In her debut as the women’s basketball coach at Texas Southern in 2013-14, Johnetta Hayes guided the Lady Tigers to their first of two 20-win seasons during her six-year tenure and a berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
Hardly anyone at UMBC is expecting Hayes to transform its program into an instant powerhouse, and after she was introduced Monday by athletic director Tim Hall as the Retrievers’ ninth head coach, Hayes acknowledged that both she and the players will have to work on connecting with one another.
“That was just those young ladies buying in,” she said of her rookie season as head coach. “The transition will be different. We just want to take it day-by-day and grow. These young ladies are extremely talented, and if they’re willing to put in the work and the time just as they do with their academics, we’re going to be in a really good situation here at UMBC.”
Hayes brings to the Retrievers a track record of success. The two 20-win seasons helped her amass a 115-73 record at Texas Southern and collect the Southwestern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honor in 2015. Under her tutelage, the Lady Tigers captured SWAC regular-season championships in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and made four postseason appearances, including their first NCAA tournament in 2017.
The challenge at UMBC, however, might be greater than anything Hayes has faced. The program last played in the WNIT to conclude the 2010-11 campaign and has since gone 91-155 overall and 48-80 in the America East Conference.
Upturning what has become a culture of mediocrity will be Hayes’ first assignment, but she emphasized beginning a new era with the players.
“Today we hit the restart button,” she said. “I don’t know very much about the past. It’s about what we can accomplish together in the future, and we’re hitting the restart button. … Stability shouldn’t take very much time because we will spend time off the court, we will bond, we will create relationships so that they will want to be here and it becomes contagious.”
Earning the players’ trust and confidence should also be a top priority after they endured the dismissal of former coach Phil Stern, who was placed on leave Dec. 13 before resigning Feb. 22. Assistant coach Carlee Dewey, who had served as acting head coach for the team’s final 21 games, was not retained, nor were other assistants.
While pointing out that the team rallied to overcome the adversity, junior guard Tyler Moore acknowledged that the turmoil within the coaching staff was rough.
“We’re ready for a fresh start, and I think she’s going to do a great job of preparing us,” she said. “Like she said in her opening remarks, it’s about hitting the restart button, and we’re ready for that, and I think her energy on and off the court is exactly what we need for this program.”
Hall said the school’s search committee interviewed eight candidates before trimming the list to two finalists. He said the university moved quickly to bring some stability to the program.
“I also wanted to have somebody here to do this, to start the relationship-building and give the new coach an opportunity to get in front of the young ladies and see what they could do from a basketball perspective in the last couple weeks of this semester before the kids go away for the summer,” he said.
Hayes’ first meeting with the players Monday morning involved the former 6-foot-4 Rice center tumbling to the ground as she — in her words — “rolled.”
“It was a great icebreaker,” Hayes deadpanned.
Moore said Hayes’ ability to brush off the gaffe endeared her to the players.
“We all laughed, and she was like, ‘Are all of you guys laughing at me?’ ” Moore said. “We were like, ‘Are you OK? But yes, we are laughing at you.’ But it was very funny. It was an icebreaker.”
Hayes said she has prided herself on building teams that accelerate the tempo, play aggressively, and focus first on defense. She said she wants her players to tap into their “alter egos” to get in opponents’ faces and get out character.