Step 1 is complete.
Monday, Washington athletic director Jen Cohen hired Tina Langley to be the new Huskies women’s basketball coach, replacing the recently-fired Jody Wynn. Cohen lured Langley from Rice, where she transformed a nine-win program into a team that won at least 20 games in five straight years, and reached the women’s NCAA tournament in 2019.
This was a high-profile hire, and Cohen helped secure it by offering a six-year, $4,050,00 deal that pays Langley about double what Wynn made per annum. You want commitment to a program that had four straight losing seasons after three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the Final Four in 2016? Cohen provided it with all caps and some exclamation points.
This, of course, was necessary if Washington wants to compete in the most cutthroat conference in the country. The Pac-12 just sent two teams to the women’s NCAA tournament final, where Stanford beat Arizona by one point. The conference sent six teams total to the tourney, but not the Huskies, who have finished 12th, 11th, 9th (tied) and 11th in the Pac-12 over the past four years, respectively.
Some might call Langley’s task daunting. She seems to find it alluring. When listing reasons for wanting to come to Washington during her introductory press conference Wednesday, she concluded with “And of course competing in the best conference in women’s basketball.”
Which brings us to Step 2: keeping her team intact.
When Wynn took over for Mike Neighbors in 2017, program legends such as Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor had already moved on. But future two-time All-American Aari McDonald had just finished her freshman season with the Huskies.
Wynn couldn’t keep her, though. Former Washington assistant Adia Barnes lured McDonald to Arizona when she took the Wildcats head coaching job, dealing Wynn a blow she never recovered from.
As it happens, the Huskies’ top three scorers from last year — junior forward Haley Van Dyke, sophomore center Quay Miller and freshman point guard Tameiya Sadler — all entered the NCAA transfer portal last week. It’s certainly not over for Langley if they go — she did build Rice’s program from scratch — but it would be a big letdown.
Remember, one of Huskies men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins’ chief accomplishments was retaining Jaylen Nowell, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Noah Dickerson and Dominic Green in 2017 after Lorenzo Romar was fired. Doing so led to an NCAA tournament appearance and first-round win. What Hopkins hasn’t been able to do is capitalize on that early success.
Which leads us to Step 3: hold on to the recruits.
If there was any hesitation Cohen may have had in letting Wynn go, it’s that she had recruited the 16th-best class in the country for 2021, according to ESPN. Among them are A.J. Marotte, Marisa Davis, Avery VanSickle and Olivia Pollerd.
Langley said Wednesday that her “first steps” will be getting to know players on the team as well as future Huskies. Can she convince them to stay, though?
It’s not as though they’re locals. Marotte is from Texas, Davis is from Arizona, VanSickle is from Colorado, and Pollerd is from Australia. There is usually a bond formed with a head coach or an assistant when a recruit decides to commit. Recreating that bond might be difficult for a new coach leading a struggling program. Again, Langley has shown she can build, but it would be nice if she started with a few tools in her belt.
Washington women’s basketball has a proud history that precedes the last decade. That Final Four run in 2016 and Sweet 16 run in ’17 — when Plum set the nation’s all-time and single-season scoring records — are what likely come to mind for most, but from 1985 through 2007, Washington made the NCAA tournament 16 times. Langley is well aware of that.
“The first thoughts that you think of a program is its entire history. Like I mentioned earlier, so many amazing young women have come through this program and the coaches that have come before me have all done a part in building it into something that can be very special,” Langley said Wednesday. “There’s a history of success, the Final Four, players playing professionally, so I have extreme respect for this program, and because we look at history and see something can be done, we know it can be done again.”
No doubt there’s a history of success. But there has been some failure, too. So step 1 may be complete, but there are still several more to go.