A Coach’s Job Begins Off the Court

Coach Joanne Boyle has built the Cal women's basketball program by treating team members as people as well as players.

When Joanne Boyle became head coach of UC Berkeley’s women’s basketball team, her program was an afterthought. Cal had gone twelve seasons without a winning record or a finish in the top half of the Pac-10 conference. During games, Haas Pavilion was another quiet place students could go to and study.

But in the four years since, Boyle has resurrected Cal’s program. Since 2005, her teams have won at least twenty games three times, and made NCAA tournament appearances every year. Last season, the Bears had the best season in the university’s history, winning 27 games and advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time ever.

Boyle’s predecessor, Caren Horstmeyer, had recruited well for the 2005 season. Devanei Hampton and Alexis Gray-Lawson were nationally rated recruits from nearby Oakland Tech who liked the idea of turning a perennial loser into a winner. Horstmeyer had then wooed Jene Morris from San Francisco, Shantrell Sneed from Berkeley, and Ashley Walker from Modesto, a recruiting class ranked in the top five nationally. Yet before the quintet hit the court, Horstmeyer was let go by new athletic director Sandy Barbour. She had committed the cardinal sin, overseeing five losing seasons during her tenure at Cal. And she also didn’t beat the Cardinal, Cal’s arch rival Stanford.

A national search ensued, and more than one hundred coaches applied, intrigued by an opportunity at a name-brand institution with top players all ready on board. Eight to ten were considered seriously, and five came to Berkeley for a thorough look-see. Boyle, a rising star, was hired, following three impressive seasons at the University of Richmond, a school with no prior tradition in women’s basketball.

It was Boyle’s big break — if only she could find common ground with a close-knit and probably skeptical group of players. But the situation was difficult, Barbour said. “She recognized the dynamic right away,” the athletic director recalled, “and then she did all the right things.”

Lindsay Gottlieb, Boyle’s top assistant at Richmond and also for her first three years at Cal, remembers a rougher transition. “That first year was unlike anything else we had experienced,” Gottlieb said. “Those players looked at us like aliens from another planet. But Joanne worked day after day to gain their trust.”

Boyle stood by a simple pitch, and made it stick in her daily interactions with the team: “I know how to do this. We can do it together.”

Yet along with her easygoing mantra, she also required her players to have perfect class attendance, physically demanding workouts, and daily practices topped off with unappealing study sessions. Boyle didn’t sugarcoat it, but instead helped her players find the joy in the grind. “She never let them operate at a level one iota removed from what was expected,” Gottlieb said. “And they appreciated that.” While other Cal students found their stride more casually, blending academics and social interactions, Boyle led her team on a structured path, forcing them to find peace in concert with each other.

The women’s basketball team became a family, with Boyle as the surrogate parent.

“She is a great person,” Gray-Lawson said. “I think you don’t get that from a lot of people. If I ever had a problem or an issue, or whatever is going on in my life, I can always go and talk to her. I don’t think that a lot of people can say that about their coach. [She’s] like my second mom.”

The growth process was complicated. Gray-Lawson wore here her changing emotions on her sleeve, but eventually became Boyle’s steady leader on the floor. In close games where will and talent take precedence over a coach’s complicated playbook, she took the big shots.

Meanwhile, Hampton broke team rules and started her career with a highly publicized suspension. Yet by her sophomore year, she had matured on and off the court and was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year.

Walker made the biggest jump as a player, becoming good enough to be the first Cal player to be drafted by and then play in the WNBA. In her final two years, Walker emerged as the team’s focal point, forcing a team of stars on the high-school level to adjust their egos. Morris, a singular star in high school at San Francisco’s upscale, private Urban School, flourished on the court but failed to mesh with her teammates or Boyle. She transferred to San Diego State, a program more destitute than Cal, and became the centerpiece in the Aztecs’ dramatic transformation. Sneed didn’t develop as a player, spending the majority of her career on the bench, but she never soured on Boyle or her teammates.

“Those guys wanted it,” Boyle said. “They came to Cal because they were local kids and they really wanted to put this program on the map. In four short years, they really did that.”

Boyle’s early teams developed a reputation for sticky defense while stubbornly feeding the ball to Walker and Hampton, their stars in the post. With superior talent, winning came immediately. But the real difference maker was Boyle’s people skills. The varied and nuanced relationships she forged with her players created a cohesive atmosphere. And, as the first group has graduated and other talented players have arrived, the atmosphere has remained constant.

“If you’re going to be a coach and invest this much time in young adult’s lives, you have to be about who they are,” Boyle said. “I just don’t think, the way this business presents itself today, you can walk into the gym and be with them for a couple of hours and walk out. That’s not who I am, that’s not why I got into the business.”

A critical moment occurred in April 2007, following Boyle’s second year in Berkeley. Gail Goestenkors, Boyle’s mentor at Duke University, resigned and took the head coaching job at the University of Texas. Boyle was an assistant under Goestenkors for nine years prior to going to Richmond, a period during which Duke was wildly successful, becoming known along with Tennessee, Connecticut, and Stanford as one of the signature programs of the sport. Everyone in the sport assumed Boyle would leave Cal and take the opening at Duke, her alma mater.

After all, Boyle was from the East, growing up a few hundred miles away in Philadelphia and suburban Pittsburgh. Her extended family remained in pockets on the East Coast. And Boyle’s mom was living alone, one year after Boyle’s father had passed away in 2006. If she took the Duke position, her mother could attend Boyle’s games, helping her through the grieving process.

For two weeks, Boyle weighed the factors. Her mom encouraged her to follow her heart. And Boyle did, deciding to stay at Cal and fulfill her original promise to her players: “I know how to do this. We can do it together.”

Boyle’s team had assumed she was going to Duke. When she didn’t, they knew she had stayed for them. Her forthrightness was unblemished. The team returned the favor, winning 27 games and earning a top-10 national ranking for the first time in school history. The team faltered in the NCAA tournament, losing to George Washington in the second round, as it still lacked the depth needed to make a deep run.

But with her decision to stay, Boyle could hit the recruiting trail with enormous power. No longer could other Pac-10 coaches recruit against her by saying she’s got one foot out the door. And with two winning campaigns in the bank, incoming players could envision themselves as the missing piece.

No longer was Cal just a good team. Now it was a good program.

This year, after a pair of second-place finishes in the conference, Cal is picked to finish second again. UC Berkeley’s three revenue sports — football and men’s and women’s basketball — have never captured an outright Pac-10 conference title, dating back to 1978, when the original eight schools welcomed Arizona and Arizona State.

This lack of recent success is one disadvantage the programs face. High admission standards are also both a source of pride and a challenge in recruiting. Finally, African-American student athletes visit the campus and don’t see that many similar faces. Currently, black students comprise just 4 percent of the student population.

And those are just the internal obstacles. Across the bay, Stanford has dominated women’s basketball on the West Coast, capturing nine consecutive Pac-10 championships beginning in 2001. It’s not a stretch to say that every aspiring female prep athlete in the country is familiar with Stanford because of Tara VanDerveer and her successful teams. This year, with superstar center Jayne Appel of Pleasant Hill, Stanford could field its best team ever. “She’s got 25 years of history over there,” Boyle said. “She’s done it year after year after year. And we’re still new”

In the last two years, 10,000 fans have packed Haas Pavilion for the Stanford game in hopes that Cal could bring about a changing of the guard. In January, with Gray-Lawson scoring a career-best 37 points, the Bears managed a narrow three-point win. The crowd roared with approval, while the Bears rushed the court to congratulate each other. The scene didn’t go unnoticed by VanDerveer.

“It was as loud as I’ve ever heard it over here,” she said. “It was a great crowd. People were into it.”

Still it was just a bump in the road for the Cardinal. After the narrow loss, Stanford ripped off 18 wins in a row and went to the NCAA Final Four for the second straight season. Cal went on to win 27 games, but had to settle for second place.

“Competing for a Pac-10 title is a monster of a challenge,” Barbour said. “You’re not talking about an easy feat.”

After several winning seasons on the court, Boyle has parlayed her success on the recruiting trail. According to Glenn Nelson of HoopGurlz, a web site that chronicles college basketball recruiting, Boyle and her new assistants, Charmin Smith, a Stanford player who went on to play in the WNBA, and Kevin Morrison, a successful prep coach with an extensive background in Southern California and on the AAU circuit, have mastered the process. Seven new recruits, all rated in the top 150, have joined the Bears this semester. Last week, three more blue-chippers committed for 2010. Nationally, Cal is the only school to attract consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. At the highest levels of college basketball, there is no substitute for top-notch talent.

But attracting ten top talents in a two-year span creates a delicate balancing act for Boyle. Big-time players don’t like watching from the sidelines, and in the coming years that likely will be the case. Following last year’s breakout season, three reserves transferred, stating that they were looking for a campus that was a better fit. In the college game, that’s often a euphemism used by players who want more time on the court. Boyle adroitly doesn’t make any promises in the recruiting process, and with increased numbers, the Bears will play faster and make more substitutions, in attempt to wear down opponents in a transition game. And that’s no small point. Boyle’s Cal teams thus far have been talented but thin, suffering several notable late-game collapses.

Tierra Rogers was the most heralded of the seven freshmen. She made her mark as the defensive whiz for San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, a team so talented that it was undefeated and ranked number one nationally in Rogers’ junior year. Like a lot of coaches, Boyle had Rogers in her sights early in the process. With proximity in Cal’s favor, Rogers and her father, Terrell, became regular visitors to Berkeley, enamored with Boyle’s successes.

But on a crystal-clear January night in 2008, during one of Rogers’ games on the school campus, Terrell was murdered across the street from the gym as he took his customary halftime cigarette break. Two gunmen approached Terrell and another man, and opened fire. Terrell’s acquaintance, unharmed and untargeted, watched in horror. When the game resumed, Tierra was removed by her coach and notified by her principal in an adjacent classroom. Inside the gym, a gloom enveloped the crowd as the news spread.

Terrell’s role as a community activist and mediator between gangs in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood apparently led to his murder. And nearly two years later, the murder remains unsolved. On an ESPN Outside the Lines report, Guy Hudson, Terrell’s close friend and Tierra’s godfather, eerily declared that “everyone knows what happened.” Sadly, in Terrell’s case, the code of the streets trumped a murder investigation.

Boyle was there at courtside for Rogers’ first game following her father’s death. According to a column in Sports Illustrated by Chris Ballard, Rogers started the game, but looked uncomfortable and never returned to the court once the second period began. But after the game, outside in the parking lot, Boyle and Tierra spoke.

The coach’s dialogue with Rogers continued after the murder, but Boyle says the conversations between her and the young player never touched on basketball. Boyle came to know a girl who spoke in the undeveloped rhythms of a teenager, but with the depth of an old soul, the product of her difficult circumstances. Without her mentor, cheerleader, and father, Rogers considered giving up basketball entirely. But eventually, her evolving relationship with Boyle won out, and she committed to Cal during her senior year.

During an unsupervised on-campus workout this semester, Rogers, playing with her Cal teammates, grew short of breath and then collapsed in the hallway of the gym as medical staff attended to her. Rogers was hospitalized for more than two weeks and it was discovered she has a rare heart condition that could have been fatal under the physical stress of a college season. Rogers was implanted with a defribillator to maintain her heart’s rhythm, and doctors told her she can never play basketball again.

A press conference was arranged, at which Boyle and Rogers made statements about how Rogers would have to give up the game she loved. By the conclusion, Boyle was in tears, no doubt thinking about her own 2001 brush with mortality, when she was diagnosed with a genetic neurological condition that required brain surgery and a lengthy recovery process. Within that fight, Boyle gained an increased focus, which eventually brought her to Berkeley and kept her at Cal when Duke came calling.

“This is obviously devastating news for Tierra and her family,” Boyle said in a statement. “We are here to stand by her 100 percent with whatever she needs. Obviously, basketball was a very precious part of her life, but she has a higher purpose here than just being a basketball player, and her health and well-being are our primary concern. Right now, she can really use all the support and prayers she can get to help her through these trying times.”

Privately, Boyle has tried to help Rogers realize a new purpose, a journey that she herself was quite familiar with. Rogers seems likely to retain her scholarship, and if the school needs that funding at some point, her education evidently will be paid for by a medical hardship program. Rogers also continues to attend team practices, and she and Boyle have apparently discussed coaching as a possible option.

The loss of Rogers on the court has left the Cal basketball family needing to fill a void. At a recent practice, while Rogers was away for a medical appointment, Boyle stood at the court’s perimeter, teaching the intricacies of the trap and the full-court press. Unlike previous years, when Boyle’s passion in teaching might cross into menacing yelling, the coach’s voice was calm; only the player she was instructing could hear her words in the cavernous gym. Eventually, each of the six freshmen received patient advice from Boyle during breaks. Meanwhile, assistants Smith, Morrison, and Jen Hoover focused on getting the team to react to how the opponent is moving the basketball, getting their feet pointed in the right direction and having the correct stance. These defenses are central to the Bears’ new, faster scheme, and on this day, the process of absorption took the lion’s share of the team’s time on the court. It was at these very defenses that Rogers excelled at in high school.

Like the transition from defense to offense, Rogers now has Boyle to lead her in the transition from athletics to whatever comes next. Boyle went through a similar transition after leaving Duke as a standout player, and since then she’s helped steer numerous other players through the process. The difference is Rogers’ transition will be more dramatic, and filled with highs and lows. Already, Boyle says Rogers has had tough days coping, but on those days the coach makes sure she’s with the team, still a part of Boyle’s structured environment.

“I’m so glad she’s here,” Boyle confided. “I’m sick to my stomach about what’s going on with her. She’s supported, she’s got great teammates, an administration that cares about her. What if she was somewhere else and didn’t have the support system, sort of the new freshman on campus?”

On the court and off the court, in difficult circumstances, Boyle knows how to do this. And at Cal, like she promised, she and the Bears are doing it together.

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