Lafayette “Fat" Lever said Ned Wulk, his basketball coach at Arizona State, was all about loyalty.
"Coach Wulk stood for loyalty," said Lever, the last all-conference player Wulk coached at ASU. "That goes back to scholarships. He kept you there for four years no matter what. From Dale Cooke, who never played a game (because) of injury, to Tom Kuyper, who didn't play that much."
Wulk, 83, died Saturday at a group home in Tempe. He had been suffering from a disease similar to Alzheimer's for years but died of pancreatic cancer.
"There's a huge hole in all of our hearts right now," ASU coach Rob Evans said. "He's been part of our family here for a long time."
Wulk's brother Jerry said Wulk died peacefully.
"The only comfort we have is that it was very, very peaceful," he said. "It's still hard to accept. He was a hero to me."
Wulk, a native of Marion, Wis., developed a championship program at ASU when he arrived from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1957.
His first team won the Border Conference championship and qualified for the NCAA tournament, a first for the Sun Devils. No ASU team had finished higher than third place before his hiring.
He also did something that would become routine for him: defeat Arizona.
Wulk's first Sun Devils squad swept the Wildcats 70-66 and 78-76. In fact, Wulk immediately flipped the rivalry by winning his first 15 meetings with the Wildcats.
"I've known Ned since I was coach at Marina (Calif.) High School 35 years ago," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "He was a good friend and a nice man who did a great job for ASU. I'd see him practically every year when we came up to Tempe. He was a very good basketball coach and an outstanding man."
Wulk took ASU to nine NCAA tournaments. He's the answer to a trivia question: Who was the last coach to defeat John Wooden in the NCAA tournament before UCLA won nine championships in 10 years? (The Bruins did not make the tournament in 1966.)
A loss to Oregon State in the 1963 West finals denied Wulk a trip to the Final Four.
"He was a better man than coach," said Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Dennis Dairman, who started three years for Wulk in the early 1960s. "And he was a helluva coach."
Dairman said he's applied some of the lessons he learned from Wulk to his judicial career.
"What I learned from him are some of the most valuable lessons I've learned in life," he said. "It's been 40 years, and they still apply. I can still hear him saying there's no easy way."
Between 1961-63, Wulk's teams were 72-13 with Joe Caldwell starring.
"He did a terrific job. He was well liked," said Bill Kajikawa, who was ASU's basketball coach before Wulk. "He really put our school on the basketball map."
Part of Wulk's loyalty was to his adopted state. A scholarship was on the table every year for Arizona's player of the year.
Fiery on the court, Wulk's soft-spoken nature didn't inspire the passionate following accorded football coach Frank Kush.
In the early 1960s, Sun Devil Gym was filled, but when the University Activity Center was built in the 1970s, attendance was poor.
The 1974-75 team, which featured All-America guard Lionel Hollins, won all 14 of its home games, shared the WAC championship and averaged only 8,700 fans in the 14,700-seat facility.
That team is the last men's basketball team at ASU to win a championship.
"We were very good friends," said Marv Harshman, former coach at Washington State and Washington. "He was a wonderful person. It was a sad day when Arizona State terminated him. It took them a long time to get a coach as good as he was." Wulk's last great team featured future NBA players Lever, center Alton Lister, guard Byron Scott and forward Sam Williams. That team handed No. 1-ranked Oregon State its only regular season loss during the 1980-81 season. ASU, however, was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Kansas.
Wulk was reassigned the next year after a 13-14 season, the ASU administration deciding time had passed him.
"Ned Wulk was the classiest and one of the most decent people I've known in athletics," said Arizona Cardinals publicist Paul Jensen, who headed ASU's sports information office in Wulk's final season. "It was a privilege to work for him even though it was a short time."
Although Wulk never said it publicly, he was bitter about his dismissal. He remained connected to the school, though not actively involved with the program until Evans took over in 1998-99.
"He was so pleased with Coach Evans," Jerry Wulk said. "He was very comfortable and happy with him. Those experiences he never had with (the other coaches)."
Before his illness, Wulk would wait for Evans in the tunnel to shake hands and chat briefly minutes before tip-off.
"As a coach, the thing that always impressed me about him was that he was a teacher," Evans said. "His players and teams always got better as the season went along, and that's usually a sign that there's some teaching going on."
Wulk was a regular at ASU basketball and football games. He attended football games this year, complaining to his brother about the heat in one of the day games this season.
Still competitive and a die-hard Sun Devil, he had a hard time sitting with his brother, who worked at USC, when the two teams played football.
"He said, ‘You're not sitting with me again Jerry, you go to the other side (with the USC fans),’ " Jerry Wulk recalled.
"His love for the university never faltered one bit," he added. "He loved all the players. You don't find a lot of guys with that kind of commitment anymore."
Wulk always felt blessed about his life.
While serving in the infantry in Europe during World War II, he stepped on a land mine that didn't detonate.
A World War II veteran himself, Kajikawa said the two rarely talked about their war experiences.
"I can get a picture of him leading (soldiers) into the fray. He was that type of person," Kajikawa said. "If you're in the service, the toughest job is an infantryman."
The unassuming Wulk asked ASU to remove signs that noted his accomplishments inside the arena. Friends and associates of Wulk didn't know until a dinner celebrating the naming of the court after him that former Philadelphia Phillies star pitcher Jim Bunning considered Wulk a mentor.
Bunning attended the dinner. A bust of Wulk that was unveiled at the dinner does not have a featured place at ASU. That remains a sore point with some of his supporters.
"I'm disappointed about the bust situation," said Lever, who was instrumental in having a bust made. "We wished we could have shown more to Coach Wulk as far as what he meant to ASU."
Wulk's son Greg and Greg’s wife, Marilyn, were with him when he died.
"He was one of the best basketball coaches," Harshman said. "As far as I'm concerned he did a lot for basketball and a lot for the kids that played for him."