, and we always say Southern California and Pepperdine.”
It’s a home where the Asburys raised their two daughters, Stacie and Megan — a home that represents a particularly large number of memories of the eldest child, Stacie, who lost her life in 1993 to the ravages of anorexia at the young age of 22.
“We have a lot of great memories and a lot of tough memories,” Tom says, keeping his voice strong. “She was a student here, so moving back here will have a tendency to remind my wife and I more of her, which is good. It’s good to have a lot of memories of her, so in that sense it’s good that we can think back to a lot of the good times we had with her.
“But it’s difficult — losing a child is very, very difficult. There’s no real way to explain it.”
Tom’s fatherly love for Stacie is evident in every word that bravely leaves his mouth. He knows his daughter is still cheering him on just as she did during the days she served as the Waves’ ball girl. He knows she’d want him to be doing the same thing he loved doing when she was alive — coaching.
“I think once the ball goes up, your mind is focused on the game,” Tom says. “But your overall approach to everything has changed a little bit, and you see things a bit differently when you’ve had these types of situations in your life.
“You mellow a bit after you’ve gone through something like that, and I think even with my wife’s current situation with her illness, that has a tendency to put things in perspective.”
As a coach, Tom’s perspective on the game may have changed over the years, but he says, “Philosophically, I’m pretty much the same.”
“I mean, I might be a little bit more patient and I might be a little bit more tolerant, but only because I’m a little bit more older,” he says. “What I probably am is a better defensive coach than when I left here, and this team certainly needs every bit of that.”
Carlie, speaking by phone in Arizona, echoes Tom’s sentiments and proudly talks of her husband’s keen knowledge of the defensive game.
“He’s great on the defense side,” she says. “The fans will see his intensity. He’s got a great personality with a lot of determination. He will bring a lot of expertise, and fans will love his style and tempo.”
Carlie’s passion for her husband’s career is honest and admirable — qualities also evident by her attendance at Tom’s games.
“I never missed a Pepperdine home game,” she says as her widening smile is felt over the phone. “Well, only once, but that was when one of my daughters had the chicken pox.”
Carlie was left with one lung after her bout with cancer and is slowly getting energy back by working out five days a week on the treadmill to boost her stamina. She hopes her health keeps her in the stands — even in arenas outside California.
“I hope to do some travel with Tom this time,” she says. “I’ve never been to Portland or Spokane’s facilities, so I’m excited about that.
“I get very emotionally involved and very nervous. It becomes hard to sit in the stands. Watching the game might be harder for a coach’s wife than for a coach.”
Carlie laughs at this thought, saying, “I love the games when you’re 20 points ahead.”
Although a lead like that would have been the norm back in the early 90’s, Carlie knows she won’t see a score such as that in the Fieldhouse anytime soon. That doesn’t stop her from believing in her husband’s coaching abilities, however.
“Rebuilding won’t happen overnight,” she says. “But he’s going to start a great nucleus.”
The rebuilding process, Tom says, began immediately upon his arrival.
“I met with the team before the season was over, so it wasn’t difficult for me, but it was probably a little uncomfortable for the coaching staff and for the players,” he says. “There was so much uncertainty and so much upheaval that it was somewhat a difficult time, but I think they’ve kind of gotten the feel for me and my staff now.”
Not wasting a minute, Tom brought in an entirely new coaching staff, hiring Associate Coach Marty Wilson (a former Pepperdine player) and Assistant Coach Damin Lopez, who played under Tom.
“When a coach comes in, you just need to surround yourself with your own people,” Tom says.
The coaching staff is not the only new set of faces set to represent Waves basketball next season. The Pepperdine community will most likely be introduced to a completely revamped roster, as Tom says he wouldn’t be surprised if the number of new players brought in surpasses the number of returning players.
“Our main thrust right now is getting us a team,” he says. “We need to recruit some size, and we may need to go the junior college route. Some of the guys have asked for their release so some may explore other schools. We won’t know who’s going to be back off of the current roster for a few more weeks probably.”
The current roster is one Tom describes as “young and a little imbalanced in terms of the size.” Despite having already starting the recruiting process, he knows it may be too late to get everything in the first recruiting class the team needs.
“I’m hopeful that we’re going to build this thing from the grassroots and start to build a good, sound, solid base and foundation of players,” he says. “Our X and O system will be fairly flexible and contingent on the kind of players we get.”
However, Tom is quick to mention he’s not a “one size fits all” type of coach.
“I don’t think you can do that successfully at this level,” he says. “I think you kind of have to adjust your philosophy to your personnel.”
Tom has taken over broken basketball programs before and knows the team will have to be patient, but he says he also knows the Waves will be a much better team at the end of the year than at the beginning.
“That can’t be said about every team,” he says. “It should be said somewhat to a degree, but this team will be substantially better by the end of the year if they just don’t get beat up too much early on.”
A long road lies ahead, but Tom says he wouldn’t have gone to any other school.
“I had pretty much retired and gotten into real estate, but when the opportunity was open for me to come back here, this was the only situation I would’ve really considered doing,” he says. “We’ll stay here three or four years or however long we feel comfortable, and then turn it over to Marty (Wilson) and move back to Arizona.”
The Asburys are looking forward to their move into an on-campus condo in May. Carlie says she will take much advantage of the beach and hopes to get involved with university functions, while her husband says he is excited about being surrounded by old friends, including men’s volleyball head coach Marv Dunphy, who he’s known since 1980.
Dunphy calls his friend a “hard-charging basketball coach” who has a “wonderful, kind soul.”
“People would perceive him as a typical coach in that he’s big and gruff,” Dunphy says. “But he’s one of the more sincere, kind people I know.”
Since Tom’s hiring, Dunphy enthusiastically spoke of his fellow coach’s presence at every home volleyball match start to finish.
“People are pulling for him, and it’s nice to know he’s pulling for other coaches,” Dunphy says. “He’s been really busy ever since he got here, but he’s a big supporter of Pep and a real loyal guy.”
Loyal easily describes Tom, who hopes the same can eventually be said of Waves basketball fans.
“The fans need to come back and support the team, and not just a winning team,” he says. “It’s even more important for the fans to come when the team is struggling.”
Tom suddenly leans back in his chair, turning his head to glance out the window at the place he’s always called home. The future Pepperdine basketball team appears as ready to be displayed as the blank walls in his office, but “just give me time. I’ve won here before, and I hope to build this program back up.”
That is, of course, after he finds his chainsaw.