July 31, 2021
Tammi Reiss: The modern-day renaissance woman
How her winding road led her to an Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year award
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Tammi Reiss is the modern-day renaissance woman. Even with careers in fitness modeling; personal training; acting; technical directing and advising; post-game reporting; and nightclub, day spa, and gym management under her belt, time and time again basketball came calling, and time and time again she answered.
In addition to her many careers outside of basketball, Reiss played in the WNBA and coached four college programs and one WNBA franchise before taking her first head coaching job at the University of Rhode Island in 2019 at the age of 49. She found success quickly there, setting records and winning the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year award in her second season.
Her basketball skills were apparent as early as elementary school, when her sixth-grade teacher Paul Tylawsky saw her playing during recess and showed her a couple jab step moves.
“I said, ‘Now go home, work on this,” Tylawsky recalled. “She showed up the next day and said, ‘I got it.’ I said, ‘What? What do you got?’ She goes, ‘I got it.’ I said, ‘Show me.’ And she turned around and she showed me. I was like, wow, this is gonna be different.”
And Reiss proved to be different.
During a parent-teacher conference, Tylawsky told Reiss’ parents that she would one day be the most recruited player in New York State. While they thought he was out of his mind, he turned out to be right, even though she came from a school with a graduating class of just 40.
Before the accolades started rolling in, Reiss was just a sixth-grader with a few dreams.
“I said to her one time, ‘Listen, I want you to come up with a list of accomplishments that you think you can handle and make it one week, a month, couple months, a year,’” Tylawsky said.
“The next day, she comes into class and hands me a list of 25 items. I looked at [it and] I was like, holy smokes, and [the goals] were just like she spelled out: make the honor roll, certain goals in basketball and so forth. Last thing on the list was to someday play in the NBA because there was no WNBA. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is impressive.’ But she literally — through the years — went down that checklist and just cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, one after another.”
One of the few things she failed to check off that list was winning an NCAA championship.
After being recruited by every major college, Reiss settled on the University of Virginia, which had sent her her very first letter in seventh grade.
Reiss finished her career at Virginia with 1,842 points (currently sixth in program history), 400 rebounds, 380 assists and 167 steals. She still ranks first in program history in career three-point percentage (0.416), fourth in made free throws (437) and sixth in made threes (139).
The Cavaliers made the Final Four in each of Reiss’ final three seasons. Though the team never raised a trophy, she would not change a thing.
“People ask that all the time: ‘Tennessee recruited you. If you could go back, would you have gone to Tennessee so you could have won a national championship?’ And I say, ‘No, I wouldn’t change my experience with my sisters ever, win, lose or draw.’ The loss taught me how to deal with great loss, and when I mean great loss, people don’t understand I was probably depressed for three months. I was that consumed with what we were doing,” Reiss said.
She continued, “[O]ne of my lifetime goals was to be an NCAA champion and to not achieve it, it was devastating to me and so I couldn’t even look at the game. To this day, when I talk about the game, I know every minute of it. I know every big play.”
After the third Final Four loss, Reiss’ heart was broken and she did not want to continue her career overseas. Instead, she decided to pursue acting, which she had fallen in love with in college—though she was always a performer, according to teammate and roommate Dawn Staley.
“She would perform in the next bed over there, just different acts of movies. But here’s the thing: Tammi Reiss is going to be good at anything that she does, whether it’s acting, whether it’s coaching—not singing because I’ve seen a couple of her social media posts. She does it hard now, but it doesn’t always sound good,” Staley said.
Her success on the court was matched only by her success in the classroom. Reiss is one of just six UVA women’s basketball players to have been named an ACC Scholar, an award presented to the school’s top female student-athlete of the year for excellence both in the classroom and as a member of a varsity team.
After graduating with her degree in sport management, she moved to New York, got an agent and was accepted into an acting school. To support herself, Reiss started working as a trainer and as a waitress at her aunt’s restaurant. Soon after, she landed her first national commercial and her acting career took off from there.
In 1993, Reiss got her first call to return to basketball and come back to her alma mater as an assistant coach, so she left New York City and moved back to Charlottesville. In hindsight, Reiss says she shouldn’t have taken the job because her heart wasn’t in it.
“I was living a great lifestyle in New York City as an actress, I was free, no rules. And then I go into this really rigid profession of all rules and … I liked it. [But] I didn’t love it,” she said.
After three seasons, Reiss didn’t feel fulfilled and went back to acting, eventually moving to Los Angeles.
While in LA, basketball called Reiss once again, this time as a player. Val Ackerman, the recently named WNBA president, invited Reiss to the WNBA combine ahead of the league’s inaugural season.
After accepting, Reiss had a call of her own to make, to her former teacher and trainer, Mr. T.
Tylawsky recalled, “She goes, ‘T, you hear about the WNBA?’
“Yeah, Tam,” said Tylawsky.
“What do you think?” asked Reiss.
“Well, you haven’t played in a long time,” he said.
“Well, will you train me?” asked Reiss.
“How long do we have?” asked Tylawsky.
“About six months,” said Reiss.
“So we’ve got to take you from nothing [in] six months to become one of the best players to get drafted?” he asked.
She responded, ‘You didn’t answer my question. Will you train me or not?’”
He said yes and a few months later Reiss impressed at the combine, later getting picked fifth overall in the inaugural draft by the Utah Starzz.
“I was talking with a couple former WNBA players [about] how special that first season was, how grateful we were. God, I think we would have played for quarters to be able to play in front of friends and family. And we were grateful for everything that came our way that first season. It was sellout crowds. It just was incredible,” Reiss said.
Playing in the NBA was on the list of goals she had presented to Tylawsky in sixth grade because there was no WNBA. She is glad that young girls today get to see women’s basketball on TV more than once a year. Growing up, Reiss’ parents took her to watch the college games of Cheryl Miller and Kim Mulkey, who otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to see except for the one game a year that was televised.
Reiss is glad the league has been able to sustain itself. While she acknowledges that the television exposure and audience have grown, she doesn’t think anything can compare to the first season.
“We just had never had anything like it in the States before and to be able to play in every NBA arena that [the] men played in—I got to play in The Forum. It was before the Staples Center was even here. So to walk into The Forum and see the banners of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], [James] Worthy, Magic [Johnson], Michael Cooper, it was so special for me.”
Reiss grew up watching Johnson and was drawn to the sport because of him.
“It really just was, I think Magic Johnson once he got drafted by them and the Showtime, how he played, the smile on his face, and how he passed the ball, how he played the game and it was fun. [He] made it look fun. [It’s] what drew me to him. And then watching the Lakers play and how they played. The fast break, the Showtime. It’s what made me really, really like basketball,” she said.
In Reiss’ two-year WNBA career, she averaged 7.2 points, 2.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 0.7 steals per game.
After Tammi left the league in 1998, she returned to acting before basketball called her again, this time to coach the Utah Starzz (2001-2002), which moved to San Antonio during her tenure and became the Silver Stars in 2003.
After leaving the Silver Stars, Reiss pursued other ventures once again.
In 2011, the tables turned and it was Reiss who gave basketball a call, wanting to return to coaching at age 41. She called up Beth Burns, who had recruited her at the University of Colorado. Burns had an opening on her staff at San Diego State University, and Reiss wanted it.
Burns recalled the conversation: “She called me and told me she wanted to get back into coaching. And I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ And then she goes, ‘No, I really do.’ And I said, ‘No, see, Tammi, a lot of people, they see us [coaches] at seven o’clock when you turn on the TV, but it’s like, you’re making money, you’ve done all kinds of things. I don’t know that you want to do this [the long hours of coaching].’”
Burns continued, “So she says she does. [And] I bring her out for an interview. And she tells me she wants the job. And I said, ‘Tammi, I’m in a really critical point with my squad of graduating a bunch of kids. And you’re terrific … In eight months, somebody from the East Coast at a [big-time school] is going to call you and you’re gonna go roll with them. And I don’t want to turn this position over. So she said, ‘No, I’ll commit to three years.’ And she said, ‘I’m smart enough to know I don’t know how to do this yet.’”
Burns agreed to interview Reiss and eventually hired her. Reiss found success quickly, which Burns credits to her people skills and knowledge of the game at the point guard position.
“Obviously, she was older and had more life experience than most first-time, if you will, college assistants. But even with that said, she made the biggest jump from first to second year of anybody I’ve ever, ever had. Because she’s a bulldog,” Burns said.
In her two years at San Diego State, Reiss learned the ins and outs of college basketball off the court, from recruiting to scouting. She spent two seasons at Cal State Fullerton as the associate head coach and four seasons at Syracuse before realizing she wanted more.
“I wasn’t always searching to be a head coach; that wasn’t my ultimate goal. I loved being an assistant, I really did. I love the recruiting, relationships and skill development, what most of my assistant roles were. But it came to a time where I was kind of at a crossroads. I think I plateaued at Syracuse … And so if I was ever going to become a head coach, I had to seriously start preparing myself and looking at different jobs,” Reiss said.
She had a specific set of criteria a school needed to meet before she would consider leaving Syracuse. The school had to be on the East Coast so she could remain close to her family and the administration had to be focused on the process, not simply wins and losses. URI fit both of these requirements.
“When I talked to Thorr Bjorn, the AD at URI, and we had just an organic conversation, our first conversation, it was like we could finish each other’s sentences. I had never met an AD in all my life at all my different schools that I had connected with so easily and that saw the vision. And we were on the same page. And I knew I had his support,” she said.
She continued, “I also looked at URI. And I went, my god, that’s a beautiful school. The beaches, the location, I can sell this. And there was nowhere to go but up. It was a dog from an academic standpoint; it wasn’t good at the time. And then definitely from a basketball standpoint, it wasn’t successful. And so I know my capabilities; I’m a very confident person. And I knew I could turn that around and I could win there.”
Reiss once again chased happiness, not money, not the title, not the notoriety, and in that she has found success.
“It was probably the best decision from a coaching standpoint I ever made, was taking this shot. And then once I took it, it was put your head down and work, go get it done. Just like as a player, put the time in, go do it. And, that’s what Dawn Staley told me is put your head down, Tammi, and go to work, do it. So I never doubted we could turn this program around,” she said.
In her first two seasons, Reiss is 24-24 overall, including 17-14 in conference play. During the 2020-21 season, she led URI to its best conference record in 25 years and just its third winning A-10 record since joining the conference in 1980.
Reiss believes that her winding road has helped her thrive as a head coach.
“I didn’t want my whole life to be just about one thing. I wanted experiences. I wanted to do a lot of different things. And that’s what acting did. I owned different businesses. I coach. I have a lot of life experiences. And so you can’t just define me as all you’ve done is you’re just a basketball coach and I think it helped me become a better coach,” she said.
Reiss added, “I understand business. I understand relationships. I just understand a lot of things that I think helped me in my mentorship as I got older, and my leadership and all those things, that I think now college coaching is about so much more than just basketball. And so I think my life experiences really played into that.”
She is looking forward to the upcoming season, with 15 student-athletes whom she and her staff recruited.
“They’re scholar-athletes; they check every box. And so, again, it’s just what I envisioned happening, [but] it happened quicker than I thought,” Reiss said.
Being named Coach of the Year wasn’t a possibility Reiss had entertained. She was just focused on being competitive and making sure her student-athletes continued to improve.
“You have little baby steps that you focus on to make your program each year better, whether it’s … your academics, community service, your basketball, but it’s part of our process, it’s our steps that we [take] … And so when this year, suddenly we started having success, I could see the process coming to fruition,” she said.
While Reiss has a long career ahead of her in coaching, she already has her retirement planned: a return to acting.
“I’m going to Betty White it, and I’m going to go back to Hollywood and I’m going to be a character actress. … Even if I just do local stage plays … I’m going to go back into that realm eventually,” she said.
In the meantime, there’s still a lot more she wants to accomplish at URI. The next step in the process is to win a regular-season A-10 title, win the A-10 tournament, and get URI to a national postseason tournament for the first time since 1996.
“We’re highly competitive in the A-10. … We’ve turned things around in every aspect of the program. Now, can we take it all the way and can we win the championship? Can we produce champions at URI? That’s our goal. That’s the next step. And that’s what we’re focused on for the upcoming year,” Reiss said.
The people who have played an important role in Reiss’ career agree that she and her program are on the right path.
“Tammi is one that has never shied away from working hard in anything that she does. So her success will definitely be built on her hard work, the great habit she created from being at UVA to being at Rhode Island now. And I wish the best for her,” Staley said.
Having seen what she has done at URI in just two short years, Tylawsky has no doubt that one day Reiss will win a national championship, one of the few goals she failed to accomplish as a player.
“If you look with the demands as a coach with her teams, what she’s done at URI in [two] years, it’s amazing. I mean, you’ve gone from a team that was cellar dwellers to knocking on the door to winning a championship, and I truly believe this year is going to be her year,” he said.
“It will not surprise me if they’re going to be better this year than they were last year and not as good as they’ll be the following year. If you get Tammi Reiss, she’s going to put two feet in. And if you got two feet in, you got a chance,” Burns said.
Reiss, the modern-day renaissance woman, is leading a renaissance at URI.