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Bill Walton dishes his thoughts on Pac-12, Stanford basketball

The student of John Wooden brought a bag full of ideas - and a case full of Grateful Dead CDs - to Cal last week

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Bill Walton shares some of his best Grateful Dead CDs with his tour bus driver
Bill Walton shares some of his best Grateful Dead CDs with his tour bus driver
Jack Blanchat

For Bill Walton, a speaking engagement in front of dozens of students means that he has to look his best.

Therefore, his look of choice is a tie-dyed t-shirt with a smiling red bear driving a train past a signpost that indicates that trouble lies ahead and that trouble lies behind. It is unclear from the picture whether or not the bear is actually high on cocaine, though.

That's the scene on Bill Walton's "Grateful Dead" t-shirt - a colorful homage to his favorite band - and a perfect window into Walton's unique spirit and perspective on life and basketball.

As part of the Pac-12's "Walton on Wheels" tour, Walton was naturally happy to dish his thoughts on the conference before last week's Stanford-Cal game at Haas Pavilion.

After spending a year covering the conference for ESPN, Walton said, with his endearing, typical, rambling optimism that the future of West Coast basketball is bright, but that optimism did come with some large question marks that included Stanford and his alma mater, UCLA.

"This is the marquee conference. San Francisco? Are you kidding me? California, Los Angeles, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, these are the greatest places in the world," he said. "But we have to keep our players from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Arizona and Oregon, we have to keep them in the conference, we can't let them go.

"Right now the ACC and Big Ten are better, and we have to use that as motivation, as a model, and we have to get to the point where each and every school is selling its own program," he continued. "Right now, every school in the conference is selling the opposition with the exception of Arizona."

Of course, Walton's claim that Arizona was the only school selling its own program comes packaged with his wholesale desire to see better coaching throughout the conference, as well as his own year-long criticisms of UCLA head coach Ben Howland, who has faced slipping attendance numbers and enthusiasm from the Bruins faithful.

Walton, however, was not going to call for Howland to be fired - or any other coach to be fired (like, say, Johnny Dawkins).

"That's not my job. The athletic directors, the school president, that's their job," he said. "Coaches today are entertainers and they are paid extremely well. They are most often the highest paid public employees in that state's history. And that bears with it responsibility. A duty to get the job done. And an entertainer is charged with success and filling the house. "

Walton's suggestion to those schools that want better attendance? Win more basketball games.

"Arizona, one of the smallest markets in the entire conference, has led the conference in attendance for 27 consecutive years. That comes from Lute Olson."

As for Ben Howland?

"I'm not going to apologize for caring about my school. And I'm not going to apologize for having high standards," Walton said. "I said what I've said and I'm moving forward, and you're more than welcome to go interview Ben Howland."

Naturally, that same critique - slipping attendance and enthusiasm - applies to Stanford, a team that Walton said he was disappointed in this season. The "Big Red-Head" attended Stanford Law School for two years - his son also holds an MBA from the Farm - and said he expected more from the Cardinal.

"I would think better for Stanford. I'm also an alum of Stanford and I'm very proud of that - although I didn't graduate - I dropped out. And it's shocking to me that Stanford is the worst shooting team in the conference. Stanford - skill - come on, make a shot."

"Stanford's biggest problem is that they don't have the ability to sustain the attack that the starters give them," he continued. "When they go to the bench, it falls apart. But every game, the same thing happens. So why go to the bench?"

Clearly, Walton's keen basketball senses are still in touch when it comes to the Cardinal and the rest of the conference as it tries to pave its way to more postseason success beginning this week at the Pac-12 tournament.

Of course, Walton had a solution for that as well.

"There's too much dribbling in the men's game. Too much one against nine. Or one against 19,000, where everybody's like, ‘Please pass the ball.' And this guy just keeps pounding it. I like passing and running and shooting."

He smiled. And then he launched into a 10-minute dissertation describing which records a novice Grateful Dead fan should buy.