On Tuesday, Rutgers officially introduced Coquese Washington as the third full-time women’s basketball head coach in program history. She is following two legends in Teresa Grentz and C. Vivian Stringer, who announced her retirement this spring after 26 seasons following an extended leave over the past year.
“Following in the footsteps of Hall of Fame coaches Theresa Grentz and C. Vivian Stringer is a tremendous honor,” said Washington. “They exemplify achieving high levels of excellence with grace, class, integrity and dignity. The way they blazed trails and impacted the lives of student-athletes and coaches, beyond the ones on their teams, is nothing short of amazing. Standing on their shoulders to guide this program is going to be a wonderful adventure, and our family is eager to get to Piscataway and become a part of this remarkable community.”
In asking Hobbs why Washington was the right fit for Rutgers, he stated, “She is a super talented person. She brings a level of experience that will resonate with anybody she is recruiting. Whether it’s her experience as a student-athlete at Notre Dame. Am I going to get the very best coaching in college? What is the WNBA experience like? She checks all of those (boxes). She also went on to get a law degree. She showed there are other things you can do with opportunities that are provided. We could not be more excited with her arrival on the banks.”
In addition to having big shoes to fill, there is a mostly vacant roster that needs filling as well. Only three players from last year’s team are set to return with two high schoolers and Hartford transfer Abby Streeter expected to join them. With Memorial Day Weekend approaching, Washington has a difficult task in filling out a competent roster for next season.
“I’ve had one conversation with our team,” stated Washington. “I’m excited about their energy and their passion for Rutgers. They love this place. Like most programs across the country, you look at the transfer portal that rosters are in flux. It’s a little premature to talk about the roster at this point because it’s not complete. It’s not rock solid so I’m not ready to comment on that.”
She emphasized the first priority was to “get our staff in place” before adding, “Make sure we have the people in place to serve our student-athletes. That’s the first thing. If that’s 1A, then 1B is finalizing the roster and making sure that’s complete heading into the fall.”
Washington is racing against time for next season, but that doesn’t mean she should sacrifice the long term by rushing any decisions. Her six year deal will give her time and the administration that selected her has valued interest in her success.
Hobbs explained his mindset in saying, “I think if you talk to any of my coaches, what they’ll tell you is, I talk about patience, I talk about an understanding of what’s required to build a program. Because of where we are in the cycle here, it’s going to take a little bit more. … This will be an especially challenging time. Although that burden or difficulty is eased in some way because there’s a lot of kids in the portal right now looking for a home.”
While it’s understandable that Washington is going to need time to rebuild a program that unfortunately has fallen from grace over the last year plus in Stringer’s absence, skepticism in her ability to do so from fans online seems unfair. Having some concern about how Washington’s tenure ended at Penn State is warranted, but that doesn’t mean having three losing seasons in her last five should overshadow the fact that she led that same program to three consecutive Big Ten titles.
The last time Rutgers hired a coach in any sport with a track record that included that level of success was C. Vivian Stringer, who won six Big Ten titles at Iowa. She didn’t win any at Rutgers, but did win two Big East titles before joining the Big Ten in 2014. That’s not a jab at her as Stringer, as the Hall of Famer had tremendous success overall on the banks, including two Final Four trips. It’s more to point out that Washington’s success deserves respect in its own right.
Penn State has a proud women’s basketball program like Rutgers and Washington followed a legend in her own right in Rene Portland. She had won over 600 games in her time in Happy Valley, went 271-95 in Big Ten play and took the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament 21 times in 27 years. Portland resigned in 2007 amid a lawsuit filed by a former player.
Washington has experience stepping into a difficult situation in following a legend and navigated it well despite the controversy around that program. She led PSU to the program’s first winning season in five years during her third at the helm. Penn State then won 24 or more games in the next four seasons, winning those three Big Ten titles in addition to advancing in the NCAA Tournament all four years, making the Sweet Sixteen twice.
The roster turned over and the bottom fell out, as PSU went 18-43 the following two seasons. Washington recovered with a 21 win campaign in 2016-2017 and advanced to the third round of the WNIT. A 16-16 season followed with another WNIT appearance. After going just 12-18 the following season, Washington was let go by Penn State. After winning three consecutive Big Ten titles, PSU never finished better than 7th place in her last five seasons, compiling an overall record of 67-89.
In the three seasons since Washington departed, Penn State has a record of 27-46 and 12-43 in Big Ten play.
When asked about that downturn at her opening press conference on Tuesday, Washington offered perspective as to why.
“The lessons I learned is dealing with things that happen outside your program that can be detrimental — things that you don’t necessarily know are going to be as impactful as they are,” Washington said. “I think the one thing we learned is how important stability and leadership is, and that you have to have the steadiness in an administration. I thought we did a good job as a staff maintaining through a lot of instability, through a lot of uneasiness and uncertainty.”
Washington is referring to the fallout at Penn State from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The horrific story of Sandusky broke in 2011 and he was ultimately convicted in 2012. Even though the women’s basketball team didn’t decline until a few years later, it is plausible that the climate at State College was at a minimum, strained from a recruiting perspective.
Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs said as much when I spoke to him this week following the announcement of Washington’s hiring.
“After three straight years of winning the conference, obviously news broke at Penn State that affected every program,” explained Hobbs. “It affected football but also every program in their ability to recruit. I think that had a big impact not just on their women’s basketball program, but the other programs as well. She came back and won 21 games in her third to last year there.”
Hobbs also explained why he views the perspective gained for Washington from the end of her tenure at Penn State as a positive.
“You learn more through failure than success,” Hobbs said. “I regard those last few years as really valuable years because sometimes you take it for granted. You get up there, you have all this winning and you don’t think it is going to change. Then external forces impact your program and your ability to recruit to your program. Not just student-athletes, but your ability to recruit coaches in your program who are going to be a really important part of your recruiting success.”
Again, I understand the concern in hiring a coach who was let go from her last head coaching job. While the impact in recruiting due to the Sandusky scandal seems valid, failure is rarely the result of one thing. However, Washington still had tremendous success at a school that offers little fan support for any sport other than football and wrestling. We’ve seen the men’s basketball team have success and it did little to drive fans to Bryce Jordan Arena.
Hobbs made an interesting comparison to Washington in getting this opportunity after her tenure not ending the way she wanted at Penn State.
“I remember when people would say, ‘he is Greg Schiano 2.0.’ I would say, no he isn’t. He is Greg Schiano 4.0,” Hobbs stated. “He’s had all of these experiences before coming back, all of which make him that much better coach, communicator and developer of talent. I would put (Washington) into that category. Tough years can also teach you a lot about how to build your program down the road the next time you have that opportunity. She wanted that opportunity and I think we are going to be really happy with the results.”
Washington will have all the tools necessary to be successful at Rutgers. It’s on her to utilize them effectively.
“The pieces are in place here,” Washington said. “This is a program that has the history, that has the tradition, that has the support from the administration, that has a strong recruiting base. (A high) level of success is achievable, and that’s what we’re going to go after.”
“The most important thing to me is that she wanted the Rutgers job,” explained Hobbs. “She saw the value and is excited about our job. She knows what we’ve done by way of investment. She looked at our job and said ‘this is a place I can win. This is a place I can build a program.’”
Only time will tell, but Rutgers fans should give Washington the benefit of the doubt. While she doesn’t have the perfect resume, her successes were at a very high level and shouldn’t be devalued by her failures. She’s won in the Big Ten and is now at a place that is committed to winning in the long term. That’s a good thing, because it’s going to take time to elevate this program back to a top half Big Ten program and NCAA Tournament regular.
Rutgers women’s basketball has a great tradition. It’s up to Washington to successfully build on it. It’s up to fans to support her from the start. A new era has begun.