Basketball lifted Diane Richardson up, simple as that.
It delivered her from the impoverished section of Washington where she grew up, helped her become the first college graduate in her family and gave her a new concept of what she could become.
This was the debt she hoped to repay when she walked away from a successful business career in her mid-40s to become a full-time coach. It’s the gift she hopes to bestow on a new generation of young women playing for her at Towson, where she’s a second-year head coach at age 60.
“It really turned my life around; had I not gone to college, I don’t know where I’d be,” Richardson said Tuesday after leading her players through a practice for the biggest game of their lives. “Even as a high school coach, part-time, I knew this is what I wanted to be, just seeing so many young ladies like me, from neighborhoods like mine, knowing they would have an opportunity.”
The Tigers would make a nice story this week regardless of their coach’s biography — a team with little history of success busing up Interstate 95 to make its first NCAA tournament appearance against the mightiest program in the history of the women’s game, Connecticut. No matter the result of Friday evening’s game, Richardson’s players have created the fresh narrative she envisioned when she took over the stumbling Towson program in 2017.
But the story is so much richer because of the grandmotherly figure — a descriptor she accepts with amused reluctance — known as Coach Rich.
Find another coach in the NCAA field who was on tap to sprint in the 1980 Olympics only to watch her dream demolished by Cold War politics. Find another who walked away from competitive sports for two decades to build a finance career that peaked as vice president for national neighborhood lending at Bank of America. Find another who saw her innate positivity challenged and ultimately reinforced by raising a daughter diagnosed with cerebral palsy and severe intellectual disability.
Or think of it this way: Richardson is just four years younger than UConn coach Geno Auriemma, the icon with whom she’ll match wits Friday. But he’s won 1,029 more college games than she has. That’s not a referendum on her ability, just another way of illustrating how much she did in her life before she did this.
It’s striking how many of Richardson’s players took winding roads to Towson, much as she did. Some of the best are transfers looking for second and third chances that she feels called to provide.
“I came and took a visit, and I committed on my visit,” said sophomore guard Kionna Jeter, a one-time prized recruit who abruptly left Coastal Carolina before ever playing a game there and played one season at Gulf Coast State. “I felt like it was a family environment [at Towson]. … I look at her as like a grandmother. My grandmother raised me back home, and I’m big on family; my grandmother is like the most important person in my life.”
Shortly after Jeter finished speaking, Richardson wrapped her in a hug.
Richardson will never forget the encouragement coach Barbara Tyner gave her at Largo High School in Prince George’s County in the 1970s.
“Back then,” Richardson recalled, “it was Title IX going on, and she said, ‘I think you could get an opportunity to go to college.’ ”
That meant the world to Richardson and to her mother, Josie, who scraped to get a GED through night classes at the same time her daughter attended Largo.
Richardson earned a scholarship at Frostburg, where she played basketball and became an NCAA regional champion sprinter at 200 and 400 meters. She qualified for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow only to have her chance wiped out by the United States boycott in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan, married and founded an investment company with her husband. It would be almost 20 years before she’d heed the internal call to trade loan sheets for a whistle around her neck.
In the interim, she gave birth to her daughter, Dana, whom doctors said would never walk or eat regular food.
“They said I should put her in a home and forget about her, because she would bring nothing but heartache,” Richardson recalled. “But through prayer and positivity, we were able to turn that around.”
Now 34, Dana has run in the Special Olympics and been a regular presence around every program her mother has coached.
Through it all, Richardson played pick-up games and donated to basketball programs for girls in the Washington area.
But she chuckled, recalling the “Wow” her husband uttered when she laid out her ambitions to coach. After he heard her out — her desire to help women trying to rise up from difficult circumstances — he supported the radical change.
“I wouldn’t say I was completely surprised,” recalled Larry Richardson, who met his wife when they both played at Frostburg. “I knew basketball was her passion, and when she’s in on something, it’s 100 percent all the time. So I was in 100 percent.”
Richardson held on to her day job when she took over as head coach of Riverdale Baptist High in Upper Marlboro in 2001. She quickly built that program into a perennial national title contender, becoming a familiar face to leading college coaches such as Brenda Frese, who hired her as an assistant at Maryland.
Richardson returned to the business world but felt wrong throughout the year she spent away from coaching. So she went back for good in 2009, first with another stint at Riverdale Baptist and then as a college assistant at George Washington and West Virginia. As she neared 60, she was hardly a traditional candidate to become a first-time college head coach. But she had two things going for her: deep recruiting ties in the talent-laden Baltimore-Washington corridor and substantial experience running complex organizations.
Richardson’s predecessor at Towson, Niki Reid Geckeler, resigned on June 22, 2017, an unusual time on the calendar for a school to seek a new coach. Towson had the only head-coaching opening in the country.
Athletic director Tim Leonard sifted through a pile of resumes and zeroed in on two candidates, one a young up-and-comer and the other a known quantity who’d led a program to the Final Four. He also kept hearing Richardson’s name, so he included her on the final interview list, figuring he’d at least hear her out.
He wanted to give his top two choices chances to make first and last impressions, so he scheduled Richardson for the middle interview.
“Diane came in and we talked for not that long, a little over an hour probably,” Leonard said. “As soon as she got up and walked out, I said, ‘That’s our basketball coach.’ Before we’d even interviewed the one I thought might be our coach. [Diane] had everything I was looking for. I loved her business background and her vision for what this could be. … It was one of those things that just felt right.”
Richardson did not expect to transform the Tigers overnight, and her instincts proved correct. The team went 9-21 in her first season. But the new coach had a vision. The returning players would learn her run-and-gun style, and she’d fill the rest of the roster with aggressive, athletic prospects who’d change the nature of Towson basketball.
Those players included point guard Q. Murray, a former Milford Mill star who’d already made two other college stops, and Jeter, the soft-spoken South Carolinian transfer who could score in droves. They responded to the coach’s nurturing style, which trades on hugs and hope more than screams and criticism.
“I’ve known Coach Rich since I was in the eighth grade,” Murray said. “She’s always been kind of like that mother, grandmother, auntie-type figure. … When I saw she got the job here at Towson, I actually reached out to her. I’m so grateful that she gave me this opportunity.”
Now as the Tigers get a chance to play on UConn’s home floor, one of the toughest places to win in all of sports, they’re not pinching themselves in disbelief.