Back to school: Handful of coaches in women’s NCAA Tournament leading their alma maters

FILE - Syracuse head coach Felisha Legette-Jack reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Legette-Jack is one of a handful of coaches in women's NCAA Tournament leading their alma maters. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, File)

FILE – Syracuse head coach Felisha Legette-Jack reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Legette-Jack is one of a handful of coaches in women’s NCAA Tournament leading their alma maters. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, File)

Kellie Harper always knew she wanted to coach college basketball, but never thought it would be at her alma mater Tennessee.

That’s because she thought Pat Summitt would be there forever.

“For us, she’s this (human) being that is always going to be there,” Harper said. “You never thought that anyone else would coach at Tennessee. You just didn’t feel like that was an option. So it really wasn’t anything that crossed my mind as a realistic goal when I was a player.”

Harper is one of a handful of coaches attending the NCAA Tournament this year who are coaching at the school where they played. There’s a matchup of two of them in the first round Saturday with Adia Barnes and Arizona facing Felisha Legette-Jack and Syracuse.

“I’m just excited about being back here with my alma mater in the postseason,” Legette-Jack said. “This is something that when we first got to Syracuse, Jake Crouthamel, the AD at the time who helped create the Big East, this is what he said we were all about. We were about postseason. Everybody from the janitor to the secretary to the president, the chancellor of the university understood that assignment.”

Legette-Jack had to rebuild a program that lost most of its players to the transfer portal right before she came in 2022.

Niele Ivey had her own rebuilding project at Notre Dame where she took over for her mentor and friend Muffet McGraw in 2020. Ivey helped the team win its first NCAA championship as a player in 2001 and then was an assistant on the 2018 team that also won a title. Now she’s the one in charge.

“This is a dream,” she said. “I didn’t realize that coaching was going to be my next step after playing professionally, so when I got into coaching, I never would imagine my first head coaching job would be here at my alma mater, so I’m blessed.”

There were also the expectations surrounding a program with so much success. She’s flourished so far, winning an ACC regular-season and tournament crown in her first four years as head coach.

She took over when the coronavirus was still running rampant back in 2020.

“For sure taking over in COVID and the pandemic was really challenging and so that was an adjustment for me,” she said. “My press conference was via Zoom so not the traditional first-year head coach and then the year after, it was NIL and the transfer portal, so I came in the climate of athletics was changing the year that I had this opportunity, so I’ve adjusted to it.”

Ivey wasn’t the only one to get a first shot at head coaching at her alma mater. Megan Griffith took over a struggling Columbia program that had never made the NCAAs and only had three winning seasons before her arrival as a coach.

The past few years she guided the team to three straight 20-win seasons, a share of the school’s first Ivy League regular-season titles, a runner-up spot in the WNIT and an inaugural trip to the NCAA Tournament.

A big change from when she played and the team only won 38 games total in her four years.

While most of the coaches who are back at their old schools starred when the played, Amy Williams had a different experience at Nebraska. She said she definitely never envisioned being the coach when she was a player.

“I walked on the basketball team at Nebraska, and eventually after a couple of years earned a scholarship and was just so honored to be a part of it and now to be back actually leading the program,” she said. “I think sometimes when you’re in that role where, I don’t know, I joke all the time about being in the 30-30 club, where if we were up 30 or down 30, I was going to get 30 seconds of playing time.”

Williams said it actually may have helped her be a better coach.

“Sometimes when that’s what your role is, you learn a lot from being over on that sideline, and you look at and think the game in a different manner,” she said. “My dad was a high school coach my whole life growing up. I think I always craved watching film, breaking down film. I think I’ve had that coaching in my blood for a long time.”

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AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson and AP freelancers Curt Rallo and Bob Sutton contributed to this story.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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