Why the freshmen left UW women's basketball team
On the cover of last season's UW women's basketball media guide, new coach Tia Jackson held a basketball that glowed, white hot. The theme: "Turning Up The Heat." But for some players, that first season got too hot. For others, it was tropically lush.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The midwinter dusk already had fallen, but inside the gym, even with the lights on, it somehow seemed even darker. Washington's coach wasn't happy with her team's practice.
Her voice echoed off the folded-up bleachers. Only her voice. No player dared talk. It was a harsh hush.
For some players at Washington, that feeling was suffocating. For others, it was motivating.
On the cover of last season's UW women's basketball media guide, new coach Tia Jackson held a basketball that glowed, white hot. The theme: "Turning Up The Heat."
But for some players, that first season got too hot. For others, it was tropically lush.
Jackson, 36, was brought to Washington by former athletic director Todd Turner to change the culture of women's basketball. It was his belief that former coach June Daugherty settled for something less than he thought the school deserved.
Turner wanted to turn up the heat and Jackson came in and cranked the emotional thermostat higher than it had been since Chris Gobrecht left in 1996.
As a matter of fact, Jackson's style is much like Gobrecht's. And, like Gobrecht's program, it isn't for everyone.
"She was an old school, '60s, boys P.E., tyrant coach," said Chris Bennett, the mother of freshman center Kali Bennett.
"A lot of people know that Coach J isn't on the lax side," said sophomore-to-be guard Sarah Morton. "But for me that's what a good team needs — a tough coach who demands almost perfection. Coach J pushes you to be stronger."
Last month Jackson lost the fourth in last season's much-anticipated six-player freshman class. Just as Jess McCormack, Candice Nichols and leading scorer Katelan Redmon had before, Bennett announced she was leaving.
The defections raised eyebrows and questions about the health of the program.
"As a new head coach, Tia should have come in there humble," said Vicky Murray, Nichols' mother. "Instead she came in with a God-like attitude. If June had been able to stay one more year, she would have proven herself. I mean those girls she recruited can play."
"I liked playing for both of them," said point guard Emily Florence, a senior last season. "Coach Jackson was tough on us, but I liked that she was tough on us. I wish I had a couple more years with her. I think she's going to do some great things with the program."
When she came to Washington, Jackson, for 11 years an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth, Stanford, UCLA and Duke, had only about two months to re-recruit the freshmen. Normally the recruiting process takes two, three or even four years. The recruits and the coaching staff didn't know each other well when training began.
"My style of basketball is probably not for every kid," Jackson said, sitting in an office inside Hec Ed late last week. "For those freshmen, I think it was in their best interests to move forward. Obviously around here, they're thinking, 'Oh, gosh, what's going on?' But it's not because there's something wrong in the program. It's just that this place was just not for them.
"The new era was not for them."
For the past two weeks, I've talked to parents and players, past and present, and gotten two very different pictures of the program.
"I left because I was mistreated up there," said Nichols, who transferred to Loyola Marymount. "It was just the bad basketball program that made me actually hate it. Now that I'm at LMU, it feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders."
"I think a lot of it has to do with style," said junior-to-be guard Sami Whitcomb. "Coach J is very intense, very demanding, and I think some players thrive under that environment and I think other players don't. Nothing against June, I think they [the coaching staff] were great. We did conditioning and it was hard, but it was definitely a level harder when Coach J came. It was a new kind of pain. It took a lot of mental toughness just learning to push through it."
Speaking of pain, three of the four freshmen left the program with injuries. Nichols has loose cartilage in her knee that might require surgery. Bennett, according to her mother, still is bothered by problems resulting from a broken thumb she sustained during the season. She also has a knee injury and suffers from migraines and anemia.
McCormack, a member of the New Zealand national team, still is hobbled by a high ankle sprain she suffered at Washington. Her place on the Olympic team is being threatened because of it.
"I think a lot of my health problems were stress," said Bennett, who took a recruiting visit to the University of Hawaii last weekend and also is considering Arizona State, Iowa State and Nebraska. "I was really stressed out during the season to the point that I got constant migraines. I couldn't sleep very much. I do feel there were points in the season where coach Jackson would say we were out of shape, but I felt that we were overworked. The main reason I'm leaving is just coaching."
"This is exactly what I wanted," said Morton, who tore both of her ACLs in high school "This is my perfect world. [Trainer] Jenn [Ratcliff] and all the training staff have always been there for me. My knees are stronger than they've ever been. I can't thank Jenn enough. I'm healthy again."
The coach's view:
"I've had six knee surgeries," Jackson said. "Do you think I'm not sensitive to kids being injured? I've been that person. When they're injured, I'm injured. It breaks my heart to hear that some players think their injuries didn't get attention. I'm beside myself because I know that didn't happen."
This freshman class was recruited by Jackson's predecessor, and the difference between Jackson and Daugherty is the difference between boot camp and summer camp.
"June's style is kind of laid-back," Bennett said. "She is serious about basketball, but laid-back in her style. It is really family-friendly, very personal. I know at one point coach Jackson said something to the effect that, 'These aren't my players.' But she chose this job and she chose these players, and I just thought that was a slap in the face."
"I think all four of the freshmen, they were a little reluctant to let go of the parental ties," Whitcomb said. "They were all really close to their families, and I think that played a big, big part in why they weren't happy here. I think a lot of them came here because June was more of a nurturing type of coach.
"But instead they had a coach that was demanding that they grow up immediately and I think that was hard for them. It was more than they signed up for. For me, it's like, 'This is the Pac-10. What did you expect?' "
Redmon, who is from Spokane, transferred to Gonzaga. McCormack is going to Connecticut. All four freshmen should flourish in different programs, for different coaches.
But I don't believe Jackson is a tyrant who pushed her players past their limits and ignored injuries. Washington is big-time college basketball. This is what women in the 1950s and '60s fought for. It isn't meant to be easy. The sacrifices and demands are as enormous as they are in the men's game.
"I think Tia's expectation of what it takes to be competitive at a really high level is different than with June," said Marie Tuite, senior associate athletic director. "Tia, she's fiery. She's competitive. She's going to push you."
Jackson is no tougher than her former coach at Iowa, Vivian Stringer, who now perennially is flirting with Final Fours at Rutgers.
"There were some tough days [with Stringer] where the players would look at each other and we'd go, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it through,' " Jackson said. "I mean it was brutal. And on those tough days we hung together as a team. And it wasn't in spite of coach Stringer. It was in conjunction with her. We all came together and said, 'We're going to do this for her.' "
In her first year, because of assorted injuries, redshirts and grade problems, Jackson never was able to put the team she expected on the floor. She relied on the freshmen more than she wanted and the Huskies finished the season 13-18.
She has seven remaining letter winners, who are calling themselves "The Lucky Seven." She has four commitments for next season, including heavily-recruited Kristi Kingma from Jackson High School. She still has four open scholarships she hopes to fill, including possibly adding some junior-college players.
"I may not have the championships under my belt, but I know what success in the real world smells like and I want to get my players there," Jackson said. "I don't want to combat the parents. I want to work with them. But there has to be belief and there has to be trust and there has to be loyalty."
There are no villains in this story. Nobody is wrong. No one is malicious. Everybody has their version of the truth.
But changing the culture of a major-college basketball program takes patience and time and a heightened level of intensity. Inevitably there will be collateral damage.
Tia Jackson isn't for everybody, but neither was Chris Gobrecht, and she took the program to heights it hasn't seen since.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com.
Information in this article, originally published May 4, 2008, was corrected March 5, 2008. A previous version of this story contained an error. One word in a quotation from Vicky Murray, the mother of former University of Washington basketball player Candice Nichols, was misunderstood. Here is the correct quotation, with the word "God-like" used instead of the errant "guy:" "As a new head coach, Tia should have come in there humble. Instead she came in with a God-like attitude."
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UPDATE - 9:02 PM
Steve Kelley: What happened to the once-scary Huskies?