The Bard and Basketball : Coach Paul Westhead of the surging Lions of Loyola is still mixing basketball and Shakespeare as he guides his team to national prominence and teaches English literature twice a week. His approach to coaching basketball reflects the order of his classroom.

Times Staff Writer

Paul Westhead, the Shakespeare enthusiast who coaches basketball, became the Lakers’ head coach 13 games into the 1979-80 season. As he guided the Lakers to the National Basketball Assn. title, he often quoted Shakespeare or used literary references to spice up postgame analyses.

Eight years later and now an English professor as well as coach of one of the hottest teams in the country, Loyola Marymount, Westhead is still doing that.

Second-year freshman Marcus Slater, a member of the Lions team and a student in Westhead’s writing class, said that in practice “he’ll quote something from Shakespeare. I never had a coach like this before.”


Added forward Hank Gathers: “He’s a great teacher of other things than basketball.”

These are full, exciting days for Westhead, the teacher, who is re-establishing his credentials in the coaching profession while leading Loyola’s quest for its first West Coast Athletic Conference title in 27 years.

Westhead spends much of his time discussing his fast break and high-pressure defense. But twice a week he puts on a tie and jacket, stuffs a briefcase with textbooks and readings from favorite authors and convenes his writing class. He puts on reading glasses and talks about the artificial self and programmed structure versus the free flow of ideas, and brainstorming and clustering.

It’s very orderly and academic, often entertaining--and quite removed from basketball and coaching.

The next night, the angular professor is prowling the sidelines of Gersten Pavilion. He’s glaring at a referee, sometimes using language that doesn’t come up in his writing class. The arena is a little more intense than the classroom, but he’s still orderly and businesslike. And the product is very entertaining.

Westhead has taught English the entire time he has coached in high school and college. Thus, he has been able to continue what he sees as one of his occupations even when his basketball side was deflated.

Westhead has reflected a professorial image since he came to the West Coast as an assistant to Lakers Coach Jack McKinney in 1979 after nine years as coach at LaSalle University in his hometown of Philadelphia. He took over the Lakers when McKinney was injured in a bicycling accident.


Westhead was dismissed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss in his third year and spent an unfortunate season coaching the pre-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls before returning to Southern California. Westhead had sold his Palos Verdes home and was preparing to return to the East when the Loyola job suddenly opened. He was hired after a couple of days of whirlwind interviews in 1985.

The first season, with returning stars Forrest McKenzie and Keith Smith and the emerging talent of Mike Yoest, Westhead led the Lions to a 19-11 record and their first appearance in the National Invitation Tournament.

Last season, with Smith and McKenzie playing in the NBA, the Lions struggled to a 12-16 mark and were last in the West Coast Athletic Conference. But this season, bolstered by talented transfers Corey Gaines, Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, the lions are off to the best start in their history at 21-3 and are rated in the top 20 nationally for the first time.

Yet Westhead, whose approach to basketball practice and game preparation is as ordered as his approach to class, says he is just as happy teaching. In the short time between leaving the Chicago Bulls and his hiring by Loyola, Westhead taught English at Marymount Palos Verdes College.

“I really enjoy it. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing it so long,” he said after a recent class. “I started out as a teacher.”

Westhead, who has a master’s degree in English literature, is teaching a writing course for sociology students for the second year.


As a full-time coach who likes to keep one foot in academics, he is unusual among his peers. But he notes that he had a role model in Jack Ramsay, his coach at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, who went on to fame in the NBA, leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the title in 1977.

When Ramsay was at St. Joe’s, he was chairman of the education department. “He assigned me to my first student-teaching assignment and directed me in my teaching career,” Westhead said. “He told me, ‘You’re a teacher first, not a coach first.’ Coaching is something that comes and goes.”

Westhead said he was always a good student but never came across as an egghead to teammates. Basketball came first, until an injury in his senior year gave him a new perspective.

“I’d put in my time, played my role for three years, and senior year was supposed to be my year,” Westhead recalled. “Before the season, I broke my wrist. It was a shock. It taught me basketball was a fleeting dream. It was a hurtful time. Since I was 9 years old, everything I’d done was to be a better basketball player.

“In a sense, instead of feeling cheated, I turned my attention to being the best student I could be. That’s what got me a fellowship (to Villanova). I had the NBA dream. I might’ve been like 99 of 100 other guys who put everything into the basketball dream, and not enough into other aspirations . . . . I remember leaving St. Joseph’s feeling basketball was behind me. Ramsay had taught me well.”

Westhead got his master’s degree at Villanova and landed his first teaching job in the English department at the University of Dayton, which has a solid basketball program. Ramsay suggested they might like Westhead as a volunteer assistant.


Westhead taught four classes and coached, then moved on to Cheltenham High School in Philadelphia as head coach and English teacher. From there he took an assistant job with Ramsay at St. Joseph’s and then the head coaching job at cross-town rival LaSalle. He taught at every step. Ramsay liked the way he transferred his natural competitiveness to his class work.

“Paul played with almost a fury; he played so hard you had to find a place for him to play,” Ramsay recalled recently. “He was also a very good student. I knew he had an interest in teaching and coaching. I could see where he was a student of the game.

“He’s a scholar. He likes teaching. I observed his student teaching, and he had a rapport with his students. I assume he still does.”

Indeed, that’s another aspect Westhead enjoys in his mixed role. “I like the interplay with students. And it’s immensely enjoyable when you have only one or two classes. So I have the best. It’s something I do and like, and I’m not overburdened.

“I feel like I have a sense of the pulse of the students, their academic schedule. I know when the guys have midterms, when papers are due. I know what it means. And it’s an ever-present reminder that I need to be prepared.”

Students in Westhead’s class say that if he was not a well-known basketball coach he wouldn’t come off differently from their other professors. Slater, who sees him nearly every day for six months during basketball season, said: “I like his teaching style. It’s different from what you see on the court every day. He doesn’t act like a coach who’s trying to be a teacher. He’s a genuine teacher.”


Chris Leggio, who broadcasts Loyola basketball games on the campus radio station and has regularly interviewed Westhead over the last two years, is taking his class this semester. He said he wasn’t surprised by Westhead’s scholarly approach. “He’s very down to business,” Leggio said. “You can tell he’s prepared. He makes the class fun. (You can tell) he does enjoy the teaching. He’s very professional in class.”

In preparing for classes and for the basketball court, Westhead goes through similar drills: Before each class or practice, he writes a schedule--whether for teaching or for plays he wants to work on. He does the same before games. He may never check his list, but the practice of writing it helps him organize his thoughts.

After a recent class he said, “I wrote out every step to follow--but didn’t follow the notes. But I would feel very unprepared if I didn’t. I write down every step I want to do. I write down plays I want to run for the games, then put it in my pocket and never check it. It’s the routine of writing it down.”

In teaching writing to sociology students, Westhead seeks to widen their skills. He believes that most are programmed to write technically correct, unchallenging formula papers aimed at what they think professors want to read. Westhead tries to get them to write clearly and creatively by giving them unusual assignments or papers dealing with non-academic subjects. “I can see some change over two or three months,” he said. “I see it as a practical and needed class.”

His approach to basketball has been similarly unconventional. His idea of making opponents shoot quickly, even if they score, makes some peers cringe. Ramsay recalls times at LaSalle in the 1970s, when there was no 45-second clock and opponents would try to freeze the ball for long periods, that Westhead would tempt them to shoot by using only three or four players on defense. “I think once we played two-on-five,” Westhead said with a grin. “We used to call our four-on-five defense our box-and-none.”

“Knowing Paul, he puts a lot of thought into his game, so his team plays differently than (under) any other coach,” said Ramsay, considered one of the most innovative and technically sound coaches in NBA history. “Paul’s a thinker. He’s an individualist. He’s done some things I’ve never thought of.”


Under Ramsay’s tutelage, Westhead came to see practice in classroom terms. Yet though he relishes the collegiate atmosphere, Westhead said he would be perfectly happy coaching the pros again--or a junior high team.

“I like coaching, in a comparable way I like teaching,” he said. “When you get a good group of people that’s playing to win, that’s fun. It’s the team you’re with that makes it fun. My approach is very simple: I’m going to run my system.”