Dec. 15, 2018
After nearly 15 years, countless tofu salads, and sunsets over the Pacific, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve earned the title of “Californian.” It’s easy to think about my life and coaching career in California as two distinct segments: Cal AAAC (as an assistant coach and Cal ABHC (after becoming head coach). However, there were three years in between that were incredibly impactful in who I have become as a coach and human being.
In 2008, Chancellor Henry Yang of UC Santa Barbara took a chance on a 30-year-old assistant coach, choosing me to lead a storied program after the retirement of the legendary Coach Mark French.
The three years I was the head coach of the Gaucho program feel, at once, as if they happened in a whirlwind, and yet simultaneously as if some of the moments were in slow motion. The first year as a head coach is something no coach will ever forget; the lessons etched forever in your coaching consciousness. Some of the memories take a blurry form (you spend much of your first few years pretty clueless, trying to keep your proverbial head above water), and others are crystal clear and called upon by my mind’s eye quite often as I navigate my day-to-day with each team I’ve had subsequently.
Sunday marks the first time in my eight years as the Head Coach at Cal that we will play the Gauchos. I tend to be more of the “thinking” type, and this week I’ve spent even more time than usual reflecting on the impact that my time on the beautiful beachfront campus had on my life.
Here are some things that I know to be true:
I’m sure it’s hard to take over a program that has not been successful. I’m sure it’s hard to establish a culture of winning when before there was none. I wouldn’t quite know: that’s not the situation I inherited at UCSB.
Rather, I took over a program that had been wildly successful in women’s basketball for many years. (Remember the Mark French guy I mentioned? Yeah …he was very good for a very long time). Of course, taking over a program where championships are the expectation brings its own challenges.
What I know to be true is that if the players at UCSB that I met during our first team meeting had not looked me in the eye and decided to buy into me and move forward together, I likely would not have gone anywhere in coaching.
More specifically, there were five seniors on that squad: two sixth-year seniors, two fifth-year seniors, and one “regular” senior. That class could have been confused with a geriatric unit on some days J But in all seriousness, I often think about those five: Jenna, Kat, Lauren, Whitney and Sha’Rae. Their combined years of experience and wisdom, basketball knowledge, and love for all things Gaucho, probably allowed them to accept a new, 30-year-old coach who had to figure some things out. Their buy-in was everything.
There’s A Lot To Learn About Being a Head Coach
You actually have to do something to learn how to do it. You can read a book about riding a bike, but you don’t learn until you actually have to pedal for yourself. At UCSB, with a lot on the line, I had to learn how to do this craft, one seat over from where I had been for nine years as an assistant.
I remember being in the restaurant of a hotel on the morning of a game, writing on napkins because I’d had an idea for a wrinkle to a play the night before. I remember not going to sleep at night (for, like, many many nights straight in season) until I had watched every last second of film that was possible to watch.
Don’t get me wrong: I still watch more film than your average head coach, and I still have crazy ideas that I come up with and have to share with my assistants ASAP. However, there was a different feeling then of having to do more all the time.
And yet, I also learned when and how to let go. The day of my first ever game as a head coach, we were playing San Diego, who happened to be the defending WCC champs. And who I’d faced one year before, while still on the bench with Cal, in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. After shootaround and pre-game meal, about three hours before the game, I had so much nervous energy but was unsure what to do with myself.
So, I went home and jumped in the ocean and went for a swim. (Thank you, Santa Barbara, for conveniently allowing me to live across the street from the Pacific). But, I think that was part of my visceral education in learning to let go.
I had to prepare. I wanted to prepare. Preparation remains one of the things I pride myself on as a coach.
But, I also had to learn that sometimes, you just need to jump in the ocean (so to speak) and rely on what you’ve done to prepare for the moment.
We beat San Diego that day, largely because Lauren Pedersen, one of our star players, had 28 points. Sometimes, you just give a great player the ball, give her a good system within which to operate, and let her do her thing. Sometimes, you need to let go and trust.
It ALWAYS Comes Back to the People
You may change roles. You may change schools. You may even change your role but go back to the same school you came from. But no matter what, this coaching profession is about people.
My job transition was unique. I had incredible support from a friend, mentor and boss in Joanne Boyle. She told me it was my time to go, and that UCSB was the right place.
I went to another UC school, with a different shade of the same colors. I called many of the same club coaches I had been calling for years while recruiting for Cal as I drove down the 101 freeway for my introductory press conference, talking about players I had watched for years who might be a good fit as a Gaucho.
I vividly remember hosting friends in Santa Barbara to watch Cal beat Stanford, when Alexis Gray-Lawson went off for 37 points in Haas. I remember getting texts from the Cal staff for each win of our 13-game winning streak my first year at UCSB, and the Santa Barbara players texting me a few years later when our Cal squad made the Final Four. I remember Joanne having to explain why the Cal selection show watch party seemingly erupted in cheers when Stanford was announced as a two-seed in 2009, when they probably deserved a one-seed. NOOOO, she told reporters, the players weren’t making a statement on Stanford, they were cheering for their former coach, now with the 15-seed Gauchos, who would be facing the Cardinal in the first round (They had Nneka Ogwumike AND Jayne Appel in the starting lineup. Trust me, I would have preferred they were a one-seed and we played someone else!).
I won’t forget the day I cried in my office when recruiting Sweets Underwood, my first signee at UCSB, or the day I hired her to be our intern at Cal. And I’m certain that the moment I see Eliza Pierre, Cal grad and fan favorite, coaching on the opposing bench for UCSB on Sunday will be more emotional for me than words can say.
I tell people all the time that if you’re doing this coaching thing right, it is never easy to leave a place. It was really difficult for me to depart Cal for Santa Barbara, and painful to tell the Gaucho players that I was returning to Berkeley. But my three years in Santa Barbara illustrated for me that you may leave a place, but you never truly leave people.
There’s Nothing Like Cutting Down Nets
In 2009, we were down 15 early in the Big West Tournament Final to Cal Poly, who also happened to be our rival. Our sixth-man, Chris Spencer, ignited a comeback and a freshman, Emilie Johnson, came through with a huge corner three to put the game away. Our senior, Sha’Rae Gibbons (who, just a few days before, hit five threes in a game that she left at one point to get stitches in her head) looked at me before the final buzzer and said: “Are you ready for this? This is the fun part” before we erupted in celebration and cut down the nets.
In 2013, Talia Caldwell seemed to will us back from a deficit against Georgia in the Elite 8, and then Laysia Clarendon iced the game with a 1-4 flat, un-guardable pull up in overtime. Charmin jumped into my arms and said, “We’re going to the freakin’ Final Four” before I had to compose myself and shake hands with the legendary Andy Landers.
There is nothing like watching your team, the people you have battled with and loved, celebrate a championship. To be honest, I cannot rank those two moments. They are equally monumental in my mind.
When the Cal Bears face the UCSB Gauchos on Sunday, I will be in game mode. I will be focused. But in the back of my mind, in the place where the things that never leave you reside, (maybe that’s your heart, actually, not your head?), I will know that both shades of blue have a place with me forever.