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Originally published Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 8:03 PM

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The reinvention of Seattle U coach Joan Bonvicini

Several years after losing a player at Arizona, then losing her job, Bonvicini is back on top with a first-place Redhawk women's basketball team.

Times staff columnist

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What great insight into why the women are winning. Makes me proud to be a Redhawk... MORE
Coach Bonvicini represents SeattleU very well; she is a great leader and a great human... MORE
Keep up the great coverage of women hoops Mr Brewer. What's going on with the Storm... MORE

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In an empty gymnasium, Joan Bonvicini weeps. It is a long and unyielding cry, a kind we all should know, tears that keep the soul from going dry.

After 25 seconds, she tries to continue telling a heart-wrenching story.

"You know, I don't know why I'm crying still," she whispers.

Five more seconds. "I'll be OK in a minute."

Eight more seconds. "I think I just went into shock when I heard the news."

Fourteen more seconds. "They said she passed away."

It's amazing how the mind, or maybe the heart, can make years past seem like minutes ago. Bonvicini lost star player Shawntinice Polk in 2005, back when she was the Arizona women's basketball coach. But even now, even amid a career revival at Seattle University, Bonvicini revisits her darkest moment — her most painful loss — and needs a good cry.

They are tears of grief, almost eight years later. They are tears of love. They are tears of catharsis. Bonvicini is a strong and determined woman, and in this solemn moment her vulnerability only amplifies her toughness. It only reinforces how difficult it has been to rise from tragedy and return to doing what she does best: elevate programs, build champions, make enduring imprints on lives.

To see Bonvicini now is to observe a mastermind. She is doing the improbable in her fourth season at Seattle U. Having ushered the program through reclassification to become a full Division I member, she has the Redhawks in position to compete for an NCAA tournament berth in their first season of eligibility. As a new member of the Western Athletic Conference, the Redhawks (17-9, 14-3 in the WAC) have the best record in the league and an automatic bid to the Big Dance in sight.

They shouldn't be this good this soon. Even though Bonvicini once spoke of transforming the program to top-25 caliber in three years, she is still playing from ahead. It is exactly what she'd prefer to do.

"I don't mind being ahead," Bonvicini said, smiling. "And I don't mind being the front-runner. I like it. I can be the underdog, but I love being out in front. I really do. A lot of people don't like pressure. I thrive. I'm so much better. So much better."

Interesting she used that word, better. It has been a long journey to get better. Polk's death sent the stellar program Bonvicini had built at Arizona into a tailspin. Three straight losing seasons ensued, which led to Bonvicini getting fired in 2008, which led to 16 months away from the game. But she vowed to return. Better.

"I didn't want to be as good as I was," said Bonvicini, who has 663 career wins, which is 11th-most in Division I women's college basketball history. "My focus was to be better. And I had something to prove. Not to anyone but myself."

Tears again. Three more seconds. Then she said softly: "And so, that's why even being here is great."

They called her Polkey. And Polkey had a personality to match her 6-foot-5 stature. She was one of the most popular athletes at Arizona, and she was one of the great success stories of Bonvicini's career. Polkey overcame a learning disability and academic struggles. She lost 80 pounds to become an elite college basketball player. And she played the game for the camaraderie, for the chance to compete with her best friends.

On Sept. 26, 2005, Shawntinice Polk died at age 22 because a blood clot in her lungs caused her heart to fail. She collapsed in the training room during a doctor's appointment. Sadness enveloped the entire Arizona athletic department.

Bonvicini was on a recruiting trip in Los Angeles that day. As difficult as it was to hear the horrible news over the phone, a seemingly unmanageable situation awaited Bonvicini when she returned several hours later. A heartbroken team. Grief counselors. Media requests. And what about the pain of a coach who believed in Polkey when other schools were unwilling to take the chance, who had helped her mature into a splendid, affable young woman? Bonvicini had to suppress it to help the others, but her pain was there. It's still there.

Over the next three years, Bonvicini lost more games than she ever had, but that didn't matter as much as being a mother to her grieving team. Even today, she won't detail everything she went through during that time, explaining, "My job was to protect that team, protect the players, protect the program. We had a lot of things we could never say publicly that happened. And I won't say publicly now. It was very, very difficult."

Arizona fired Bonvicini in 2008 after those three losing seasons. She wanted to take another job immediately, but much to her surprise, she didn't get one. So she spent 16 months working as a television color analyst. She traveled the country, visiting the practices and talking shop with some of the best men's and women's basketball coaches. She was on a self-improvement mission.

Everyone who knows Bonvicini lists resiliency among her defining traits. There was no question she would be back. And better.

"I don't think she lets setbacks deter her from going forward," said Louise O'Neal, who was Bonvicini's college coach at Southern Connecticut State University. "She's not pessimistic. She's not negative. She's not a whiner. You just know she's going to do well."

Seattle U athletic director Bill Hogan sought a prominent coach to replace Dan Kriley four years ago. Bonvicini shared Hogan's vision. From the beginning, she returned to coaching with the highest standards.

"I'm a championship coach at a championship university, and I'm here to build a championship program," Bonvicini said during her introductory news conference.

Bonvicini hired former Washington star Kristen O'Neill as an assistant coach. On O'Neill's first day, she walked into an office that didn't have a desk or computer. They found a circular table, slid it into O'Neill's office, and that was her desk until they had something better.

Then Bonvicini handed O'Neill a list of the top recruits in the nation and said, "This is who you're calling."

"That was Day 1 for me," O'Neill recalls, laughing.

But it has been fun building the program. Bonvicini doesn't micromanage; she guides. To promote academics, the coaches draft their players and break them into teams, and they compete with each other to see which group can boast the highest grade-point average.

Bonvicini's first recruits — Kacie Sowell, Sylvia Shephard and Ashley Ward — are juniors now and are leading a possible NCAA tournament team. Don't ignore this program. The Redhawks play an exciting, up-tempo, high-energy style. And they're about to become a big deal.

You shouldn't expect anything less from a Bonvicini program.

"No one is going to tell her that she can't do something," O'Neill says. "Many have tried throughout her career, and certainly, they tried when she first came here."

Now, Bonvicini stands at midcourt in a circle with her team, everyone arm in arm, and she gives them her quote of the day.

"Some succeed because they are destined to," she says, "but most succeed because they are determined to."

She would know.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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