Back in Blue


By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Patrik Giardino

Published Sep 14, 2018 8:00 AM

Behind every successful UCLA head coach is a hardworking staff that often includes former Bruin student-athletes and superstars. The four assistant coaches profiled here are national champions, Olympians and former pros, with special ties to UCLA.

Chris Waller’s first competitive sport was skiing, but once he saw Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci score perfect 10s at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, he was hooked. The Evanston, Illinois, native started training at age 10. Photos by Patrik Giardino.

Chris Waller '91: Assistant Head Coach, Women's Gymnastics

Believe it or not, it took three tries before Chris Waller was hired as an assistant coach for UCLA women’s gymnastics. A four-time All-American who had helped the Bruin men capture the NCAA title in 1987, Waller was also a member of the U.S. National Team for eight years and a U.S. Olympian in 1992 in Barcelona. When he retired from competitive gymnastics in 1997, he was ready for a full-time coaching position. Getting the job, however, was not that easy.

“The first time the UCLA job became open, I called [Head Coach Valorie Kondos Field] and said I was interested,” Waller recalls. “She said, ‘You have to grow up some more.’ The second time the job opened up, I called her and said, ‘I’m interested in the job.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ve got to coach women longer. You haven’t coached women’s gymnastics very long.’ ”

The third time, it was Kondos Field who called Waller. “I knew what she was calling for,” Waller says, laughing. “I said, ‘Oh, does this mean I’ve grown up enough?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Kondos Field ’87, who calls Waller “the yin to my yang,” says she hired him for his tenacity, his grit and his respect for her and for UCLA. “I felt we held the same life values,” the head coach says. “I also knew he was an excellent technical coach. I felt as long as we held the same morals and values, we could work out a comprehensive and successful coaching philosophy.”

And that’s exactly what they’ve done. In the 16 years since Waller joined the UCLA coaching staff, the Bruins have won four NCAA team titles, including this year’s thrilling victory at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis. With the Bruins trailing two-time defending champion Oklahoma by .175 points heading into the final rotation of the night — balance beam — Waller saw in the locker room that the team seemed a little deflated. So he did something he’d never done before: He gave a fiery pep talk.

“Val could have been very upset by me doing that, because it wasn’t minor,” Waller says, laughing. “It was loud. There were expletives. But again, I was just in a flow state, and the girls had been champions. They had done so much amazing work on every level: physically, mentally, emotionally. I felt like they needed to be reminded of how amazing they are. And all that mattered was that they went out there and fought their hardest and played big for each other, and the rest would take care of itself.”

The result? The Bruins scored an NCAA championship record 49.75 on balance beam to seize the 2018 NCAA gymnastics title.

Coaching women was a welcome challenge for Waller, who started out by coaching boys’ gymnastics. “I had no patience with them. I’d be coaching them, going, ‘I know what you’re thinking. Stop that!’ ” he says. “Then, when I coached girls — especially when I first started — I really didn’t feel like I knew at all what they were thinking. So it made me more of a student of the athletes in the sport.”

It certainly helped when it came time to coach his own kids. Waller and his wife, Cindy ’92, have two daughters — Alexandra ’17, who competed for UCLA gymnastics, and Lilia, who is currently on the team. The couple are also owners of Wallers’ GymJam Academy in Santa Clarita.

Bruin gymnast JaNay Honest, who graduated in June, says she already misses seeing Waller every day. “He was hard on me when he needed to be, and was always there for guidance and support,” she says. “I could talk to him about anything and was comfortable to do so. He not only enhanced me as an athlete, but as a person as well.”

Lisa Fernandez says she never thought she'd make a career out of playing softball, let alone coach afterward. “I’ve been so blessed and fortunate that doors of opportunity opened at just the right time,” she says. “It was like, ‘Holy smokes! I get to do this?’ ”

Lisa Fernandez '95: Assistant Coach, Softball

Imagine being a kid and having a mom who coaches softball and a dad who coaches baseball. Who would you ask for help with practice?

In Lisa Fernandez’s household, the answer is both. Her husband, Michael Lujan, coaches high school baseball and tends to handle the day-to-day coaching for their boys, Antonio, 12, and Cruz, 5, while Fernandez takes on more of an advisory role.

“It’ll be, ‘OK, let’s talk to your mom about where we’re at now.’ And then they’ll talk to me about different things, about hitting, about fielding, about throwing, and I’ll give my stamp of approval or I’ll say, ‘Let’s think about that,’ ” Fernandez says. “So it’s a good dynamic that we have.”

Not that she doesn’t ever practice with her kids. “My 5-year-old will say, ‘Mom, let’s go play catch.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ So I’m coach in the daytime and I’m still throwing batting practice at night,” she says, laughing.

Fernandez’s long and fruitful career at UCLA began in 1990, when she played both softball and basketball as a student-athlete. She gave up basketball in order to protect her pitching hands, a decision that proved wise when she went on to win softball’s Honda Award three times. She also became the first softball player to win the prestigious Honda-Broderick Cup in 1993, given to the most outstanding collegiate female athlete in all sports. Fernandez was a four-time All-American who led the Bruins to two national championships (1990 and 1992) and two runner-up finishes (1991 and 1993).

Arguably the greatest pitcher in softball history, Fernandez helped lead Team USA to gold medal victories in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. She joined the UCLA staff as an assistant coach in 1997, but the time needed to train for the Olympics required her to take a break from her duties. Rather than leave UCLA, she served as a volunteer UCLA coach from 2000 to 2004 and returned to fulltime coaching in 2007.

“Coach Lisa has helped me through so many negative twists and turns over the three years I have played for her so far, both personally through family issues and individually as an athlete,” says senior infielder Brianna Tautalafua. “Many people would not even know something was going on with me, because Coach Lisa was always the person who would bring my spirits up. It was as if she were my own personal psychic, because she just read me so well when I thought I was hiding those emotions fantastically.”

But the players also appreciate Fernandez’s fun side, especially when she throws the team’s batting practice. “She loves to hype herself up and loves to compete,” Tautalafua says. “She’ll scream for herself when it’s a strike. But when she doesn’t get the call, she’ll yell, ‘Oh! You’re kidding! That was such a pretty spot!’ Or when she catches someone looking at a strike, she’ll yell, ‘Whoa! That was kind of nasty, wasn’t it?’ She’s our energizer bunny.”

When Kelly Inouye-Perez ’93 was named UCLA’s head coach in 2007, it was a “no brainer” that Fernandez would become her first assistant. “We grew up playing the game together, and we were the best of friends,” says Inouye-Perez, who served as Fernandez’s catcher for most of her travel ball and collegiate career.

“Lisa brings the respect, the history, the tradition of excellence that is something we really talk about in the recruiting process,” the head coach says. “There are a lot of parents, coaches and players who take a great deal of pride in being able to know that they or their daughter or athlete has the opportunity to play for someone who has the experience, literally, of the most success in the game.”

As a boy, Tyus Edney was a four-sport athlete: football, tennis, baseball and basketball. “I wasn’t big enough for football, tennis became more for fun, and I got kind of burned out on baseball,” he says. “So basketball became the thing I liked the best."

Tyus Edney '97: Assistant Coach, Men's Basketball

It's hard to believe that 23 years have passed since Tyus Edney saved UCLA basketball’s last NCAA title run. Everyone remembers that second-round game in Boise — it was the West Regional of the 1995 NCAA Tournament, and Missouri was leading UCLA, 74 - 73, with 4.8 seconds remaining.

But UCLA Coach Jim Harrick had a plan: Cameron Dollar was to pass the ball inbounds to Edney, who would dribble the length of the floor and take it to the rim. Harrick was sure that with Edney’s speed, the guard could easily cover the length of the court in 4.8 seconds, and no one would try to foul him.

As everyone knows, the plan worked. Edney made the shot, and UCLA would go on to beat Mississippi State, Connecticut, Oklahoma State and Arkansas to win the NCAA championship. And to this day, Edney is known as a hero to Bruin basketball fans and a source of heartbreak to Mizzou fans.

Edney is humble and just a tad embarrassed when he is asked about that game (which is very, very often). “I do get asked,” he says. “Even when I’m out recruiting and just seeing people around, they remember that. It’s a lot of fun for me. You never know when something like that is going to live on. It’s always nice to hear those things and talk to people about it.”

A four-year letter winner at UCLA, Edney served as a starter on the 1992–93, 1993–94 and 1994–95 teams. The former point guard is still ranked on numerous top-10 career record lists at UCLA, including second in assists (652, 5.2 assists per game), third in steals (224, 1.8 steals per game) and third in free throws made (450).

After graduation from UCLA, Edney played two seasons with the Sacramento Kings (1995–97), one season with the Boston Celtics (1997 98) and one with the Indiana Pacers (2000–01). He left the NBA in 2001 and played for several European teams, including Lithuania’s BC Zalgiris, Italy’s Benetton Treviso and Lottomatica Virtus Roma, Olympiacos in Greece, Fortitudo Bologna in Italy, Cajasol Sevilla in Spain and Turow Zgorzelec in Poland, where he ended his playing career in 2009.

Edney joined the staff of UCLA men’s basketball in 2010 as director of operations, where he organized meetings, travel plans and whatever’s needed by the coach,” he says. “All that behind-the-scenes stuff. And you realize it is a lot of stuff!” He served in that position for seven years, until Head Coach Steve Alford hired him as an assistant coach in 2017.

“The guys relate so well to him,” Alford says. “He played at the highest level, and our guys are obviously trying to get to the highest level. He gets instant credibility not only because he played at that level, but also for what he did here at UCLA, being the last national title winner. And just how he relates to the guys, whether it’s spending time in film with them, or just sitting down and talking with them — I think those are the things where he means the most.

“From my end, every time I go into his office, I see his Oakland Raiders hat. Being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I just always throw that hat on the ground,” Alford says, laughing. “I think that’s the one negative he has here.” Edney says that his favorite part of his job is being able to interact with the players and help them achieve their goals of getting into the NBA. “I had that dream at one time, and I feel like I have the experience and understand how to help them get there,” he says. “Like Aaron [Holiday] getting drafted, and Big Tom [Welsh]. That’s just really special for me. You want them to be successful, and it makes you feel like this is why you’re doing it — to help them fulfill their dream, like I was able to.”

Says Prince Ali, a redshirt junior guard: “He’s a good guy, so it’s very easy to listen to him. Sometimes we’ll be walking around on campus and he’ll say things like, ‘Oh man, I remember when I was in college.’ So it’s actually pretty neat. Tyus is a legend around here, and it’s just great to have somebody like that around.”

Jenny Johnson Jordan says she’s definitely more laid-back as a coach than she was as a player. But sometimes she’ll jump onto the court and play, which helps her get to know the players better. “Also, it allows me to compete and talk trash,” she says. “It’s fun!”

Jenny Johnson Jordan '96: Assistant Coach, Women's Beach Volleyball

Nothing brings greater joy to Jenny Johnson Jordan than to scare somebody. She is, without a doubt, the biggest prankster on the UCLA women’s beach volleyball team.

“Everyone knows that she is the jokester on the team,” says Head Coach Stein Metzger ’96. “As serious as she can be at times, she will hide in a bush and scare you when you least expect it. We had one instance on a road trip to Northern California where I had to go back to the van to grab something, and as I was coming back to our hotel, she hopped out of the bushes. I jumped about 10 feet high, and I swear my heart didn’t stop pumping for about two hours! I never let her live that one down.”

Starter Elise Zappia, a serious bug-hater, laughs when she recalls how Johnson Jordan once placed a small manila envelope on her backpack. “She said, ‘I have a present for you,’ with this evil smile. And I knew that it was not going to be a good thing for me,” Zappia says. Turns out the envelope contained a dead moth that the two had spied lying on the ground in Lot 7 several days earlier.

But such pranks simply endear her to the team, prompting them to think of ways to get her back. It obviously works as a bonding device, because in May, the UCLA beach volleyball team captured the 2018 NCAA championship in Gulf Shores, Alabama, for UCLA’s 116th national title.

“We just needed to believe that we could do it,” Johnson Jordan says. “We had never been there before, and we had never won before, but we definitely knew we had the pieces to do it. And I think we walked into the championship not cocky, but definitely with the confidence that we needed.”

A standout on the Bruin indoor team from 1991 to 1995, Johnson Jordan was a member of the 1991 UCLA national championship team and the NCAA runner-up teams of 1992 and 1994. She played in 127 matches and 406 sets in her four seasons, recording 1,212 kills and 1,214 digs. She also is eighth in UCLA history in digs and 21st in kills.

Following her UCLA career, Johnson Jordan played on the beach, both in the Olympics and professionally. In 2000, with partner and former Bruin Annett Buckner Davis ’96, she finished fifth in the Sydney Olympic Games and served as an alternate for the 2004 Athens Games. Johnson Jordan also played on the Pro 4’s, FIVB, WPVA, BVA and AVP tours, winning 10 professional beach titles worldwide.

In 2012, Johnson Jordan became the first beach volleyball coach at her secondary school alma mater, Windward School in Los Angeles, and was also the head coach for the LAVA girls’ club volleyball beach program. Then Metzger lured her back to UCLA, hiring her as the assistant coach of the brand-new UCLA beach volleyball team — a sport that had just been officially adopted by the NCAA.

“I knew she would be the perfect fit,” says Metzger, who has been friends with Johnson Jordan since they were UCLA freshmen together in 1991. “She’s a lifelong Bruin. Her family, they’re all Bruins. She’s played the game at the highest level. Her personality is a really good fit for coaching and for me, and I knew that we would make a great pair leading this program.”

Johnson Jordan’s Bruin family includes her mother, Betsy ’66, her brother, Josh ’98, and her father, Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson ’59. She has two children, Jaylen and Kory, with her husband, Kevin Jordan ’96, a former UCLA All-American wide receiver.

Zappia, who graduated in June, calls Johnson Jordan the perfect balance to Metzger. “Jenny is an extremely compassionate person, and she has helped with all the girls on the team,” she says. “She’s just there for them. That’s a huge asset to the team, especially since she’s our only female [on the coaching staff]. I think when you’re coaching a bunch of young women, you always need at least one woman to help move things along. Stein and [Volunteer Coach] Jeff [Alzina] were amazing, but girls understand girls best, you know?”



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