June Daugherty finds second chance at Washington State
Four years after being fired as Washington women's basketball coach, she has the WSU program on a long-awaited rise.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Washington State @ Washington, 7:30 p.m., ROOT
June Daugherty smiled slyly as she shuffled a stack of papers.
"Can you speak (about) the turnaround?" a reporter asked the Washington State women's basketball coach during her weekly news conference Tuesday. "Is it just a matter of you being there for a few years and getting the right pieces?"
Daugherty couldn't help but laugh as she allowed her thoughts to drift back to 2007. A time when the Cougars had seven eligible players, often leaving Daugherty's staff scrambling to figure out how they'd practice. When few raised an eyebrow at a 14-game losing streak, and little was made of WSU ranking 300th among 342 women's basketball programs.
Today, WSU is second to No. 4 Stanford in Pac-12 standings, and the Cougars' RPI ranking is 50th in the NCAA.
Washington State (9-7, 3-1 Pac-12) hosts Washington (9-5, 1-3) on Saturday. The Huskies have won the past 32 versions of basketball's Apple Cup, but the Cougs are playing their best ball since 1995-96 — the last time the program had a winning season.
"We have not had significant success at Washington State in the field of women's basketball, and I'm getting the sense that we're moving in that direction," said athletic director Bill Moos, who'll attend Saturday's game with about 10 family members, including a distant cousin who's being recruited by Pac-12 teams.
This is a resurgence many didn't anticipate when Daugherty was hired in May 2007 after being fired at Washington in her 11th season. She received word the day after her Huskies lost to Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Then-athletic director Todd Turner wanted to create a buzz at UW, and hired Duke assistant Tia Jackson. Washington then suffered through four consecutive losing seasons, three key player transfers and two coaching changes. Kevin McGuff was hired to take over the program in April 2011.
"I looked at that from afar and thought, 'What more do you need to do?' " said Moos, who was the AD at Oregon when Daugherty left Washington. "She had just gone to the tournament again, and had some nice players with some incoming recruits that were big-time. I kind of scratched my head a little bit at the time."
For two months afterward, Daugherty's daughter, Breanne, mapped the distances from where her mother was interviewing to the Seattle base of friends and family. Offers from Penn State, Michigan and Cincinnati drew the expected drama of a teen faced with moving away from friends.
When Washington State called, Breanne's friends were succinct.
"Problem solved," Daugherty recalled one of the teens saying. "You can just stay here and your mom can drive back and forth!"
If only the program — and her health — were an equally quick fix.
Two weeks after being hired, Daugherty suffered cardiac arrest. She was rushed to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, staying eight days. Doctors remain uncertain why her heart stopped.
The experience gave Daugherty a platform — Saturday's matchup is the annual "Cougs Have Heart" game to benefit sudden cardiac arrest awareness.
"The thing about cardiac arrest is (very few) survive," said Daugherty. "They just don't know a lot with heart disease and to this day, they can't tell you why it happened."
After a rough inaugural season, Daugherty, 55, added a talented but raw recruiting class that included California native Jazmine Perkins. The guard gave a verbal commitment to assistant coach Mo Hines without ever seeing the campus.
Then came April Cook, another Californian looking to start something new. And the list grew with players enticed by the program's family feel. Daugherty's husband, Mike, is an assistant coach.
This year appears to be the breakout season. Washington State is playing a schedule ranked among the toughest in the nation. The Cougars didn't upset No. 16 Louisville or No. 23 Gonzaga, but lost the games by a combined six points. The confidence developed in those games helped WSU open Pac-12 play 3-0 — the program's best start in conference play since starting 5-0 in the Northwest Women's Basketball League in 1977-78.
"All I knew after I was fired was that I wanted to stay in the Pac-12," Daugherty said. "We knew what we were getting into here and what it would take."
Some say it's too early for optimism. The Cougars' Pac-12 wins are over Oregon, Oregon State and Utah, teams picked to finish in the lower half of the conference. And WSU is playing without guard Ireti Amojo, the team's second-leading scorer who tore her ACL against Oregon.
But when Daugherty looks back, she can only smile at how far the program has come.
"I'm just happy I was given a second chance to do what I love," she said.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JaydaEvans