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How to Turn Around a Losing Program: Start with a Paint Job and Better Grades

August 3, 2009 – 5:22 PM

The Playbook

An occasional series on University of Rhode Island Women’s Basketball Coach Cathy Inglese as she tries to turn around a program that finished last year 10-21.

By Laura Pappano

The first game of the upcoming season – against Fairfield University (18-13 last year) – is months away, but Coach Cathy Inglese is thinking about it. More pointedly, she’s thinking about the work she and her team have ahead of them to competitive in that game – and in the season.

In a visit to her new digs on the second floor of the Ryan Center (note: supernice facility) last week, Inglese showed off her freshly-painted lemon yellow office. The color — more intense lemon rind yellow than lilting pale — is not an accident. This is a place that needs some zip. Inglese, just back from a month of recruiting (Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, D.C., Maryland, Chicago) is not new to building programs. She did it at the University of Vermont and at Boston College.

So even as she complains about how far behind she is, how much there is to do, Inglese is clearly far more comfortable with the pressure of a clock than having a a wide open year to contemplate the meaning of coaching. That was last year. It’s nice, she says, to have a purpose again, to be part of a program.

In this case, she’s inherited a mess – and she’s pumped about it.

“Look at this film room!” she says, pushing open the door to a small room a few strides from her office in the women’s basketball suite. Video tape is stacked on tables, shelves – orderless. Down the hallway, newly-hired staff and assistant coaches (more on them in next installment) are in offices that hardly look unpacked, let alone organized. But everybody is busy. Working. Meeting.

The team IS behind. But it wouldn’t be the first time. Before Inglese was named head coach in April, departing coach Tom Garrick (56-112 record) did a mea culpa, apologizing for losing so much (56-112 over six seasons).

Last year, they won just three games at home.  The other stats aren’t any better:  Opponents outscored URI 929-738 in the first half and 972-922 in the second half. In key statistics (free throw, field goal, 3-pointed, rebounds) they were trounced. (URI had edge in steals). Click here for stats.

“I would love to say .500 or above,” as a goal for a win-loss record this season, says Inglese. But she insists she is building for the long term and that means tackling a deeper issue: Getting rid of the losing culture. That means no more dogging it in practice – or in the classroom. That means no cutting classes or saying you e-mailed that paper when there’s no evidence you did. It means practicing like you intend to play.

Because she was only with the team for two weeks in the spring, summer session was the first time Inglese could give players a taste of her expectations. When she discovered that the team GPA was 2.4, she was… “really disappointed.” Not just because she’s a coach who boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, but because she believes you can’t be great in one arena and lazy in the other. There is a connection between life and sports, school and basketball – and she wants players to understand that, too.

“I tell the kids I don’t like mediocrity. I don’t like just getting by,” she says. “I want these kids to know what it takes to be successful. I want them to work hard in the off-season and learn how to win.”

It may be too soon to tell if Inglese can spur a mindset shift. But in her first challenge to them – earn a 3.0 for summer school grades – they responded with a 3.3. “To me that’s something. Our kids were coming in talking excitedly about what grades they got in summer classes,” she says. (The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association in July announced teams with the best GPA’s. Indiana State was top in DI with 3.645)

It’s early, but Inglese sees several keys to turning around the program – short and long term:

1.    Leadership on the court. “You have to have a person on the court who sets the goal, who sets the standard.”

2.    More basketball talent and especially players who get the ball in the basket. “You can’t win a lot of games scoring 54 points a game – and that’s what they averaged last year.”

3.    Limit turnovers. “We have to take care of the ball more. That comes with the teamwork.”

4.    Hard work. Positive attitude. “They are tired of losing and they are at least saying they want to win.”

5.    Understand success is not immediate and keep focused on the goal, realizing in the interim that some losses are better than others. “It is scary to work hard and not win, but even if you don’t win you can measure progress in other ways. Maybe this year you lose instead of by 20 points, you lose by 5.”

Her job? Inglese needs to get to know the players better to understand how to motivate them individually. They are all making short videos of their families and homes to share as a team when they return. Inglese is also listening to a request from players: get more fans in the stands at the Ryan Center (last year’s average home attendance was 2,223).

“The biggest thing the kids have said is, ‘Please ask people to come to our games,’” says Inglese. “People are excited in the community here, Rhode Island is a big basketball state. This is something I promised the players I would work on.”