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Wright's Waves

Renowned (and beloved!) coach and athletic director Wayne Wright (MA ’66) blessed Pepperdine Athletics with a rare and lasting culture of fellowship

May 17, 2021  | 3 min read

Retiring from Pepperdine in 1997 with seven NCAA Division I championships in four different sports to his name, athletics director Wayne Wright left a legacy of exceptional success on the playing field. With significantly fewer resources than the competition, Wright brought the Waves to a new level, playing against—and beating—schools with more highly developed sports programs.

“If I had one talent,” says Wright, “it was in hiring. Most of the people I hired turned out to be really good coaches.” Those who know him say that Wright had many talents, among them his ability to home in on those who would best serve at the University. Steve Potts (JD ’82), today’s athletics director, agrees. “Wayne had a way of finding people who would fit; it wasn’t about finding the coach who would be most successful at another school,” says Potts. “It would be about finding the coach who would be most successful at Pepperdine—who fit our Christian mission, our commitment to academics, our commitment to competing for championships.”

Wright’s impact was evidenced by his masterful development of women’s sports at the University in the 1970s. In addition to establishing the women’s basketball team, Wright was also instrumental in adding women’s soccer, swimming, golf, volleyball, and cross country to Pepperdine’s roster of sports. His successor, professor of education John Watson (’72, MA ’75), points out that “Wayne very strategically selected the sports in which our women’s teams could succeed. And he brought in quality coaches to make that happen.” 

His thoughtfulness about every decision he made was probably the greatest factor in the rise of the Waves’ presence in college athletics. As Pepperdine’s teams increasingly engaged in national (and some televised) competitions, East Coasters stopped pronouncing the school “Pepperdeen,” and a greater number of young student-athletes were enticed to pursue their education at a little school in Malibu. “Students like to come to a winning program,” notes Wright, “and the fact that we were winning a lot just recruited other kids who wanted to come and be a part of it.”

Wright’s greatest accomplishment, however, cannot be found in the wins and losses column. Wright’s manner, his charisma, his authenticity, his kindness, and the balanced approach he brought to every aspect of his life allowed him to create a culture in the University’s athletics department that is truly unique in college sports. This culture—of respect, competence, and unity—was one that Wright carefully nurtured. “Everyone wanted to be respected by Wayne,” says Potts. Volleyball coach Marv Dunphy (’74) relates that regardless of the number of times a specific question was asked by a staff member, Wright always responded graciously. He maintained a decorous environment, and those around him followed suit, living his maxim to “shout praise and whisper criticism.”

Having played baseball for Lipscomb University, Wright understood student-athletes and how to relate to them. And having coached at Pepperdine for 12 years before he became athletics director, he was sensitive, as Dunphy puts it, “to the ups and downs that coaches go through.” These experiences helped make him an insightful mentor. “Where I am and where I’m going is due in large part to Wayne. He was great to me,” says Dunphy.

As the vice president for student affairs and Wright’s supervisor, John Watson had a good understanding of the world of college sports when he took over the department upon Wright’s retirement. But to ensure that Watson was as well prepared as possible, Wright met with him for days to talk about the department. “He went over every person, and he brought with him copious notes, and ideas, and thoughts, and recommendations. He knew what he was doing, and he wanted to pass it all on so we wouldn’t skip a beat,” says Watson. 

According to Wright, “creating a spirit of cooperation” was important to him, and he made a point of inviting athletics and academic staff to outings where they could meet one another, such as his ironically titled biannual “Wayne Wright Memorial Golf Tournament.” He saw to it that the coaches and players of all the school’s sports formed a tight-knit group and that they perceived themselves as part of a larger team of Waves. Dunphy relates that coaches and student-athletes would attend each other’s games. 

“Sometimes within an athletic department there might be jealousy or rivalry between various sports, but that was never the case here with Wayne,” Dunphy says. “With baseball, basketball, volleyball, and tennis, people pulled for each other, and I think that that started a nice tradition. That still exists.” 

Looking back at this tenure, Wright says, “I never regretted a day working at Pepperdine. I think that one of the things that makes you happy is having a job you enjoy, and that certainly was the case for me. I was blessed with a lot more than I ever gave.” 

It’s tempting to quibble with that last part, as 24 years after he left the University, his culture of kindness, fellowship, and indeed, competitive success, continues to shower Pepperdine with its gifts.