Life At The End Of The Bench

Nov. 10, 2000

By JOE TONE, Editor-in-chief
The Santa Clara

SANTA CLARA, Calif. --Dustin Warford squeezes a Rawlings NCAA basketball under his left elbow while he peers upward into the unforgiving eyes of all-conference guard Brian Jones. Then, inside the Malley fitness center on this early Saturday morning, he waits.

He waits for an assistant coach to bark out instructions on what play to run and how to run it. He waits to put the Rawlings on the floor, for the moment when he will immediately be engulfed by the superior size, skill and speed of Jones. He waits, intently and eagerly, for his basketball career to resume.

For Warford, and most walk-ons that take the practice floor for Santa Clara's men's and women's basketball programs, this moment - when their opponent is their teammate, the ref is a whistle-less assistant and the only spectators are the rest of the team - isn't just a small part of their basketball career. It actually is their basketball career.

Walk-ons are unrecruited athletes who try out for a team. If they make it, they get minimal game opportunities to show if they can play - a concept which isn't exactly incredibly rare for Santa Clara basketball. Good walk-ons, however, are. Every season, several high-hope freshmen contact women's coach Chris Denker and men's coach Dick Davey interested in trying out. Every season, after a couple days of conditioning and realizing that college basketball isn't exactly the same as that high school junk they used to dominate, those several dwindle to two or one, or even none. "That happens a lot," Denker says. "On the first day of conditioning, they usually realize it's not for them."

The one's who stick with it, like Warford, usually make their only contributions to the team in practice, and aren't encouraged to return after one year.

"Don't put yourself through the punishment of practice," Davey will tell walk-on athletes after a year of service.

Davey told this to Warford, but apparently, the idea didn't stick. Warford returned for a second, third and eventually his fourth season this fall. He still works as hard as anyone on the team, Davey says, but is still not threatening enough to crack the coach's rotation.

"It's a business," Warford says. "Coach Davey's pretty straightforward (about playing time)."

But just because they're told up front that they aren't going to play, walk-ons normally don't just accept their role as a practice player. Women's guard Caroline Gruening walked on in 1998, and appeared in only 11 games as a freshman. Two years later, she's on a scholarship and is a major contributor: she scored eight points to go with five rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes in the Broncos' exhibition opener last week.

"(Walk-ons) can be extremely valuable," Denker says.

But while Gruening has been able to surpass some of her scholarship teammates and eventually show in games that she is worth forking over money for, Warford hasn't. Although Davey was able to "reward" him with scholarship money last season, this season he's back to being a walk-on, and in no season has he seen the floor enough to contribute in game situations. Last season, he played in only 11 games and averaged less than two minutes of court time in those games, despite enduring the grueling regimen of a Division I college basketball team. Maybe Coach Davey should have done a little more discouraging. Or maybe not.

"Sitting on the bench isn't always fun," he says. "But it's not that I haven't worked hard. There are just some good players ahead of me. BJ's good. Brian Vaka, Delano (D'Oyen), even the freshman, Kyle Bailey - they can play."

This is what stands in the way of most college walk-ons: recruited athletes who not only can play, but who are getting paid to play. Walk-ons, meanwhile, just have to sit around and wait. Wait, like Caroline Gruening did, for players to slip up or get injured so she could prove herself. Or wait, like Dustin Warford does, for his career to resume, and eventually end, at Saturday-morning practices with all-conference guards smothering and hounding him while he tries his best to prove that he too can play. There are other options, for Warford, though, right? He could always just ask Coach Davey for more playing time, couldn't he?

"I'm a basketball player," he says. "I'm not dumb."