The University of Utah Women’s basketball team broke into The Associated Press top 25 list last week for the first time in a decade and then moved up seven spots to No. 14 in this week’s poll after upsetting No. 6 Stanford. KUER’s Diane Maggipinto spoke with Head Coach Lynne Roberts about the team’s success, recruiting and what it’s like to play in the Pac-12 Conference.
Diane Maggipinto: In your fourth season, you’ve seen the Pac-12 ups and downs. This year the conference seems to be a powerhouse.
Lynne Roberts: This league for women's basketball is crazy. There are five [Pac-12] teams in the Top 25 — we’re one of them — and we'll go a stretch in the next 10 days where we’ll play three teams in the top 10. So this is what we've been calling “the gauntlet” and we just got to go one at a time.
DM: Your team cracked The AP Top 25 last week. Preseason predictions were that the Utes would do well.
LR: We were predicted to finish eighth in the Pac 12. We went undefeated in the non-conference [play]. This is the third program I've taken over and kind of the third to turn around and year four, it always seems to me, is the year that culture starts to stick. All things kind of start to happen.
DM: Are you doing anything different to help your team prepare for this new ranking and the rest of the season?
LR: Well this group's been really fun. I've coached a long time. Sometimes it all kind of works together and sometimes it's just harder than it needs to be. I'm a big believer in just one day at a time, just get better today. Not outcome-driven. I think it puts pressure on winning, and you're just not as good when you're feeling pressure on anything.
DM: What's the health of the team right now?
LR: Well, we're down to eight [players]. But by my math we only need five. And that's the other rewarding thing with this team. We've had a lot of adversity. We've lost three kids to season-ending stuff — two starters. And they've just kind of shrugged their shoulders and keep plowing ahead. And that’s fun to coach.
DM: Among the eight, how many freshmen?
LR: Yes. So that is kind of unique to be doing so well with half our roster being freshmen, but that speaks to their talent. I knew they were talented, but it's a jump to go from high school to Pac 12. I mean it is a jump.
DM: Let's talk about your coaching experience. What did you learn at [University of] Pacific and Chico State — your previous schools?
LR: Well I got the Chico State job when I was 25, so I've been really blessed to be given the opportunities I've been given. You know, when I got the Pacific job I was the youngest Division 1 head coach in the country. I've been at three places where it wasn't a winning atmosphere and they needed a change. One of my good friends — she was talking about true change — and this is relative to my profession. It's not just 'whip the car around, U-turn.' It's like turning around a battleship in the ocean. You know which way you need to go but it takes a ton of work. It just takes time and it's hard and it takes a lot of people. And that's really what it comes down to — it’s just the right people.
DM: Let's talk recruiting. How do you do it? How do you go up against your literal competition here in the Pac 12? Take us through that process.
LR: To win games, to get players that are going to help you beat Stanford, you've got to get elite-level talent. The easy part is identifying them. The hard part is then convincing them - and their parents, and their coach, and their club coach, and their handler, and their Uncle Jimmy, that this is the place to go. It's basically sales. But you have to start early. You've got to start when they're in ninth grade and start building that relationship.
DM: So what's the biggest misconception about Utah the school, Utah the state, Salt Lake City?
LR: I experienced it too, personally. I'm from California and when Utah called, I was kind of like, “Huh.” It's just perception versus reality. This is an awesome community. It really is. It's a city but it doesn't have that big city vibe. I think it's really friendly.
We've found in recruiting that if we can get them on campus, if we can get them to visit, that we bat a pretty high percentage. Once they see it, they meet the people here, they understand what Salt Lake City is really about, they fall in love with it.
DM: What kind of reception will you get from media in Oregon? Or generally what kind of media reception do you get?
LR: Well, it's gaining. So when I took this job, attendance was 600 people and it was just kind of dead in the water. There wasn't a lot of community interest, let alone support. We didn't get much media coverage but I saw the potential.
Salt Lake City is a sports town. It's not like they're anti-women's athletics. I think we just weren’t on the radar. So it's been a consistent push by me. That's one of the objectives that I had when I took over. The vision was to get people to open their eyes to what we're doing.
You know the game has changed and it's fun to watch. Now we're averaging over 3000 fans. You know we're getting more write-ups in the paper, TV coverage, it’s happening. The ship is turned and now we just got to keep with momentum.