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Originally published November 7, 2011 at 8:01 PM | Page modified November 7, 2011 at 9:03 PM

New coach Kevin McGuff hopes to return Washington to women's basketball glory

Washington hasn't been to the NCAA women's basketball tournament since 2007. New coach Kevin McGuff was hired to make the Huskies successful again.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Schedule highlights

• The Huskies resume the crosstown rivalry with Seattle University, hosting the Redhawks on Nov. 16. Washington assistant coach Adia Barnes played at Arizona, under current SU coach Joan Bonvicini. SU assistant coach Kristen O'Neill played at UW. Huskies guard Mercedes Wetmore played with Seattle U. freshman Makenna Clark at Auburn-Riverside.

• Washington begins Pac-12 play at Oregon State on Dec. 29. The Huskies split with the Beavers last season.

• UW hosts its first new Pac-12 opponent in Utah on Jan. 7. The Utes feature freshman guard Cheyenne Wilson of Cleveland High.

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As Washington begins its 37th women's basketball season, success has become more of a distant memory.

Once, there were standing-room only crowds. Earsplitting cheers. Epic battles against Stanford.

"We were the new kid on the block and they didn't like it," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of her team and its rivalry with the Huskies. "We'd beat them, they'd beat us. It was a heavyweight fight. We literally had black eyes and bruises. It was intense ... in a good way."

VanDerveer, the Hall of Fame coach, guided the Cardinal to 20 Pac-10 titles and a run of dominance that continues. The Huskies, meanwhile, entered a tailspin.

Washington hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and has had four straight losing seasons. Last season, the Huskies averaged 2,411 fans, nearly 1,000 less than volleyball. And other women's programs at UW have thrived, with crew, cross country, volleyball and softball winning NCAA championships recently.

What happened to basketball? There are plenty of theories, most beginning with former coach Tia Jackson, who was fired in March 2011. Athletic director Scott Woodward is interested only in how it's going to be fixed.

Enter former Xavier coach Kevin McGuff.

"This guy knocked my socks off. No doubt in my mind that he could lead this program," said Woodward after announcing the hire. McGuff is the first male coach in UW women's basketball history and highest paid at $475,000 guaranteed annually on his five-year deal.

"He has the experience," said VanDerveer, who defeated McGuff's Xavier teams twice in the NCAA tournament. "It's a tough job for an assistant to come into the league where not only are they learning a whole new league, and a whole new school, but they're learning a whole new job. For Kevin, he knows what being a head coach is all about. He's just making an adjustment to a new league and a new place."

You could say McGuff was comfortable in Seattle the first time he plopped down on the Edmundson Pavilion floor for an interview in 2009. His team was upset by Gonzaga in the NCAA tourney, but something stuck with him about Seattle.

McGuff, who was 213-73 at Xavier, said he has had other job offers but couldn't pass on UW.

"It's ripe," he said. "If we can get the right product on the floor, people will come and support us. Look at the way people come to Storm games. I'd think they're really searching for another basketball program. Washington is going to be that."

McGuff already made an imprint with recruiting, swiping two top players who were considering Gonzaga, which advanced to the Elite Eight last season.

"The response you get when you have a 'W' on your chest in the airports, the malls, when you walk into a high-school gym ... it's a special, unique place that's different than every other place I've been," said assistant Mike Neighbors, who was at Xavier with McGuff. "The doors are opened a little easier and the calls are returned a little quicker."

While the job might be ripe with resources, the team isn't ripe with known scoring options.

Senior Kristi Kingma (15.6 points per game last season) suffered a knee injury during the second game of the team's Scandinavian tour in August. The trip was supposed to be a jump-start on the season for the players; instead it has created an adjustment period.

McGuff says his style won't be fully shown his debut season. Still, he expects to be more competitive than the 10th-place projection coaches placed on UW entering the new Pac-12 era.

"I feel really badly for Kristi," said McGuff, one of five new coaches in the conference. "But I like the way the team has responded. It doesn't change who we're going to be as a defensive team, and it doesn't change our toughness."

McGuff lives in Bellevue with his wife, Letitia, who says she's not his unpaid, fifth assistant coach. But she might be his secret weapon.

The two met when they were assistant coaches at Notre Dame. Letitia Bowen was a former Irish player who was hired 10 days before McGuff in 1996 by coach Muffet McGraw. In fact, Bowen assisted McGraw in interviewing McGuff.

"We just clicked and were really good friends," Bowen said. "It was three, four years before we're like, 'I think we like each other.' "

In 2002, the assistant coaches who had helped McGraw and Notre Dame win the 2001 national title married. And by 2003, the couple relocated to Cincinnati, where McGuff began his head coaching career at Xavier. Letitia retired, becoming a mother in a family that has grown to include five children.

The first, Kilyn, has McGraw as her godmother.

"You know, I wasn't disappointed when he got the head coaching job, but I was because I knew I was going to (also) lose T on my staff. She was such a great assistant," McGraw said. "She's somebody that's really going to add a lot to his relationship with the team."

Letitia says she supported the move to Washington because of the challenge it provided her husband, even though it meant leaving nearly all of their family behind.

"It was going to take a lot for me to leave," McGuff, the youngest of five, said of his native Ohio roots. "And this is the perfect fit."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

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