South Bay Takes Over Pepperdine Basketball

South Bay takes over Pepperdine basketball

By Paul Teetor

Redondo basketball coach Jim Neilsen hugs his star player Dijon Thompson last month after Redondo won its first CIF championship since 1943. Neilsen has been hired as the new assistant coach at Pepperdine University. Photo by Ray Vidal.

Pepperdine University’s new men’s basketball coach, Manhattan Beach resident Paul Westphal, stuck with the South Bay theme this week by hiring Redondo coach Jim Neilsen as his top assistant.

Neilsen, who accepted the job over the weekend after nine years at Redondo, was still reeling Tuesday from the sudden change in his employment status.

"I’m like a kid in a candy store," Neilsen said. "I still can’t quite believe this is happening."

Coming off his first ever CIF sectional championship and with a loaded team returning next year — including All-Americans Adam Zahn and Wendell White -— leaving Redondo was the last thing on his mind.

But when Westphal, a former star at Aviation High and the University of Southern California, accepted the job at Pepperdine, one of his first acts was to call his former high-school buddy, Jim Neilsen.

"I met Paul in my freshman year of high school," Neilsen said. "I grew up in North Torrance, and we played pickup ball against each other all the time."

The two men have remained friends ever since, and when Westphal realized he needed someone with high school contacts in the Los Angeles area Neilsen was his first choice.

"Jim helped shape Redondo Union High into one of the nation’s premier high school programs," said Westphal. "He will bring an unmatched work ethic, excellent values and dedication to his new assignment at Pepperdine."

As far as exactly what his new assignment is, Neilsen put it in general terms.

"My job is to make Paul’s job simpler," Neilsen said. "Whatever that takes, that’s what I’ll do."

Neilsen compiled a 193-68 (.739) record in nine seasons as the head varsity coach at Redondo Union High, the highest winning percentage of any coach in the 95-year history of the school. He won five league titles, advanced to the Final Four of the division playoffs five times and was the CIF runner-up in 1998. A total of 19 former players went on to play college basketball, including Andrew Zahn, a member of the NCAA runner-up Arizona team, and graduating senior Dijon Thompson, who will play for UCLA next year.

After graduating from North Torrance in 1968 — the same year Westphal graduated from Aviation High — Neilsen went on to a standout basketball career at Washington State from 1968 to 1972. He has taught and coached in the South Bay for 27 years, including an 18-year stint at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach.

He has seen literally thousands of high school players in the South Bay — none better than the 6-foot-4 Westphal, who had an All-Star career with the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns. Westphal coached the Seattle Supersonics until he was fired mid-way through the current season. He also coached the Phoenix Suns.

"Paul is without a doubt the best player in the history of the South Bay," Neilsen said.

Westphal said the respect is mutual.

"My son Mike almost attended Redondo for his senior year a few years ago, so we got to see how Jim runs his program," Westphal said. "I was very impressed."

As soon as the news leaked out that Neilsen was leaving, local speculation began to focus on who would replace him.

Neilsen said two of his assistant coaches, Tom Maier and Steve Brown, have been appointed interim coaches, and both have applied for the permanent job.

"I love both those guys, so I certainly hope one of them gets the job," he said.

The hardest part about his new job is leaving the kids he led to a CIF championship a little over a month ago.

"It’s extremely difficult to leave these kids behind. They’re tremendous kids and tremendous human beings. It’s the only downside to this decision," he said.

The Seahawk basketball banquet will be held Monday night, April 30, at 6 p.m. at the Redondo Elks Club. UCLA coach Steve Lavin will be the featured speaker. What figured to be a celebration of the school’s first CIF championship since 1943 now shapes up as a grand farewell party for Neilsen.

"We’re all really happy for coach Neilsen," said 6-foot-11 center Paul Meynen, one of four starters returning next year. "It’s disappointing that he won’t be coaching my senior year, but it’s a great opportunity for him."

Glenn Marx, the boys basketball coach at Mira Costa, has coached against Neilsen in more than 25 high school games. He said Neilsen’s move is good for all the South Bay coaches.

"It’s good for the South Bay that a local coach ends up coaching at a local college," Marx said. "We want to see Southern California colleges recruit locally. There’s no question Jim works hard. I wish him well." ER