I spoke with new Minnesota women’s basketball head coach Marlene Stollings, and what I was most struck by, was her humility and determination to keep the focus on the players and not herself. She frequently speaks in terms of what “we” are doing and I find this very telling of the true mindset of a coach. I saw the parallel between her and Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill in that they both have achieved incredible success in the face of struggling programs and falling expectations, yet they both attribute their success to the dedication of their athletes. Read on and see why “Minnesota nice” may just be the ticket to national success.
Swish Appeal: Tell me about this past year and the turnaround that occurred?
Marlene Stollings: “We came in, and we implemented a whole new system. We worked on changing the culture, and the system we implemented was a lot different than what they were used to. It was very fast-paced and the intensity that we challenged them on, was at a higher level in the strength and conditioning aspect. They adapted and responded beyond our expectation early on, which allowed us to have early success.
“When Rachel (Banham) went down, we weren’t quite sure what to expect at that point, but they just kept believing and battling. Our goal from the beginning was to go to the NCAA tournament since they hadn’t been in six year and for us to be able to do that without Rachel, it really speaks volumes to these young ladies and is a testament to their willpower and commitment to achieving our goals.”
SA: When a new coach is hired, it usually takes time to get buy-in from a philosophy standpoint, you seemed to have that early on. Was that the case?
MS: “They did. I think their work ethic helped tremendously and honestly, I think they were ready for a fresh start. We had seniors that hadn’t been to a tournament yet and I think they were just really excited about it. It was challenging early on because they were working so hard yet they weren’t sure of the success they were going to have, or at least they couldn’t it at the point.
“When we starting playing games in November, they started to see their toughness develop on the court, especially in late game situations and they felt superior in terms of their conditioning. It was easy at that point to make believers out of them once they started to see the fruits of their labor come to fruition. I think it’s really a credit to them for the openness to trying something different.”
SA: When the job at Minnesota opened up, did you already have your eye on it? Did you figure you would get the call given your history with AD Norwood Teague?
MS: “No, not necessarily. The Big Ten is certainly a level that I aspired to be at, but when that call was going to come and when I would get that opportunity wasn’t known at the time. It’s always been a goal of mine to get back to my roots and be a head coach in the Big Ten.”
SA: Having coached in both the Atlantic 10 and Southern conferences, what do you feel is the biggest different about coaching in the Big Ten?
MS: “Well, most recently coming from the Atlantic 10 conference as a head coach, I think the biggest difference you see in the Big Ten is the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, how much it increases our brand nationally and how tough of a conference it really is. There really aren’t any cupcake games, every night you have to battle top to bottom.”
SA: You have a propensity for taking struggling teams and turning them around, what’s your secret?
MS: “I have a very aggressive approach. I want to win, I want to win quickly, but I want to do it the right way. We’re full speed ahead, we spend a lot of time on fundamental work and skill development, because I think that’s an area that gets overlooked in a lot of programs.
“We are committed to it all the way through the end of the season. We will devote 10-15 minutes of practice strictly to that all the way to the end of March. I think there are several factors that help separate us from the competition but, the biggest overall one is just our aggressive approach to winning.”
SA: I see a lot of parallels between you and Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill in that you both take struggling teams wherever you go and you turn them around, you’ve both helped bring Minnesota athletics back to the national stage, how do you feel about those comparisons and the state of Minnesota athletics as a whole?
MS: “We want to operate in a very humble manner and we want to let our success speak for itself. We like to say that if you do all your work in silence and quiet, that success will come to light and take care of itself. Minnesota is a women’s basketball-hungry state, not just the city of Minneapolis, but the entire state and I knew that, it was very much an attraction of me taking the position.
“We want to get the crowds back to where they were back in the early 2000’s in the 8,000-10,000 seat range for home games. I really believe we can get it there fairly soon. In terms of the comparison to Coach Kill, I’ll leave that up to the media to make those comparisons, but I’m certainly humbled in our success. We know that we have a lot of work ahead, and we want the program to be in the national spotlight annually.
“We want to only take it there, but it keep it there so it’s important that we diligent in our recruiting efforts to stay ahead of the competition.”