April 23, 2022 

‘It seemed like a perfect fit’: Rebecca Tillett looks to take Saint Louis to new heights

What the start of the Tillett era means for the Billikens

After a 96-68 loss to NC State on March 19, then-Longwood head coach Rebecca Tillett was asked whether she was open to taking calls about other jobs or committed to remaining with the Lancers. 

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“I think for women to approach things the way that men have been taught to or [have] had the opportunities to do [things] that maybe we haven’t, I think you take those calls,” Tillett said. “At this point in time, I’m really happy with what we’re building and what we’re trying to do. And I’ll answer my phone when calls come, and I’m also really committed to what we’re doing over here.”

One call she answered was from Saint Louis, and it led to her being named head coach on April 12. Tillett was drawn to Saint Louis’ commitment to women’s sports. “It seemed like a perfect fit at this time,” she told The Next. 

Getting asked about her future at Longwood at the NCAA Tournament made Tillett take pause. 

“I’m not sure how often we get asked those questions in our field,” she said. “And so to take the time to respond—as the calls started to come, I did take the same advice that I would give to any women that I lead, and that is: Answer your phone, hear them out and see if it’s an opportunity that interests you and is going to further not just your career, but your path, your journey.”

During Tillett’s introductory press conference on April 13, Saint Louis president Fred Pestello shared his perspective of the hiring process. 

“As we were looking forward, athletic director [Chris] May called me and he said, ‘I’ve got the person. I’ve got the person for this Jesuit institution, one who will be successful in competing, successful in educating, successful in building community, one who shares our values,’” Pestello said. 

“And when I had a chance to talk to Coach Tillett, I said, ‘Chris was right again.’ I don’t like admitting that. I don’t want it to go to his head. But he was absolutely right. Today we are announcing someone who will not only take our women’s basketball program to new levels of excellence but will contribute to taking Billiken Athletics forward.” 

May noted at Tillett’s introductory press conference that she is a teacher at heart. 

“Watching her in the gym today, there’s no question she’s a teacher,” he said. “She’s been a head coach at the collegiate level [for] a short period of time, and everybody on the East Coast will tell you she has built something for the long haul in a short period of time where she’s been. We’re looking forward to building something fast for the long haul here.”

Tillett played at William & Mary from 1996 to 1999 before serving as head coach at multiple Northern Virginia high schools, including Osbourn Park High School and Forest Park High School, from 2001 to 2013. She also was a scout for the Atlanta Dream from 2010 to 2013. 

In her one season (2013-14) as an assistant coach with Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Division II), the team went 18-10. She then spent four seasons at Navy, including two as an assistant coach, one as recruiting coordinator and one as associate head coach. 

Tillett went 3-27 in her inaugural season at Longwood in 2018-19 and 48-41 in the following three seasons. 

She loves to compete and believes the job at Saint Louis will provide herself, her staff and the team a chance to test themselves in a quality conference and against quality coaches and opponents and see what they are able to accomplish. 

“I’m just really looking forward to the opportunity to test myself again. Can I lead another group of women to the NCAA Tournament?” she said. “And that’s my goal the rest of my career: How many different women can I lead on deep runs in the tournament? Because the experience is one that they’ll remember for a lifetime.”

Tillett believes that, with those goals in mind and the resources at Saint Louis, the team needs to consistently compete at the top of the Atlantic 10 Conference. May also believes that Tillett will take the program to the next level. 

“There’s no question we’ve got a respected women’s basketball program, and I thank [former head coach] Lisa [Stone] and her group [for getting] us to this point,” he said at Tillett’s introductory press conference. “But everybody we talked to, it’s always been about how do we get [to] the NCAA Tournament? How do we win the Atlantic 10? How do we continue to grow? … We’ve got a great chance to really elevate our program real fast here.” 

After leading Longwood to an NCAA Tournament berth in her fourth season, she looks to get there sooner at Saint Louis. 

“I want to beat my own goal and try to get there in three,” Tillett said. “And hey, why not sooner? It all depends on how all of us that come together put our heads down and work together. And that’s really what will determine how quickly we’re successful.” 

She believes that while there are ways to speed up the culture process, it is still a process and journey. “Our success at Longwood wasn’t because we were saying we were going to do it or wishing we were going to do it. It was because we all put our heads down together and worked to do it,” she said. 

In the next three months, Tillett has three priorities. First, she wants to take care of and continue to get to know the current players and work to establish how the team wants to move forward. Second, she wants to continue recruiting talented student-athletes who complement the current roster and will add to what the team is trying to do. Lastly, she wants to hire a quality staff to lead with. 

“When you get all of those decisions right, you can create something really special,” she said. 

She has only had a handful of on-court workouts with her team, and though she is still learning more about them, she’s excited about the size on the current roster with Brooke Flowers at 6’5 and Sevval Gul at 6’4. “I think it could make some of our defensive schemes work even better with Brooke’s length and Sevval. So I’m excited about that,” she said. 

Off the court, Tillett looks forward to helping to educate the next group of women. 

“When are women taught to negotiate contracts? When are we taught that?” she said. “And so I’ve been fortunate that women have poured into me and helped me along the way. And I want to be able to do that for any woman that I lead, or any woman from another program that calls me to help them navigate this space or apply it to another field.”

Tillett plans to have a women’s empowerment speaker series and bring in women leaders to share their triumphs, the adversity they’ve faced and the paths they’ve forged with the team. 

“Some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had with student-athletes have been after those meetings,” she said, “whether it was because that woman inspired them in a career field or they just looked at that woman and said, ‘Wow, I see myself in her and I think that I could lead like she leads,’ and opening their mind to what they’re able to do. So that’s something that I’m really looking forward to doing here at SLU as well.”

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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