Beyond the coach

Nick Niendorf:

The Badgers are once again on the hunt for a new head coach.

Wisconsin fired head coach Jonathan Tsipis on Tuesday after the Badgers were blown out in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament by Illinois, 67-42.

The Badgers put up just two points in the first quarter of the game and were unable to mount a comeback, losing to an Illini squad that had won just four games all season. The loss ended Tsipis’ tenure with a 50-99 overall record.

“I appreciate Coach Tsipis’s efforts during his five years with us, but we feel it is time for a new direction for our women’s basketball program,” director of athletics Barry Alvarez said in a press release.

While Wisconsin looked to be making progress in Tsipis’ third season after going 15-18, the Badgers failed to build on that momentum. They went 3-15 in Big Ten play the next year and won just one B1G game this season.

Wisconsin is now one decade and two head coaches removed from their last winning season.

As the oft-applied logic of college program building goes: who you hire is important, but the coach you hire after that is who really matters. But what if a program’s expectations grow too lofty too quick?

For the Badgers, that second hire was Lisa Stone, in 2003. Stone succeeded Jane Albright, who had just finished a 7-21 season with the Badgers.

But Albright was only one year removed from a 19-12 record and a first-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. She had turned the Badgers program around immediately in her first season at UW in 1994 and amassed a 154-86 record, a WNIT title and five NCAA Tournament appearances before her final year.

The down year, however, was enough to convince Wisconsin’s leadership — who had agreed with Albright at the beginning of the season that she would either get a long-term extension at year’s end or be out of a job — that Albright wasn’t worth the investment. Albright resigned at the end of the season when the extension didn’t come.

“The on-court success for our women’s basketball program has been clearly inconsistent with the resources we have committed to this program, and we have not achieved our desired goals of a Big Ten conference championship and deep penetration into the NCAA tournament,” then-UW senior associate athletic director Jamie Pollard said at the time.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Stone, Albright’s successor, struggled in her first three seasons at Wisconsin, but then made the WNIT three years in a row, including a Finals appearance. She hit pay dirt a year later after a 21-11 season landed the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in almost a decade.

Only a year after Stone received the Big Ten Coach of the Year award for her efforts, she was fired in 2011 following a 16-15 season and a WNIT second-round exit. Alvarez echoed the words of Pollard eight years earlier and said the “program has not reached and maintained the level of success I believe is possible.

Wisconsin nailed the first part of their program rebuild back in 1994. They found a coach who was successful right away, who established a clear basketball identity in the program and who even made it to the second round of March Madness a couple times.

But Wisconsin’s leadership had drawn their line in the sand, and the newfound success Albright had brought the Badgers wasn’t enough.

Truth be told, Wisconsin still did well to hire Stone despite the self-inflicted circumstances. Stone continued some of Albright’s success and kept Wisconsin relevant in the Big Ten. Even if she wasn’t the coach to take them to the next tier, few coaches are, and sustained competitiveness is worth a lot in college basketball, especially when you’re not a blue blood.

Now, rather than searching for that second coach in the program building equation, Wisconsin is back to where they were all those years ago. Let’s just hope they’re lucky enough to land the next Jane Albright or Lisa Stone.

Note how well Albright and Stone did compared with other UW coaches:

  • Marilyn Harris (1974–76): 16–20. (This was when women’s basketball wasn’t an NCAA sport yet.)
  • Edwina Qualls (1976–86): 131–141. Her best season was 19–8 in 1982–83. By the end of her stay, Qualls had, I recall, a somewhat toxic relationship with the Madison media.
  • Mary Murphy (1986–1994): 87–135. Her best season was 20–9, 13–5 in the Big Ten, and the Badgers’ first NCAA tournament appearance.
  • Albright (1994–2003): 161–107, with five NCAA tournament appearances, runner-up in the 1999 Women’s National Invitation Tournamenbt, and 2000 WNIT champions.
  • Stone (2003–11): 128–118, with 23 of those wins and 13 of those losses in 2006–07, when the Badgers were WNIT runners-up. Despite four WNIT trips and an NCAA appearance, Stone was fired in favor of …
  • Bobbie Kelsey (2011–16): 47–100.
  • Jonathan Tsipis (2016–21): 50–99.

After having been fired following her fifth consecutive UW winning season, Stone is now the coach at Saint Louis, where she has had six consecutive winning seasons, including an 11–3 record this season. Albright was fired after a 7–21 season, and went on to Wichita State and Nevada, where she had losing career records. That 7–21 season, however, followed back-to-back NCAA tournament trips.

Whatever progress Albright and Stone made was erased in Kelsey’s tenure. Her nadir, and the road to her eventual firing, came when she was asked a question about Barneveld native Hannah Whitish, who had a great career at Nebraska:

That is the sort of thing you say to your team in practice or in a team meeting, not to the press. (Though I’m sure the assembled reporters and the Madison sports media loved this.) Throwing your team under the bus in public has not been shown to improve their performance. Players insufficiently motivated to work to improve themselves should be a high school issue, not an issue for student–athletes on scholarship. Did Kelsey recruit the wrong players, or did she insufficiently motivate her own team well before this? Either way, the responsibility ends up in the same place.

So UW replaced two coaches with winning records with two coaches who had records deep in the Loss column. I’m a little surprised Tsipis got fired, especially after this COVID season, but evidently UW athletic director Barry Alvarez wasn’t seeing the kind of progress he wanted to see.

To some extent, though, this is Alvarez’s fault. UW has had a decades-long problem of failing to get the state’s best players, from Janel McCarville (Minnesota) to Whitish, to play at UW. They did have one of the state’s best players, Estella Mosckkau, this past season, but that was after she played at Stanford for three seasons. She averaged 5.8 points a game this season.

One list of non-Badgers from Wisconsin includes Megan Gustafson (Iowa), Arike Ogunbowale (Notre Dame), Natisha Hiedeman and Allazia Blockton (Marquette), Chelsea Brackmann (Bradley), and Sydney Cooks (Michigan State, then Mississippi State).

The state’s top recruit, Beaver Dam’s Matyson Wilke, is reportedly coming to Wisconsin. But UW–Green Bay, coached by Kevin Borseth (whom UW should have hired but did not because he was the wrong gender), has the second-, third- and fourth-ranked recruits.

That list of non-Badgers is not like, say, Diamond Stone spurning UW for Maryland (and then playing in Europe after failing in the NBA following one season as a Terrapin) or Tyler Herro rejecting UW for Kentucky (and then the NBA), or the Hauser brothers getting Minnesota coach Richie Pitino to give them a package deal that was half-unwarranted. Everyone knows that Wisconsin men’s basketball isn’t about one-and-done players. The list one paragraph ago constitutes players that either weren’t recruited by UW, or found UW wanting. Alvarez needs to find out why and change that if he expects the next coach to be better than the previous two.

It would also be helpful if the new coach could build a wall around the state as Alvarez managed to do with his football team. (For that matter it would be interesting if UW were to contact those non-Badgers and ask them why they didn’t come to UW.) The problem doesn’t seem to be girls basketball talent in Wisconsin; it seems to be girls basketball talent in Wisconsin that doesn’t want to play for the University of Wisconsin.

There is a template for success. That is the UW women’s volleyball team, currently ranked number one in Division I, with several NCAA tournament trips over three coaches (the first of whom, Steve Lowe, died of lung cancer not caused by smoking). I suspect UW succeeds in volleyball because of sufficient resources, and UW fails in women’s basketball because of insufficient resources. (Apparently not in coach pay, though, based on this interesting conparison.) A more successful program would attract more fans (UW ranked 25th in Division I and ninth in the Big T1e4n in attendance in 2019–20, averaging not even 4,000 in the 17.287-seat Kohl Center) and therefore more money.

At this point it also might be time to change coach hiring models. It seems unlikely that UW will promote one of its assistants, as the Badgers did with men’s basketball coach Greg Gard (after Bo Ryan quit in midseason, which reportedly did not make Alvarez happy at all) or Alvarez’s successor Bret Bielema (which worked, his personality notwithstanding, until Bielema’s ego reached the size of his stomach). As with any coach hire, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (see Brad Soderberg, who replaced Dick Bennett after his midseason resignation, only to be ushered out the door after a disastrous NCAA tournament appearance, and football coach Jim Hilles, who replaced Dave McClain after his death, then was not hired for the full-time job after three wins).

Stone, Kelsey and Tsipis were all assistants from successful programs hired to be head coaches for the first time. That worked with Alvarez and hockey coaches Mark Johnson and Tony Granato. (With former Virginia assistant Bill Cofield, not so much.)

The other model is to hire a head coach from a smaller school — for instance, football coach Paul Chryst (although he arguably was from both camps having been an assistant for Bielema), Ryan and his predecessor Bennett. Albright coached at Northern Illinois before heading north on Interstate 90. Of course, that model doesn’t always work either (see Morton, Don, and Andersen, Gary).

Since no one else seems to have compiled a list, here’s a possible list (based, by the way, on no inside information):

  • Alaska–Anchorage coach Ryan McCarthy, who has won 83 percent of his games in nine seasons as a head coach of the Division II school.
  • Missouri State coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, who is 46–6 in her two seasons. “Coach Mox” and McCarthy seem to come up in head coach candidate conversations for other schools.
  • Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk, a former Iowa player and Marquette assistant who has won 68 percent of her games.
  • Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell. (Having flopped with two promoted assistant coaches, the Badgers probably should look deeper into what the assistant coach does if Alvarez wants to find an assistant coach.)
  • Nicki Taggart Collen, head coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, who played at Purdue and Marquette (and before that Platteville High School) and has had several successful stints as a college assistant. Collen would be an outlier hire as was Stu Jackson, who got UW to its first men’s basketball appearance in 47 seasons, then left to return to the NBA.

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