July 11, 2022
How Lindsay Gottlieb and Ashley Langford look to build in year two
After their first season head coaches set their sights on the 2022-23 season
It seems like a reasonable question when we ask, ‘Is there ever a good time to become a head coach?’ Opportunities to move one seat over on the bench present themselves at all different times. It can happen when least expected, or the chance appears after years of searching for the right place at the right moment. In 2021, there were over 40 head coaching changes in Division I women’s basketball. Familiar names returned to the college game and others shifted to the main chair for the first time, a change that would be unlike any personal or professional move they have made.
It takes vision, drive and passion for setting expectations for your program in the first year. Whether you are on the east or west coast, there are no days off moving into year two other than a quick moment of reflection in-between practices, camps, meetings and recruiting. Here’s how two such coaches — Lindsay Gottlieb of USC and Ashley Langford of Stony Brook — are navigating it.
Eyes Wide Open
Lindsay Gottlieb spent eight years as head coach of the Cal Golden Bears, building a program that regularly competed for Pac 12 championships and made a trip to the Final Four under her watch. Then, in 2019, she was hired as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, making her the first NCAA women’s head coach hired by an NBA team. Her name was always part of the speculation for any college coaching search while she was with the Cavs. But in the spring of 2021, the knock on the door was too loud to ignore.
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“I knew that it had to be something transformative to leave Cleveland and now, looking back at this year, I have even more of a belief this is the right job for me,” Gottlieb told The Next this summer. USC hired her to lead the Women of Troy program in May 2021.
“The power of USC and our athletic programs and university sets the tone. This was one of my hardest years that I have had in coaching, both good and bad. Things take time – building a culture and relationships takes time. This year was challenging in a good way.”
Having been out of the college game during the COVID pandemic, Gottlieb came back last summer to recruiting and leading her program in what many coaches say is a different environment. For her, the change is more personal. “I am different for sure,” she reflected. “It was such a positive thing to be in a different entity and I learned so much from J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland. You gain the value of perspective and what impacts winning. I came to USC with my eyes wide open.”
The landscape is consistently changing in college athletics and dealing with hot topics such as NIL (name, image and likeness) and the transfer portal are not lost on Gottlieb. But from the beginning, building relationships and the culture she wants for USC women’s basketball have been her primary focus.
“The portal is a fluid piece of college basketball and it’s here to stay,” said Gottlieb. “It is unique in these few years because of the extra COVID years and the one-time exception. As a first-year coach, it does allow you to shape your program and culture a bit quicker. I do believe student-athletes should have the freedom to move, but my goal is to create a program that kids want to be at long-term.”
USC finished the 2021-22 season 12-16 overall, 5-12 in the Pac 12. The roster will look different in year two due to the work of Gottlieb and her staff that she says has been very intentional. “The conversations we have had this spring with transfers have been great. But the biggest thing is for us to be clear about who we are and what we want our culture to be. Do you want to be a part of this? Student-athletes have to find out if their priorities line up with that school.”
There will be seven transfers joining the squad this fall, which means spring workouts were with a small, core group of returners that Gottlieb is looking to help setting the vision going forward. “We used spring workouts to get better at individual parts of their games, but we also worked on the culture of our program,” she said. “We worked with our sports psychologists and had meetings on culture – our returning group, they have the opportunity to make this a place that people want to be at.”
Gottlieb balances the rigors of being USC’s head coach with her family, including her husband Patrick and their young son, Jordan. They are expecting their second child, a baby girl, this fall. That balance means that your cell phone can ring day or night. In April 2022, her worst nightmare came true. “It is the call no parent or coach ever wants in the middle of the night,” Gottlieb shared.
It was the news that heralded incoming recruit, Aaliyah Gayles, the No. 8 player in the class of 2022 (per ESPN.com), had been shot at a house party in her hometown of Las Vegas, NV. Gayles had just participated in the Jordan Brand Classic game and been named a McDonald’s All-American earlier that month. The point guard survived multiple gunshot wounds and surgeries. Gottlieb was able to visit her a few days later in the hospital.
“I just held her hand and asked her ‘what do you need?’ She said to just get to USC and so that is what we are going to do. She is in rehab now and she will be part of our team and here in the fall,” Gottlieb said.
Even in the face of unspeakable circumstances, the authentic vision that Gottlieb has for her program is front and center – relationships and culture that make a young woman want to be a part of what they are building together at USC.
Time to get to work
When a program reaches the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, it elevates everything associated with it – the athletic department, the student-athletes and the coaches. That kind of success means those coaches also become a hot commodity in national searches. Stony Brook University’s women’s basketball program drew a dance card in 2021 to March Madness and later that spring, Caroline McCombs departed for the head job at George Washington. The Seawolves began a search for their next leader and in late April 2021, Ashley Langford became a head coach for the first time.
“A year later, the reasons I said ‘yes’ to Stony Brook are for sure the same,” Langford told The Next this summer. “I came from a high-level academic institution [Tulane] as a player, so I was looking for that and I am comfortable with it. I was looking for a place where we have a chance to win championships; it has a great location, I have family close and here they have support for women’s basketball. They are making the investments to elevate women’s basketball and we can continue to win here.”
Langford’s resume is filled with experience – a storied playing career at Tulane, where she was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2018, stints as an assistant and then four years as associate head coach at James Madison prior to arriving at Stony Brook. But sometimes you can do everything you think to be prepared and things still surprise you.
“I am an overachiever and I want to be great at what I do, but as a head coach, I realized you cannot do it all yourself,” she reflected. “You have to keep yourself balanced. By February/March of this past season, I was exhausted. I realized it is okay to not know everything but being in the head coach’s seat is a lot of fun. I like pressure and it is so rewarding to see our players succeed. Each win is precious, and I don’t take that for granted.”
She also takes to heart advice she has received from others in the coaching profession. “They said it to me but I now know how important your staff is, to have people that get you. I look at it as the ‘needs vs. knowns’ – having the right staff so that you do not try and do it all.” Langford also knew that the right staff would be critical in shaping the culture of that she wanted the Stony Brook program to have from the beginning.
“I knew we had to get our culture together, instill it in our players and then together we figure out a way to win. You put your head down and get to work,” she said. The Seawolves built upon the success of the previous season to finish 23-6 in 2021-22 and earned a berth to the WNIT. Their on-court identity is built upon three things – defend, run, and rebound – while the overall culture is shaped by 10 key words they go by every day, including love, trust, respect and discipline to name a few.
As the Stony Brook program enters year two under Langford’s watch, change is coming from various directions. There are six returners on the roster for the 2022-23 season, who will be joined by seven newcomers. “It has been nice to have our returners because I don’t feel like we are teaching everyone everything from the start,” she said. “This year, we had to use the portal. In that process, you just have to be flexible but be true to yourself and what you want your program to be. I am a relationship coach and so you are looking to create a bond and find players who have pride in this institution like we do.”
The other big change for Langford’s program is the official move by Stony Brook to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) from the American East Conference on July 1, 2022. For her, this move is only a positive. “This move doesn’t change our philosophy, but we are looking for a different level of player now. The CAA is more marketable and it produces WNBA-level players. I want to coach those kinds of kids. Our schedule will be legit with our non-conference and conference schedule. It’s exciting,” Langford said.
As the pieces of the program puzzle at Stony Brook continue to take shape, Langford will continue to navigate change on and off the court. Yet one thing she shared seemed to make it all seem so simple. “We have a hashtag for our program ‘#DWWD.’ It means ‘do what we do.”
*The interview with Coach Gottlieb for this article was conducted prior to the announcement of USC leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!