July 10, 2021 

The ripple effects of coaching changes in women’s college basketball

Recent moves are felt from coast to coast and throughout women's college basketball programs

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When the college basketball season ends each spring, we wait for the slew of changes coming our way. Student-athletes end their careers and celebrate graduation. We watch players move from one side of the country to the other through the transfer portal. And we consistently see coaching changes that ripple throughout programs from top to bottom and everywhere in between.

Change is difficult because the impacts reach far and wide. Whether an entire staff is let go, just one assistant moves to another job or a support staff member lands a promotion elsewhere, change is felt throughout the program. Just as when new players are added to a roster, a shift in coaches and staff impacts the makeup of a team and its culture. 

There may not be anything more important in college athletics today than the culture of a program. Culture impacts what happens inside and outside the locker room. It sets the tone for direction, expectations for everyone and the roadmap for success. Head coaches and their staffs are tasked with establishing that culture so their teams can find the right balance to navigate the highs and lows on and off the court and win games.

Some people thought we wouldn’t see many changes in women’s basketball this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Would this unique season make athletic directors move more cautiously? Would they give coaches more leeway, knowing all the ups and downs they encountered to play? Would department budgets have an impact on coaching moves? Where would a reset of a program and its culture be unavoidable? The spring of 2021 brought surprises and interesting moves, with the “ripple effects” felt across the country.

There was a time when coaching changes felt like a line change in hockey – everyone went in together and came out together. In recent years, the trend has leaned towards coaches taking head jobs and molding a staff based on familiarity, personal connections, recruiting ties and experience. Caroline McCombs spent seven years at Stony Brook, quietly building a contender with a consistent staff around her in the American East, culminating in a NCAA Tournament bid in 2021. When George Washington parted ways with Jen Rizzotti in March, McCombs was a natural fit.

There is a strong tradition of women’s basketball at GW built by former head coach and Hall of Famer Joe McKeown. McCombs spent two years as an assistant under McKeown at Northwestern and learned firsthand about the high expectations of the Colonials program. Resetting the culture and winning mentality starts with McCombs bringing her entire staff with her from Stony Brook. Adam Call, Bri Hutchen and Gabe Lazo along with director of operations Caitlyn Isler arrived in Washington, D.C., as a cohesive unit.

New George Washington head coach Caroline McCombs (Photo credit: GW Athletics)
Assistant coach Gabe Lazo is one of four staff members to follow McCombs from Stony Brook. (Photo credit: GW Athletics)

With that kind of familiarity, coaches are not necessarily transitioning into new roles but rather spending their time working with their new players on the floor, hitting the road to recruit and rebuilding a program to compete in the Atlantic 10. The “ripple effect” was felt at Stony Brook, but GW reaps the benefits of McCombs keeping her staff together as they head down the coast for a new challenge together.

Twenty-five years ago, the University of Oklahoma took a chance on a high school coach to lead its women’s basketball program. Sherri Coale not only resurrected the program but also built it into a national contender, making three Final Four appearances and winning six regular-season Big 12 titles along the way. She announced her retirement in March, and the Sooners turned to someone with Midwest ties and a resumé of success, both as a coach and player, in Jennie Baranczyk. 

New Oklahoma head coach Jennie Baranczyk (Photo credit: Mike Houck/Oklahoma Athletics)

In nine seasons as head coach at Drake, Baranczyk led the Bulldogs to six consecutive 20-win seasons and three NCAA Tournament berths. Her resumé is not just built on her coaching experience but also her experience as one of the best all-around forwards ever to play at the University of Iowa. It’s the combination of being able to see and teach the game from a player’s perspective and lead a program that made Baranczyk one of the most talked-about hires this year.

Baranczyk high-fives returning forward Madi Williams during summer workouts. (Photo credit: Mike Houck/Oklahoma Athletics)

The Sooners bench will feature all new faces next to her looking to reset the trajectory of the program. Amy Wright (who spent ten years at Texas A&M), Chantel Osahor (who left Arkansas to come to Oklahoma and previously worked for Baranczyk) and Michael Neal (the former Norman High School girls’ head coach) each bring different experiences and recruiting connections to Norman.

Another “ripple effect” of a head coach leaving is that, if the right person is already there, continuity can be the key element to sustaining success. When Baranczyk announced her departure, it did not take long for Drake’s administration to see that Allison Pohlman was the right person to fill the vacancy. Pohlman came to the Drake staff in 2007 and had served as associate head coach since 2014.

Allison Pohlman was introduced as Drake’s head coach on Apr. 26, 2021. (Photo credit: Dylan Heuer/Drake Athletics)

The staff has taken shape with Nicci Hays Fort staying put and two new hires in Kayla Karius and Whitney Moia. It is now up to the new but familiar leadership of the Bulldogs program to make waves in the Missouri Valley Conference and make a run to the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

The University of Washington also relieved Jody Wynn of her duties as head coach this spring after four years and a record of 38-75. When department leadership went looking for someone to breathe new life into the program, they found one of the hottest coaches in the game in Tina Langley. After seven years working for Brenda Frese at Maryland and then serving as head coach at Rice for six seasons, Langley has proven that she is able to build programs, sustain success, recruit and teach the game.

After six seasons at Rice, Tina Langley was named Washington’s head coach in April 2021. (Photo credit: Rice Athletics)

Langley’s move to Washington started a “ripple effect” from coast to coast: Katie Faulkner joined her as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator and brings her Pac-12 experience from Oregon State, leaving a position open in Corvallis; assistant coach Latara King followed Langley from Rice; and Dan Tacheny enters the women’s college game after years in various professional ranks. Not long after Langley’s departure, Rice hired Lindsay Edmonds from North Carolina State to be its new head coach, and Edmonds brought in three new assistant coaches. And Justin Roach, who spent six years at Rice working with the women’s basketball program, was hired at Duke in May as the associate director of sports performance. The “ripple effect” starts at the top and can reach all the way to the weight room.

Langley’s ability to establish the right program culture has been evident early with two transfers in 6’9 center Nancy Mulkey and 5’11 forward Lauren Schwartz. Both had successful careers at Rice and will follow their coach to test themselves in the Pac-12. Success may not happen overnight for the Huskies, but Langley is putting together a program to build that long-term winning culture to which Washington is accustomed.

How do all these ripples impact players and the action on the court? We can’t answer that question yet. Success will come in various forms depending on the state of a program and whether players are ready to buy into a change in culture, large or small. 

A wise person once said, “No one likes change; it’s how you react that counts.” We’ll be watching coaches, staffs and players to see how they react this season.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard 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, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, 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!

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