Seattle U.'s Joan Bonvicini glad to be back to coaching
First-year Redhawks coach comes to Seattle with more than 600 wins, after taking a year off after being fired at Arizona.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The first step was removing the thick black curtain.
"I felt like I was at a funeral," first-year Seattle University women's basketball coach Joan Bonvicini said of the draping covering the bookshelf in her office. She'll never know why former coach Dan Kriley used the covering, but one thing is certain:
Feelings of darkness are over for Bonvicini.
Memories remain, though. The office makeover reveals a pair of Arizona star Shawntinice Polk's massive sneakers designed by Nike after her death in September 2005, sitting on the fourth shelf. For Bonvicini, the winningest coach in Wildcats history, the shoes mark a change in her career and her philosophy.
After Polk's death, coaching became secondary for Bonvicini to mothering the Arizona program through the awful tragedy. The Wildcats had three straight losing seasons after Polk's death, leading to Bonvicini being fired in March 2008.
Bonvicini stayed away from coaching for a year, taking time to reflect and learn from her peers. When Seattle U. called about the women's position in July 2009, Bonvicini felt it was perfect timing.
Bonvicini, looking as fresh as the coat of paint in her headquarters inside Connolly Center on the Seattle U. campus, expresses happiness at returning to herself. To being a coach of what she believes will be a top-25 Division-I program in three years.
"My last three years at Arizona, I didn't coach. I managed a very difficult situation," Bonvicini said. "I always knew I wanted to coach, it was just a matter of finding the right fit. I'm actually coaching again. And I haven't been able to do that. Now, I have balance and feel re-energized."
It doesn't take long to see Bonvicini, 55, is back in her element.
At a rapid-paced practice Monday, Bonvicini grabbed sophomore guard Kourtney Parks' waist and swiveled her, stating, "Your butt is to the baseline," of the correct defensive positioning. Watching on the sideline, Father Natch Ohno chuckled with a reporter.
Ohno, the team's first-time chaplain, chatted about changes he's seen in the program from a distance. Bonvicini has the players lifting weights in-season, something the team has not done in recent seasons. Bonvicini is regularly in the community promoting the team. And on Sunday, more than 100 coaches from across the region attended her first clinic, which featured Storm coach Brian Agler as a guest speaker.
"That's star power," Ohno said of Bonvicini's ability to draw.
Bonvicini, signed to a five-year deal, is charged with leading the Redhawks into Division I play. They'll play a complete D-I schedule this season, including tough matchups against Washington and Oregon State, but will not be eligible for the NCAA tournament for three years.
Undeterred, Bonvicini envisions the program to be the next South Dakota State. In their first season of D-I eligibility last season, the Jackrabbits advanced to the tournament with a 32-3 record and No. 19 ranking — winning their opening-round game.
The Redhawks were 20-9 last season. But Bonvicini will be without leading scorer Breanna Salley, a 5-foot-11 junior who averaged 17.5 points, 5-11 senior forward Mercedes Alexander and 5-7 sophomore guard Elle Kerfoot. The three failed to meet the requisite credit hours last spring, and the university has suspended them for fall quarter.
Seattle U. will apply to the NCAA for their reinstatement in December.
Kriley was fired last spring, despite winning 20 games, because of a violation of university academic policy related to the three players' suspensions, according to athletic director Bill Hogan. Seattle U. also self-reported to the NCAA two secondary violations under Kriley — extra practice time during last spring's offseason and impermissible observation of recruits by Kriley.
"I've always admired Coach B's mentality to either dream big or go home," said SU assistant coach Joy Hollingsworth, who played for Bonvicini at Arizona from 2005-07. "When she said three years [to be a top-25 team], I was kind of shocked by that, but we just have to put in our work. The best thing about it is we have a lot of local talent that we can definitely keep at home. It's a challenge, but I think we can accomplish that goal."
Bonvicini, one of 18 D-I coaches to win more than 600 games, is known as a good recruiter.
Arizona transfer Amani Butler, a 5-6 guard, decided to attend Seattle U. (she'll redshirt this season), and Bonvicini expects one signing to be announced later this month.
Success will depend on recruiting. Bonvicini, a star player at Southern Connecticut State, began her coaching career at Long Beach State in 1979. It wasn't until she landed LaTaunya Pollard that the program blossomed. Olympian Cindy Brown and Penny Toler, the current Los Angeles Sparks general manager, followed. Bonvicini finished with a 325-71 record in 12 seasons with the 49ers, advancing to the Final Four in 1987 and 1988.
At Arizona, former Storm forward Adia Barnes and Polk helped Bonvicini win a co- Pac-10 championship and WNIT title.
"That played a huge role," said Phoenix Mercury assistant coach Julie Brase-Hairgrove, who played for Bonvicini at Arizona (1998-2002). "Coach B started to get the players she needed to win and play the style she wanted. But when Polkey died, things kept spiraling downhill and it ended Coach's B career."
Well, not completely. After a year of color commentating for Fox Sports Arizona, consulting for an international sports tour agency and observing games and practices, Bonvicini is ready for her rebirth.
Aiming to run a half-marathon, she wakes every morning for a 3.2-mile run. She's in the office by 8:30 a.m. and normally doesn't leave until 9 p.m. — free to immerse herself in the season, with her family still in Tucson.
And on Tuesday it was back to her routine — an afternoon of watching game film and a nap before defeating Northwest University in Seattle U.'s exhibition opener. Bonvicini beamed after the Redhawks won 75-54 behind 18 points and nine rebounds from sophomore forward Maggie McCarthy.
"I have a gold mine here," said Bonvicini, who said she plans to coach another 10 years. "I feel like I'm back at Long Beach where people say, 'Why should they be so good?' It's about people. Some other places, their facilities may be better. But when you get great people and you believe in what you're doing — that's how you get to be really good."
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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