November 12, 2023 

Inside Tamika Williams-Jeter’s return to UConn as Dayton head coach

A homecoming more than two decades in the making

HARTFORD, Conn. — During the recruiting process, Tamika Williams (now Williams-Jeter) called the UConn coaching staff every day from a payphone at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School. On Nov. 8, twenty-five years after her first day in Storrs, the UConn coaching staff — including four of her coaches (head coach Geno Auriemma, associate head coach Chris Dailey and assistant coaches Jamelle Elliott and Tonya Cardoza) and a former teammate (assistant coach Morgan Valley) — impatiently waited for Williams-Jeter to come out of the XL Center tunnel. When she eventually appeared, just moments before Dayton took on No. 2 UConn, they immediately embraced her, but not without teasing her for how late she was.

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“I always come out that late for games,” Williams-Jeter told reporters after the game. “But they were just like, ‘man we’ve been waiting here for our hug all day.’ So they were mostly just making fun of me. I mean, I throw it back. I’ve made fun of them for the last 25 years. So, they probably owe it to me.”

Though UConn won 102–58, the moment was a long time coming. After earning two Ohio Player of the Year awards and WBCA National High School Player of the Year in 1998, Williams-Jeter packed her bags and moved to Storrs. At UConn, she earned Big East Rookie of the Year in 1999, won national championships in 2000 and 2002, and set the NCAA record for career field goal percentage (70.3%). During her four years at UConn, she averaged 10.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game and was the sixth overall pick in the 2002 WNBA Draft. After six seasons with the Minnesota Lynx and one with the Connecticut Sun, she retired from playing and still holds the WNBA’s single-season field goal percentage record (66.8% on at least 100 shots, set in 2003).

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After her first season in the WNBA, Williams-Jeter became a graduate assistant at Ohio State and within a year head coach Jim Foster offered her an assistant coach position. Williams-Jeter recalled thinking Foster was crazy — she was close in age to the players on the team and didn’t think she wanted to be a coach.

She decided to call Dailey, whom she had come to confide in over the years. “I don’t do anything without telling CD,” Williams-Jeter told The Next in April 2022. “She’s the it-factor for me.”

On the phone, Williams-Jeter explained her predicament and asked Dailey just one question: what the hardest part of coaching really was. Dailey’s reply has proven true two decades later: “When you want it more than your players,” Williams-Jeter remembered. “CD [Chris Dailey] was right when she told me that. … That was probably the best advice that she could ever give me.”

Though she took the job planning to do it for a year until Foster found someone else, her first senior night as a coach changed her mind. “I was a kid then [and seeing] them kind of getting to a space where they can graduate and they’re more mature than they were four years [ago],” she said. “I stuck it out, and I love it.”

While Auriemma and Valley didn’t think Williams-Jeter would go into coaching, they both believe she has the attributes of a good coach. “She 100% had the mind,” Valley told The Next. “She’s so business savvy I thought she’d end up owning businesses or running some company but essentially she is — And she was so smart on the floor. When she did get into coaching, it did make sense.”

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Attending UConn is why Williams-Jeter does what she does, and she finds herself sounding like her former coaches at times. She believes she sounds like Dailey the most, telling The Next in October, “it’s like when you start to look and act like your parents.”

“They were such an extension of that, for me, even outside of being a basketball player, of course you start to pick up things in practice, and I started to sound like them,” Williams-Jeter explained. “So I’m just happy to have been around and played under and been mentored [by] such great people who just happen to be great coaches.”

Over the course of her career, Williams-Jeter also served as an assistant coach at Kansas, Kentucky and Penn State. She took a brief break from coaching from 2011-2014 and spent her time working in a variety of roles including as a U.S. Department of State Sports Envoy and as an ESPN commentator. Eventually, her secured her first head coaching position, at Wittenberg in 2021.

Inside the XL Center, the pregame cheers from fans as Williams-Jeter was announced soon gave way to silence when Dayton scored, but the support from the crowd is part of what influenced Williams-Jeter’s decision to come back to Connecticut.

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Dayton head coach Tamika Williams-Jeter waves to the UConn crowd after falling 102-58 on Nov. 8, 2023 at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. (Photo credit: Ian Bethune.)

“Coach Kalisha Keane, my assistant coach. She was like, that was pretty amazing. She teared up a little bit, but it also makes you want it more,” Williams-Jeter said of the cheers from the UConn crowd prior to the start of the game. “That was a reason I came here and that’s the reason why I’m at Dayton right now. Because I want that energy. I want to be that good where people come out and our players don’t have to experience it coming on the road, playing the No. [2] team in the country. They can experience it at home. That’s the goal.”

Williams-Jeter hadn’t been back to UConn since 2003, though she regularly saw her former coaches over the years. “I’ve been able to see them more than most people who’ve gone there,” she said. “So it’s not about the place, I always remember that, it’s about the people. So I see the people all the time. … There’s not a month that I don’t talk to JJ [Jamelle Elliott] or Morgan [Valley], or CD or Coach [Auriemma], whether it’s text or on the phone or live … I’ve never gone long without them.”

Though Williams-Jeter said the UConn coaching staff hated her calling every day and would pass the phone around, Auriemma said it was a lot of fun recruiting her.

“She was so loud and so extroverted and vivacious, is what they used to call people like that back in the day,” Auriemma told reporters on Nov. 4 after UConn’s exhibition game. “And she was someone you could have a lot of fun with. … I remember when you could send a plane to go get people back in the day. A lot of the big schools thought they were ahead of the game because they would send an airplane to pick you up and fly you in for an official visit. And she was all excited about that happening with some of the other schools. So I mailed her one of those airplanes you put together. … And I said I’m sending a plane for you. And I found out the other day her mom still has it.”

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Williams-Jeter believes the plane is tucked inside her mom’s white Catholic bible under her bed. During her recruiting process, Williams-Jeter received other gifts, including one after she visited Notre Dame and confetti after she visited Dayton. The connection between the coach and player — Williams-Jeter noted she only ever calls Auriemma “Coach” — only grew over the years.

“For us, it’s refreshing that she wants to be connected,” Auriemma told reporters after practice on Nov. 3. “And that just builds the connection. Because we loved everything about her when she was here. And it’s like, it hasn’t changed. … But in the end, that’s what college is supposed to be. You go away from home and you kind of make a new family, new friends. And those become sometimes the most important people in your life, the people you meet in college. … She wants to stay connected, she wants to be involved. And — you know, I keep track of everything she does.”

The relationships Williams-Jeter built during her four years in Connecticut have remained strong even after leaving campus. She almost never makes a decision without talking to Auriemma or Dailey, with the exception of taking the Dayton job because they were in the middle of the NCAA Tournament. Once they heard about her decision, they knew she made the right choice.

“Coach [Auriemma] was super excited and even JJ [Jamelle Elliott] came in and said it, she was like man right place, right time for me,” Williams-Jeter said. “They tried to — Coach had tried to push me into other situations previous to that but this one he’s almost in tears about, he loves it. He loved that I came here and coached against him because a lot of us don’t coach. … But I think he’s very proud of any of us who take it on.”

Despite trailing by as many as 52, Williams-Jeter found joy in seemingly small moments, including freshman center Eve Fiala scoring her first collegiate points late in the fourth quarter. “She’s a very raw player, so working on just a simple post move [like] a crab dribble, middle and finish over her left shoulder, [for] someone with such great, high ceiling and high potential, is huge for me,” Williams-Jeter said. “So for my young kids, they’re learning, [and] what better stage to learn on? And when they do something that we’ve been working on with them, I’m going to get excited. I don’t care what the score is.”

With many games left to play this season, it’s important for Williams-Jeter that her team takes what they learned against UConn into the games ahead. “Now what are we going to do against Lindenwood?” she said. “That’s all we’re talking about. Are you gonna make that same move and maybe get an offensive rebound [and] putback? Like how do we get 1% better every day?”

She was excited that her team continued “throwing punches” throughout the game. After going 3–5 from behind the arc in the first quarter, the Flyers struggled to hit shots in the second quarter. The team pivoted and started getting to the free throw line where they went 9–10 in that period. Dayton matched UConn’s 18 points in the fourth quarter, fighting until the final buzzer.

Williams-Jeter was impressed by the poise and courage her team showed and that the atmosphere didn’t bother them as much as she thought it would. “The other thing Coach said is most people lay down. And we didn’t lay down,” she said. “He kept coming for us and pressing because he wanted us to quit. And that was a test. We didn’t quit.”

She later noted, “We came here [to Dayton] to win championships and get to the final games and now I know at least the stage won’t get ’em, the fight won’t get ’em, the other team won’t get ’em,” she said. “Now it’s just us. We just have to prepare and be who we need to be.”

Dayton head coach Tamika Williams-Jeter embraces UConn head coach Geno Auriemma as the crowd looks on after the Huskies' 102-58 win over the Flyers on Nov. 8, 2023 matchup against UConn at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. Williams-Jeter played for the Huskies from 1998-2002.
Dayton head coach Tamika Williams-Jeter embraces UConn head coach Geno Auriemma after the Huskies’ 102-58 win over the Flyers on Nov. 8, 2023 at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. Williams-Jeter played for the Huskies from 1998-2002. (Photo credit: Ian Bethune.)

After the final buzzer sounded, Williams-Jeter turned away from the court and faced her former coach, arms outstretched, a smile on her face as she stepped toward Auriemma, eager to embrace him once again. While she was just looking for a hug, he wanted to talk business.

“He said, ‘No, no, no, I want you [to] listen to me. What happened between last year’s team and this year’s team? Because your team is really good,’” Williams-Jeter said. “Now, coming from Coach. He wouldn’t say it unless it was true. So I tried to [say] like ‘Coach, let’s not talk about that right now.’ He was just like, ‘No, I need you to look at me, your team is 1,000% better than last year.’ And for me being a player under him and just playing and coaching this game, that means everything, especially to my team that didn’t stop fighting.”

Related: Even in defeat, Princeton’s Carla Berube savors ‘awesome’ UConn homecoming

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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