April 29, 2021
‘It’s not often you get to bring a legend home’
Sights and sounds of Jen Rizzotti's unveiling by Connecticut Sun
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. — In the mid ‘90s, Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller was a young assistant for Syracuse’s women’s basketball team. He was young and confident and wanted to help build the program. But he’d have to get past UConn, the undoubted powerhouse in the Big East, led by star point guard Jennifer Rizzotti.
“Everybody knew about Jen Rizzotti, but I didn’t know what was so special … until I saw her play in person,” Miller said. “In the world of sports, you can’t always define it, but you run across people that just have an it factor. And it didn’t take long when you watched Jen play and lead that UConn team (to know) that she had that it factor. She is a winner.”
Mohegan Sun leadership and the Connecticut Sun welcomed Rizzotti, a Connecticut native, home at an introductory press conference on Tuesday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Sun officially announced Rizzotti’s hiring as team president on April 20.
Mohegan Sun president and general manager Jeff Hamilton watched Rizzotti lead the Huskies to an undefeated season in 1995 and the program’s first National Championship.
“I’m fairly young so I can remember my time in, you know, elementary and middle school,” Hamilton chuckled. “Seeing Jen and really that start of what became the number one women’s basketball program in the country. Just those great teams with Jen at the helm with Rebecca Lobo. I have so many memories watching her.”
For Rizzotti, the attention and care given to women’s basketball in the state of Connecticut is what stood out for her.
“I know I’m back in Connecticut when, I don’t know, what are you, 35?” Rizzotti said in Hamilton’s direction. “When a 35-year-old man tells me he used to watch me when he was growing up.”
She turned and pointed toward the media, “And when there’s more cameras that I’m speaking in front of than the past five years combined. So I know I’m back home.”
“And I’m thrilled to be here.”
Rizzotti spent the last five years as head coach at George Washington University. The team fired her in March after posting a 72-74 overall record, which she said was a surprise. She wasn’t sure what the next move in her career would be, but knew she didn’t want to return to coaching.
It didn’t take long for the Sun to reach out and express interest in having Rizzotti lead the organization. Miller texted friends and family as soon as he heard Rizzotti and GW had separated, and eventually pushed Mohegan leadership to reach out to her.
“It’s not often you get to bring a legend home,” he said.
Rizzotti has experienced the most success in her home state. She helped UConn win its first national title and led the University of Hartford to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance during her 17-year stint as head coach.
“Where I’ve had the greatest success in my career has had very distinctive characteristics,” Rizzotti said. “All the similarities are very clear: great people who value the right things; a commitment to excellence that isn’t talked about but shown in their everyday actions; and an atmosphere that supports you and makes you feel like family. That’s the feeling that I got in the weeks while learning about this job.”
Moving back home to family made the job prospect even more appealing for Rizzotti, who met her husband Bill Sullivan as a junior at UConn. Her parents live about 35 minutes away from the arena, and her sister-in-law Kathy, who Rizzotti says has always been a women’s basketball fan, lives in the next town over from Uncasville.
It ultimately wasn’t a hard decision for Rizzotti.
“The same themes kept re-occuring in all of my conversations, and that was culture. That was family. And that was support,” Rizzotti said. “This was a place that was going to embrace me. Welcome me home. Value my skill set, work with me on the things I needed to be worked on with. I definitely recognized that I could have an impact on the organization maybe in a way that others haven’t so far.”
Rizzotti said she will continue to build on the foundation that former team vice presidents Chris Sienko and Amber Cox have built, including Connecticut’s Change Can’t Wait mission, the Sun’s platform to eradicate racism and reverse systemic oppression in Black and Brown communities in New England. She said she also wants to work hard to continue to make Connecticut a destination for any player who wants to compete for championships and get treated like family, all while working to raise the franchise’s first WNBA Championship banner.
“Throughout my coaching career, I’ve always measured my success based on the impact that I’ve had on the lives of the players on and off the court,” Rizzotti said. “When thinking about this career pivot, it occurred to me that I could continue to have that kind of an impact but on a much larger scale. I want to make a difference in the lives of our players and in their futures. I want to support our coaches in ways that I would want to be supported as a coach. And I want to positively impact our fans, and our community in the greatest state to be a women’s basketball fan.”
Rizzotti’s homecoming is special in many ways — she returns to her home state, her family, and the place where she built her success from the ground up. But it also comes at a special time — a little less than a month before the start of the WNBA’s 25th season.
“People are starting to finally realize that investing in women is the smart thing to do,” Rizzotti said. “The (athletes) of the WNBA embraced the Say Her Name campaign last summer in the bubble. They brought awareness to so many female victims of police brutality. They worked to get Rev. Warnock elected in Georgia. They fought to change ownership when they were being led by somebody who didn’t value their lives.
“They have proven that they are beautiful, fierce, competitive, and not afraid to stand for what is right. And they embrace the challenge of changing the world. That’s what makes me proud to be an alum of this league and have my career come back full circle.”