Whenever Tom Nissalke goes home to visit his mother, he always drops in on some of his old buddies, many of whom never strayed far from Beaver Dam, Wis.
"I see old friends, some of who have been coaching at the same high school for 30 years," Nissalke said. "They get to talking about how I've been fired and been all over the place, and I always say, `Yeah, I've been fired - but I've been coach of the year in both the ABA and the NBA, I've coached in the Olympics, I've done clinics all over the world, and I've made a good living.'"Those are things that may never have happened if I'd have taken the safe way out. It hasn't been the wanderlust so much as the fact that I've gone where the job has taken me. When you get into this business, those are the chances you take."
As many paths as Nissalke's career as a basketball coach has taken him down, his latest gig as consultant to an interim coach at a college program awaiting a hammer from the NCAA might be the strangest.
Meet Tom Nissalke, basketball consultant at Baylor University.
"This is just something that made sense to me," said the former head coach of the Dallas Chapparals, Seattle SuperSonics, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Stars and Jazz, Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Not to leave out assistant jobs with Tulane, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Charlotte Hornets, a stint as Puerto Rico's Olympic-team coach in 1976, general manager for the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers of the Continental Basketball Association, color man on the Rockets' television network and commissioner of the National Basketball League of Canada.
When Baylor vice president James Netherton said upon Nissalke's Dec. 1 hiring that a coach of his experience would have been hard to find any time, he wasn't kidding.
If the question is why Baylor, why now - when Nissalke admittedly doesn't need this or any other job - then the answer just might be as plain as the resume on Netherton's desk.
"My wife always says she knows I won't really settle down until I start drawing my NBA coaches' pension," Nissalke said with a laugh. "But Nancy doesn't complain.
"We've always had a stable home base, both our kids went to good schools (Tom II has a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech, Holly a master's from Syracuse) and are gainfully employed, and I've been a good breadwinner."
After his last flirtation with the National Basketball Association as an assistant to one of his former assistants in 1990-91 with the Charlotte Hornets, Nissalke had more or less resigned himself to the more stable life with Nancy in Salt Lake City. Nissalke is a partner in Green Street, a well-known Salt Lake City restaurant that has turned a profit for 15 years.
"My partner and his son run the business end," he says. "I shake hands and kiss babies."
Nissalke also conducted two radio shows and a weekly television spot highlighting the week in the NBA.
But last summer, Nissalke was close to taking another assistant's job with an idea toward maybe again being an NBA head coach ("Gosh, they make so much money now," he said.). That didn't work out, but his appetite to put on the coaching warmups was whetted for the umpteenth time.
Recently, when a friend of his in charge of housing at the University of Kansas called to tell him about Darrel Johnson's firing at Baylor, he decided to look into the situation.
He originally visited with Baylor officials about the interim head-coaching job - spending the Thanksgiving holiday in Waco. But when the deal with former Iowa State coach Johnny Orr fell through and Baylor decided for stability's sake to promote assistant Harry Miller to the interim post, Netherton asked Nissalke if he would be interested in "consulting" for the remainder of the season.
Nissalke said yes.
"Consultant" sounds better than assistant, and it pays more," he joked. "But I look at this job as an opportunity to learn about the inside of a college program that has been decimated and see what needs to be done to make it well, doing what I can to help and take it from there."
Nissalke and Miller seem to have formed a quick bond. Miller picked Nissalke up at the airport when Nissalke came into town to talk about the job Miller eventually was given. Though their backgrounds are different, Nissalke said their philosophies are surprisingly the same.
"It's amazing," Nissalke said. "I've been in the pros all these years, and Harry has been in the high school ranks. But it's amazing how closely we think alike - especially in matters of organization, discipline and really even in tactics.
"There are some things I have done differently in the past, but that's because I've dealt with guys capable of doing more. We are in complete sync in wanting to do things in an ethical manner. It's been a good mix, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."
The two have fallen into an easy relationship. Nissalke says that the notes he and Miller exchange after independently watching the same film are remarkably similar.
If Miller feels any sense that Nissalke is looking over his shoulder, he doesn't show it.
"You're doggoned right," Miller said when asked if the two had developed a good relationship. "Tom is a windfall for our program, I'm telling you right now. He's already added a lot to our program. We spent time together before he got down here, and we clicked right away."
Netherton said he did not sense that the two would have problems working together despite their disparate backgrounds.
"Tom is at a point in his career where he is looking for the opportunity to make some special contributions," Netherton said. "He doesn't have anything left to prove to anybody.
"He and Harry hit it off right away. We felt that given our unique circumstance we faced this year that coach Nissalke would be quite a help to us. As I've said, I have all the confidence in the world in coach Miller. He is a man of exceptional maturity and judgment.
"Any time you are looking at putting two people together, their personal chemistry plays a role. Both these men are consummate professionals. The fact that they have taken different routes and are at different points in their careers, I don't see that as a problem at all."
Nissalke's particular point of expertise is working with big men.
"He really knows what he's talking about; he's very knowledgeable," said 6-foot-10 sophomore center Doug Brandt, who has worked with Nissalke but a week.
"Personally, he will help me out a lot since I've never had someone put an emphasis on my position. He's already shown me some things that have helped."
Brandt said Nissalke has quickly and quietly become a part of the scene.
"He fits in fine," he said. "Naturally he has to adapt to our program. But basketball is basketball."
Nissalke admits he already has an idea of who Baylor should pick as a full-time coach. And it's not himself.
"If this program is run the way Harry Miller wants it, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the guy," Nissalke said. "He has a lot of integrity. And he knows the game."
That from someone who should know.