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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

Exec links Boyd to layups and land of leis

7 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Hiring former University of Hawaii men's basketball coach Riley Wallace as an executive host for its downtown casinos has turned into more than just a slam-dunk idea for Boyd Gaming Corp.

The casino operator also picked up a resource who is helping the company expand its growing college basketball business at the Orleans Arena. Wallace, who spent more than three decades in college basketball, is a vehicle to the coaching community.

This weekend, Wallace, 66, is in San Antonio for the NCAA men's Final Four, greeting his former coaching associates.

"I'll make All-Lobby," Wallace said. "The coaches are always hanging around the hotel and I'll make sure to say hello and invite them to Las Vegas this summer for the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) tournament."

The primary reason behind hiring Wallace was his connection to Hawaii sports fans.

Think of a Las Vegas casino employing überpopular former UNLV men's basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian to greet locals. It would have similar connotations.

"Riley is a Hawaiian sports legend," Boyd Gaming COO Paul Chakmak said.

More than 60 percent of the company's business at its three downtown casinos comes from Hawaii or Hawaiians now living on the mainland.

"He's a big deal in Hawaii and, no question, this was an easy hire for us," Chakmak said.

Wallace retired in 2007 as the Hawaii basketball coach after 20 seasons. He was associated with the university for 26 years, chalking up 334 victories, most in the school's history, while leading the Rainbow Warriors to three appearances in the NCAA basketball tournament and six appearances in the National Invitation Tournament.

When the university's football program dropped Rainbow from the nickname, calling themselves Warriors, Wallace kept the full nickname with the basketball program to the thrill of longtime fans. Sports Illustrated in 2002 profiled Wallace's Hawaii team, which had a roster with players from seven different countries.

When he neared the end of his coaching career, Wallace approached Boyd Gaming founder and Executive Chairman Bill Boyd about working for the casino operator. He was a frequent guest at the company's Mahalo (Hawaiian for thank-you) parties and annual golf tournament on Maui.

"We came over to try and solicit some funds for the university and met with Mr. Boyd," Wallace said. "I told him I wouldn't mind coming to work for Boyd Gaming."

Wallace and his wife, Joan, moved to Summerlin last year, keeping a condominium in Honolulu. He gets back to the islands several times a year. During the college basketball season and the NCAA tournament, he was a frequent guest on sports talk radio shows throughout Hawaii.

"When I went back last year, I visited about 17 different high schools and dropped off packets that were available for class reunions," Wallace said. "It's amazing how people in Hawaii haven't seen friends in years even though they may live six blocks from each other. They come to the California and catch up."

Wallace can't take more than 10 steps through the casino without being stopped by Hawaiian residents shouting, "Hey, Coach!" Wallace said his challenge is to gain the skills of Bill Boyd and other Boyd Gaming executives who know most of the customers' names by heart.

"It's the power of television. All our games were broadcast throughout all the islands, so everyone knows me as 'Coach,'" Wallace said. "There are tremendous people skills at Boyd Gaming, starting with Mr. Boyd."

John Repetti, who oversees Boyd Gaming's downtown casinos, said Wallace strengthens the company's grip on the Hawaiian market.

"He has the ability to make our guests feel right at home," Repetti said.

Boyd Gaming used Wallace's notoriety for the Sugar Bowl festivities on New Year's. The company sent Wallace to New Orleans for the Bowl Championship Series game to host parties at the company's Treasure Chest casino. The University of Hawaii, however, lost to Georgia in the game.

"We had about 200 or 300 people at our Mahalo party," Wallace said. "The streets of New Orleans were lined with Hawaiians."

Lately, Wallace has been helping with the efforts to bring college basketball games to the Orleans Arena. Contests in the past two years have featured such schools as Kansas, Florida and North Carolina. The Orleans has scheduled tournaments during Thanksgiving and December, a UNLV basketball game in December and the West Coast Conference's tournament next March.

Steve Stallworth, who runs the Orleans Arena, said Wallace is the perfect liaison with college coaches because he speaks their language. Some of his relationships with coaching brethren go back decades.

"Coaches have a lot of questions that Riley can answer and he offers a level of comfort," Stallworth said.

For Wallace, the whole idea is to bring the teams to Boyd Gaming properties in Las Vegas. That in turn brings fans and school boosters.

"In this business, it's relationships and who you know," Wallace said. "There are a lot of good people who have been coming here for years."

Wallace does have a connection to UNLV's basketball program. His nephew, Kendall Wallace, played guard on this past season's Rebels squad.