Former assistant coaches get their shot

Carlene Mitchell and Nicci Hays Fort were both really happy with their jobs as associate head coaches at Big East schools.

Their teams were perennially in the NCAA tournament and near the top of the conference. Yet when the opportunity arose to be a head coach, both jumped at the chance. Mitchell got the head coach position at Santa Barbara while Hays Fort took over at Colgate.

"It was really unique," Mitchell said. "I didn't send a resume or inquire about the job. The Athletic Director emailed me the Wednesday before Mother's Day. I wasn't looking for the job. They recruited me and I interviewed. The first time I went there I knew I wanted the job."

Hays Fort was tops on Colgate's list. She was contacted by the school after DePaul lost in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament and soon after took the job.

"It definitely wasn't an easy decision, but how could I turn them down," she said.

Unlike Mitchell and Hays Fort, Amy Waugh wasn't an associate head coach. She was the second assistant last season at Xavier—the school which she had starred as a player. When coach Kevin McGuff left for Washington she got the head position giving her the chance to fulfill a dream.

"It definitely went through my mind quite a bit, to have it become a reality I never really expected it to happen that way," Waugh said. "Everyone has plans and goals and to have it happen as soon as it has for me is a dream come true."

All three are in different situations. Waugh inherited a team that is rebuilding. The Musketeers lost stars Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips to graduation while shooter Katie Rutan transferred.

"We have changed quite a bit because our team has changed, we lost five of our top six players from a year ago," Waugh said. "We only have one kid who has played at Xavier before. We have a completely new team and a new staff."

Waugh just turned 30 in September and is one of the youngest head coaches in Division I. She still holds the Xavier records for career free throw percentage (.854) and the single-season records for 3-point field goals attempted (271), free throws made (146) and free throw percentage (.885) all of which were set during her senior year in 2002-03.

With only nine healthy players in practice she still jumps in drills from time to time.

"Once in a while," she said, laughing. "They like to joke a lot that I'm old and washed up and can never play. I'm still the best shooter in the gym and wish I wasn't. We talk a lot of trash back and forth and they try to outshoot me once in a while."

Mitchell inherited a talented group at Santa Barbara. The Gauchos tied for the Big West regular season title last season before coach Lindsay Gottlieb left for Cal. They return leading scorer Emilie Johnson as well as two other starters.

"It is unique that they did share a conference title last year, but I seek bigger," Mitchell said. "It's the little things we need to change. Put in a defensive mentality. We look at it that we have nine freshmen right now who all need to learn a new system, new coach and new mentality."

Hays Fort is trying to develop a successful program at Colgate, which hasn't had a winning season since 2004.

"I'm trying to change the entire culture of Colgate women's basketball. They've only had one or two season's of success," she said. "Xavier's had a lot of success, Santa Barbara's had a lot of success. Their coaches left for the greener grass. They've had success recently whereas Colgate has not. Carlene and Amy are trying to maintain and I'm trying to change and regain a little bit of something that Colgate's never had."

One of the biggest difference that all three noticed in moving over to the first seat was the amount of offcourt responsibilities they have. Unlike the other two, Hays Fort had been a head coach before. She started the women's basketball program at the Merchant Marine Academy and then spent five years in charge of Barry before going to DePaul as an assistant. Still, those situations didn't prepare her for the outside commitments.

"There is such a time demand from you away from your team," Hays Fort said. "This level it's everything, the alumni, admissions, meetings, committees, coffee with the president's wife. It's a completely different time commitment. You have to make time for your kids."

All three coaches have stayed in touch with their former heads, calling and texting with them. They all received texts offering good luck before exhibition games last week. Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer went a step further. Mitchell had asked her advice on a press break and with her fax out, Stringer hand wrote a note and the desired play and then took a photo of it and sent it to her former assistant with her phone.

All three schools open up play this weekend. Santa Barbara visits Seattle; Colgate hosts Bryant; and Xavier hosts Eastern Kentucky.

"I'm not that nervous," Mitchell said. "Coach Stringer has put you under pressure so many times. She always had us in her ear. I don't think there is anything I haven't seen as an assistant coach."