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The coaching search for Rutgers women’s basketball is complicated

A full review of potential candidates, profiles and past connections as AD Pat Hobbs looks to replace a legend.

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Rutgers v Syracuse
C. Vivian Stringer sits next to former assistants Chelsea Newton and Tia Jackson during a 2013 game vs. Syracuse. Both could be potential candidates to replace the coaching legend.
Photo by Nate Shron/Getty Images

The longest tenured head coach at Rutgers, C. Vivian Stringer, is set to retire in September after leading the program since 1995. Replacing a Hall of Famer will be no easy task. In fact, there have only been two full-time head coaches in Rutgers women’s basketball history and both are legends. Stringer replaced Theresa Grentz, who was just voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a player and first brought the program into national prominence. Both had tremendous success leading the Scarlet Knights for a combined four plus decades.

There were many lean years over that time span across the athletic department but one team that Rutgers fans could rely on to take pride in was women’s basketball. Now that so many program’s have become successful in recent years, finding the right replacement for Stringer is a major priority for one of the higher profile sports in the Big Ten as well as on the banks. It’s a valued program by the fan base and has tremendous history at Rutgers.

Athletic director Pat Hobbs has made several successful hires during his tenure at Rutgers that more or less fell into three categories. He’s hired veteran coaches who were established program builders that had won at smaller schools including Steve Pikiell (men’s basketball), Jim McElderry (men’s soccer), and Steve Owens (baseball). He’s hired rising stars who had success in their lone heading coach stint before coming to Rutgers like Justin Price (rowing) and Umme Salim-Beasley (gymnastics). Hiring star assistants like Melissa Lehman (women’s lacrosse) and Bob Farrell (track and field) has also worked out well.

Whatever the blueprint he plans to follow this time, there will be options.

The Athletic published an article in March in which they polled current head coaches on what they considered to be among the best jobs in women’s basketball. While not included in the top five, Rutgers was one of just eight school’s mentioned overall. An anonymous coach stated, “Rutgers pays over a million dollars a year. The AD doesn’t bother you. Practice facility itself is best in the country, and the arena is getting a facelift.”

The big question is what approach will Rutgers take in finding the program’s next head coach? Is the million dollar a year salary that C. Vivian Stringer was paid continue to be something the school is willing to pay? Would they go bigger? Or is the right candidate available for less?

The university has shown a tremendous commitment in recent years to paying salaries necessary to compete at a high major level. Greg Schiano and Steve Pikiell are making more money in their positions than any coach who came before them at Rutgers and by a wide margin. Hobbs has approved big spending for assistant coaches as well, with offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson’s salary over a million dollars and hoops assistant Brandin Knight recently receiving a huge contract extension.

The alignment from the top down at Rutgers has never been better. When President Jonathan Holloway announced with authority that the athletic department would likely never be sustainable financially on its own, it was a clear sign that Rutgers was committed to winning and not bound to the balance sheet.

Holloway set forth the new mindset by stating, “Going forward, I have asked my administration to recast its thinking on this matter, reconceptualizing non-self-sustaining units as institutional investments that are important elements to the work of the university.”

Based on how the university and athletic department has been operating, there is no reason to believe they won’t go all in for the next women’s basketball coach. If that is the case, then there are certainly some intriguing possibilities. However, some are more realistic than others.

Three successful coaches who have all had their teams nationally ranked during the 2021-2022 season that have been mentioned by other outlets as potential targets include Kim Barnes Arico from Michigan, Courtney Banghart from North Carolina, and her replacement at Princeton, Carla Berube.

If Rutgers was able to lure any of the three away from their current situations, it would be a coup of epic proportions. It shouldn’t be expected, but it would be beneficial for Hobbs take a swing for the fences on one or all three winning coaches. Each would have been more attainable three years ago, but the timing didn’t work out. Of course, the commitment financially would need to be significant.

Kim Barnes Arico is the winningest coach in Michigan history and the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year. She’s produced nine 20 win seasons in ten years with the only campaign that fell short was due to Covid last year when her team went 16-6 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. She has turned the Wolverines into an NCAA Tournament regular in which they’ve advanced in all five appearances. They made the Elite Eight this past March, the farthest the program has ever gone in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan finished this past season 25-7 and a No. 7 ranking in the final Coaches Poll.

She signed a five year contract extension before last season that brought her total compensation to $850,000 for the 2021-2022 season. It will increase gradually over the course of the extension and she also has a half a million dollar buyout if she left. That being said, she’s a Long Island native, played and graduated from Montclair State before living in Glen Rock, New Jersey during the decade she led St. John’s to great success in the Big East. Again, it’s unlikely she would leave Michigan now, but Hobbs making the phone call to know for sure can’t hurt.

Courtney Banghart is the winningest coach in Princeton history after leading the Tigers to seven Ivy League regular season titles and eight NCAA Tournament bids from 2007-2019. She left for North Carolina and has had three straight winning seasons, including two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The Tar Heels advanced to the Sweet Sixteen along with a 25-7 record this past season, finishing No. 16 in the final Coaches Poll. She was someone who was considered a potential fit for Rutgers while she was at Princeton, but it would be difficult to get her now. She is making a base salary of around $700,000 with bonus eligibility of $470,000 annually. I’m don’t think there is a buyout included as she is still working on her original contract that has two years remaining.

Carla Berube was a player on UConn’s first national title team that went undefeated in 1995. As a coach, she led Tufts to four Final Fours at the Division III level before compiling a 51-6 record at Princeton in two seasons spread over three years (Ivy League cancelled the 2020-2021 season). At 46, she could stay at Princeton for a long time. It’s also possible that whenever legendary UConn head coach Geno Auriemma retires, Berube would be a leading candidate to replace him along with Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph. While it would be a step up league wise and salary wise for Berube to come to Rutgers, I’m skeptical she would be interested if her ultimate goal is to eventually take over at her alma mater.

In regard to another established coach, Tammi Reiss just had a breakthrough campaign leading Rhode Island to a 22-7 record and a WNIT appearance, the program’s first postseason bid since 1996. While the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year has only been in Kingston for three seasons, she took herself out of the running for the opening at Virginia this offseason before signing a 10 year extension to stay at URI. UVA is her alma mater where she scored 1,842 career points as a player, but she cited her decision to stay was in part how much Rhode Island felt like home for her now. While her base salary is only $425,000 during the first five years of the deal, her buyout is set at $1 million dollars. Hobbs could still inquire nonetheless.

While those four coaches would be difficult to land, they’re all really good. They’re are a few quality local head coaches worth exploring as well.

Tricia Fabbri has been the head coach at Quinnipiac for 26 seasons, one of the best mid-major program’s in women’s college basketball. She has led them to 11 consecutive winning seasons that includes nine with 20 or more victories and five NCAA Tournament appearances in that span. Her team went 21-12 this past season and advanced to the second round of the WNIT. She is a grinder after starting her tenure at Quinnipiac with five consecutive losing seasons, but has had just three over the last 22 years. Her salary this past season was reportedly $536,097, so Rutgers could offer her a hefty raise. Fabbri grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Delran high school before playing college ball at Fairfield.

Ashley Langford is on the opposite end of the experience spectrum as she just completed her first season as head coach at Stony Brook. She led them to a 23-6 record and a first round loss in the WNIT. They beat Rutgers at the RAC this past season by the final score of 53-44. It was the first win ever over RU and just third power five win in program history. The Seawolves were denied a chance in the America East conference tournament due to the league banning them ahead of the school’s impending move to the Colonial Athletic Association. Langford did inherit a team that made the NCAA Tournament the year before for the first time ever and her recruiting chops haven’t been fully developed.

Langford is the all-time leader in assists, minutes played and games started in Tulane history. She has served as an assistant coach at Old Dominion, Navy, Bucknell and Denver before four seasons as associate head coach at James Madison before getting the Stony Brook job. Her salary is unknown but would be in line for a major raise if Rutgers came calling.

Anthony Bozzella is a relevant name as he led Seton Hall to the WNIT championship game this past season with a 24-13 record. He’s been head coach for his alma mater the last nine seasons and gone to the postseason six times. While Hobbs was in South Orange for the first two years of Bozzella’s tenure, it was due to replacing Anne Donovan who he hired during his stint as interim AD. That connection is worth noting and while it’s possible he could be considered, I think it’s unlikely.

Rutgers did state a national search would take place, so there could be other established head coaches that could emerge as legitimate candidates. On Friday, they announced they were using the firm Collegiate Sports Solutions to lead the coaching search.

If Hobbs wanted to target prominent assistant coaches who have ties to the Scarlet Knights, there are a few he could consider.

Chris Dailey has been a popular name among Rutgers fans for years. She has been the associate head coach at UConn for decades following her tremendous playing career on the banks that included the 1982 AIAW national title. However, the New Brunswick native is extremely loyal to coaching legend Geno Auriemma and has been on the bench with him for 34 years. Even so, it’s a call Pat Hobbs had to make just to check and respected women’s basketball writer Mel Greenberg hinted that it did happen with the expected outcome most predicted.

The other RU alum whose name gets mentioned the most aside from Dailey is Chelsea Newton, who played for Stringer at Rutgers from 2000-2005 before a five year career in the WNBA. She then came back to Piscataway, serving as an assistant under Stringer from 2010-2015. Newton then served as an assistant coach at Georgia before following head coach Joni Taylor to Texas A&M as associate head coach. The timing is tough as she just started in College Station last month. Of course, getting the opportunity to be the head coach at her alma mater could be plenty to entice her to make the move so quickly. Newton is well respected and while she doesn’t have any head coaching experience, she is a seasoned power five assistant.

Jolette Law played for Stringer at Iowa and then worked as an assistant at Rutgers in the first decade plus of her tenure at RU from 1995 until 2007. She was promoted to associate head coach in 2003 and after the magical NCAA Tournament run to the national title game, she was hired as head coach by Illinois. She had two winning seasons in Champaign but was fired after five years with a 69-93 record. Law then worked as an assistant at Tennessee for five years followed by the past five years as an assistant under Dawn Staley. They won the national championship this past season. Law’s candidacy is an interesting one in that she has Big Ten playing and head coaching experience, although not recent, while her pedigree as an assistant is also notable.

A third former Rutgers assistant who warrants consideration is Tia Jackson, who also played for Stringer for Iowa. She has been a high major assistant for two decades with stops at Stanford, UCLA, Rutgers (2011-2015), Miami (FL) and now Duke for the past two seasons after previously working there over a decade earlier. She initially left Duke in 2007 to become head coach at Washington. Jackson never had a winning season in four years, finishing with a 45-75 record. Her reputation as a recruiter is strong and Rutgers signed two top three classes nationally when she was an assistant, while she also helped to sign two top two classes in her first run at Duke.

A well respected assistant coach who was recruited to Iowa by Stringer but never played for her and has no Rutgers ties that could be considered is Shannon Perry-LeBeauf. She is the current associate head coach at UCLA and has been in Westwood the past 11 seasons overall. She has previously been an assistant at Duke, USC and Iowa.

Nadine Domond has served as an assistant coach at Rutgers since 2016 and played at Iowa including Stringer’s last season before coming to Piscataway. She won SWAC Coach of the Year at Grambling after leading the program to its best record in six seasons at 17-14. After just two years, she left to be an assistant under Stringer. Whether she is seriously considered remains to be seen.

Stringer has developed an extensive coaching tree, but there are a few coaches with ties to her and Rutgers that are unlikely to be considered. Carlene Mitchell was just promoted from interim head coach to head coach at Cal State Northridge despite a 9-19 record last season. Tasha Pointer is a Rutgers Hall of Famer and was captain of the 2000 Final Four team, but she was recently let go after four years as head coach at Illinois-Chicago (UIC) with just a 9-69 record.

I’ve gotten some questions on the Coyle sisters who played with Dailey on the 1982 title team and are Rutgers Hall of Famers. Pat has had a good coaching career including five years leading the New York Liberty in the WNBA, many years as a high major college assistant including at Rutgers. She last worked as the head coach for St. Peter’s from 2013-2018. However, she hasn’t coached in four years. Her sister, Mary Coyle Klinger was a great player as well and has been very successful as the head coach at Rutgers Prep, amassing over 600 wins. I just don’t think either is at the stage of their careers where making the jump to the Big Ten makes sense.

Tim Eatman, who has been with the program since 2015, has been Stringer’s associate head coach and was acting head coach this past season. I wouldn’t expect him to get any serious consideration. It was a difficult situation for any coach to manage, but Rutgers finished with an 11-20 record overall and 3-14 mark in Big Ten play.

One major question is how involved will Stringer be in the hiring process? While she has been on a year long leave of absence, she isn’t officially retired until September. It’s fair to suspect she will want to give her input with who the next head coach will be. The fact that she has such an extensive network of former players and coaches makes this search even more interesting to track. Perhaps she’ll want to remove herself from the process altogether due to the potential of having two or more connections competing for the job.

The biggest question, of course, is what will Pat Hobbs do?

Athletic Directors are basically judged in three major categories: fundraising/facilities, avoiding scandal/controversy, hiring/firing coaches. To his credit, Hobbs has managed all three areas rather well. Not perfectly by any stretch as he’s made mistakes in all three. However, I’d argue with any detractors that Hobbs has had as successful and impactful a tenure at Rutgers as any previous AD ever has and he’s only been on the banks less than a decade.

That being said, there is no denying this is a key moment for Hobbs. There is a lot of fan pride with Rutgers women’s basketball and making sure the future as bright as the past is crucial. Whether he is able to go big with a nationally significant hire, land a respectable program builder or decide on a well respected high major assistant remains to be seen.

Whoever becomes the next head coach of Rutgers women’s basketball has a tremendous opportunity but a difficult challenge as well. The roster is severally depleted and they new coach likely won’t start until June at this point. Even so, it’s a new day for the program as the sun sets on a legend and dawn brings new hope. Hopefully, plenty of future success follows as well, just like the past.