When people hear the name Kim Barnes Arico, many think of the new and passionate Michigan women’s basketball coach — the same coach that led St. John’s to heights that have never before been seen.
But in order to understand a person’s present, you have to know their past. And once you realize Barnes Arico’s journey, it’s not a surprise as to why she’s had the success that she’s garnered — and it’s seemingly inevitable that Barnes Arico will do the same at Michigan.
In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” he stated, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” If there were ever words that truly could define Barnes Arico, Frost’s would be most fitting for the new leader of Michigan women’s basketball.
Division I head coaches usually get their start as an assistant before moving up the ladder; not so for Barnes Arico.
Her first introduction to coaching was in 1996 as head coach at then Division III Fairleigh Dickinson. After spending one year there, she moved onto New Jersey Institute of Technology and guided the Knights through their transition from Division III to Division II. After successfully finishing that task, she took the head coaching position at Division II Adelphi University.
At Adelphi, Barnes Arico had a tremendous amount of success. In 1999-00, she led the school to their most wins in school history with an 18-10 record — and their first-ever postseason berth. In 2000-01, they were 19-11 and in her last season with the school, Adelphi finished the season 28-3 and had its best season in school history: most wins, first national ranking (#12), and first-ever New York Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship.
“I didn’t have the traditional path of a lot of other coaches, I didn’t have the connections of a lot of other coaches,” said Barnes Arico. “So for me a foot in the door, it didn’t matter what the program was, I just wanted an opportunity to get a foot in the door and then see what I could do.”
After her accomplishments at Adelphi, there was one program that was open to giving her that proverbial chance: St. John’s. Even though St. John’s was in the Big East, at the time it wasn’t the most attractive job. As a matter of fact, Barnes Arico’s fellow coaching colleagues had a couple hints of advice for her when it came to taking over the Red Storm — the first was an emphatic “No” then the second one was “Why?”
“When I first got hired at St. John’s, there had been a number of people that had turned down that job,” said Barnes Arico. “And there were a number of coaches that said to me, ‘Golly, what are you doing, why would you do that?’ Some of the best coaches said that to me.”
But not only did the words of others not deter her – they actually seemed to fuel the native New Yorker. Because Barnes Arico knew that all she needed was just an opportunity, it didn’t matter where, all she desired was a break — the break that St. John’s gave her.
“I just wanted an opportunity to get a foot in the door and then see what I could do,” said Barnes Arico. “St. John’s gave me that opportunity, so I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity that I had there and a chance to build something there.”
And there was a lot to build; this would truly be a reclamation project of the highest order. In the two-plus years prior to Barnes Arico’s arrival, the Red Storm were a dismal 22-50 and 9-29 in the Big East. Also during that time period, St. John’s had their worst defeat in school history, 118-44 to Connecticut.
It was obvious that a huge change would need to happen to take the Red Storm from a laughing matter to a serious contender.
“I think that one of the most important things for me through that process,” said Barnes Arico. “(I had) to get players to really believe in our vision and players to really want to come in and believe that they can make a difference and leave their footprints on the program.”
Slowly but surely, the culture started to change and the wins started to increase. By 2005 — only her fourth season — she led St. John’s to the NCAA tournament, something that hadn’t been done since 1988.
And by last year, she not only had turned the Red Storm completely around, she had exceeded expectations with a tour de force: 2012 Big East Coach of the Year, a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, ending Connecticut’s 99-game home winning streak, becoming St. John’s all-time winningest coach (176), and achieving the highest ranking in program history (#13).
After the 2012 season was over, an interesting twist happened that caught many in the women’s basketball community off guard: Michigan coach Kevin Borseth resigned. After the Wolverines had one of its most successful seasons in recent memory, Borseth stunned many as he decided to go back to Wisconsin-Green Bay.
With so many coaching candidates already off the market, it was on the shoulders of Michigan AD Dave Brandon: Who could Michigan find at this late date that was qualified and ready to build upon last year’s success and take them to the next level? On April 20th, that question was answered with the hiring of Kim Barnes Arico.
“I think everybody was a little surprised that I would leave (St. John’s),” said Barnes Arico. “And I think for me, the big was thing was that I was not looking to leave and I would have not left for any job. I had a lifetime job at St. John’s; I could’ve stayed there forever.
“It’s something incredibly special that had to come up for me to have interest in it and that something was the University of Michigan.”
When Barnes Arico visited the Ann Arbor campus, she was astounded at the platform that was available to her.
“When I came here and spoke to the people,” said Barnes Arico. “(I) had the opportunity to meet with everybody — see their facilities, resources, academic piece and just everything that Michigan stands for.
“I was completely blown away and for me just a wonderful opportunity and one of the greatest college communities in America and one of the greatest places to raise a family.”
Even with all of her enthusiasm about the possibilities that Michigan presented, there was still a little bit of vacillation until she met with Brandon. If anything, he was probably the essential component that sealed the deal for Barnes Arico.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know (if I would’ve came to Michigan),” said Barnes Arico. “But I know for sure that it was because of (Dave) Brandon that made my decision so much easier. He is completely an incredible man.
“Every single person I talked to talked about the vision of the University of Michigan, the tradition, the pride and about what (Dave) Brandon has done in his short period of time for this university. And the love, the pride and the commitment that he has to not only football, not only men’s basketball but to every program in the athletic department and how he bleeds blue.”
Like with any new regime, it’s going to take time even though Michigan is off to a pretty good start at 6-2. But Barnes Arico has already sped up the process by putting together a great coaching staff.
“I feel really super fortunate that I was able to bring this staff (Chester Nichols, Melanie Moore, and Joy McCorvey) in here now,” Barnes Arico said. “They have bee
n phenomenal; they’ve hit the ground running in every way.”
There’s a saying in the Michigan fight song that claims they’re the, “Leaders and Best.” They definitely got a leader and one of the best in Kim Barnes Arico. With her track record, mindset and a great staff assembled — it’s only a matter of time before she does the same at Michigan……only a matter of time.