Feb. 27, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE - Winning - as in, right now, during the biggest week Washington women's basketball has had in a decade - isn't everything to Kevin McGuff.
Winning the right way, the way that will last far beyond this year or next, sure is.
Tuesday, two days before his rising but already thin Huskies (19-8, 11-5 Pac-12) host No. 4 Stanford (26-2, 15-1) with Washington's first NCAA tournament berth since 2007 in the balance, UW's second-year coach suspended three players for the game because they violated a team rule.
His team is trying to get to 12 conference wins for the first time since 2003. Yet he yanked Jazmine Davis, his leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and last season's all-Pac-12 guard and conference freshman of the year. He shelved 14-points, 8-rebounds-per game force Talia Walton, a three-time Pac-12 freshman of the week. And he took out redshirt freshman reserve Deborah Meeks. All will be in street clothes on the bench while their team scrambles to field a full lineup against a Cardinal power that has beaten UW 13 consecutive times and has reached five straight NCAA Final Fours.
McGuff says he's never done this before, suspend three players for a mammoth game that could determine his team's postseason destination. Not at Xavier, which he turned into a top-10 team before coming to UW. Not a Notre Dame, where he was an assistant that won a national title.
I'm assuming there aren't many coaches in the country that would have done what McGuff just did.
McGuff assumes the same thing.
"Probably not," he said with a sigh on the edge of the Alaska Airlines Arena main court, minutes before he led the Huskies through practice Tuesday.
He is in the second season of a five-year deal to turn the Huskies into what he turned Xavier into: a national power competing for Final Fours.
And he's bent on doing that the right way.
"It's just, I think especially with us being in year two with a lot of good, young players in the program, we are still evolving in how I want this program to operate. I thought it was really important to send a strong message," he said.
"Jaz, Deb and Talia are good kids. They do so many great things, and I love coaching them. But I also want to make sure they grow to be the people and the players that I think they can be. I think this is just part of that growth process."
Davis, Walton and Meeks violated a team rule in Salt Lake City Friday after Washington lost at Utah. The coach didn't learn of the violation until after Sunday's loss at CU.
McGuff concedes the violation "wasn't an extremely egregious situation, but I do think it was important to send the right message."
He knew there would be a time early on for him at UW when his rules would be tested. He probably was hoping that time wasn't before playing Stanford and then sixth-ranked California at home on Saturday afternoon. UW likely needs to pull one upset before next week's Pac-12 tournament at KeyArena to secure a quality win and earn that NCAA tournament bid.
"Yeah, no question. There's always a time when (that happens)," he said. "It comes down to this: If I was more worried about the result on Thursday than the long-term growth of the program, you know ... maybe that puts us in a better position Thursday.
"But it's not about that. It's about, how does the program operate for the long run, and how do we put standards in place that allow us to grow into a nationally powerful program that I think we can be?"
Let him say that again, because it bears repeating.
It's not just about winning games, it's about how you run the program.
"It's not just about winning games it's about how you run the program," he said. "We are still in year two, trying to establish a culture that I want, that I think will lead to even more winning in the future.
"It's a hard decision, obviously. This is a big week for us. It's tough, with the lack of depth that we have, to be down three people. But I think it's the right thing to do for them individually and for our program."
This is coaching at its finest and most fundamental.
Coaching at the college, high-school and youth levels is foremost about teaching. The best coaches teach, their players learn and grow.
Not just on the court, either.
"When you deal with young people it's more than, obviously, about just practices and trying to win games. It's about education and helping them grow," he said. "This is a moment, a really tough moment, but it's the right moment for what we need to be thinking long term. For what I need to be thinking long term."
That - even more so than winning -- is what a coach should be about. Even if it means your team is down to seven available players to take on the toughest test it's faced all season.
"You are talking sophomores, and Talia is a redshirt freshman. They are young people in our program," said the coach and father of five children under the age of 11. "I think this was the right message to be sent."
McGuff could have - many coaches across the country would have - sent that message internally. He could have had the violating players run extra lines before and after practice, or the arena steps at 6 a.m. The only ones that would have known would have been those on the team. If he'd done that, the Huskies would be at what for this injury filled season passes as full strength Thursday against the nation's fourth-ranked team with an NCAA tournament berth likely at stake.
"Could have. Very well could have," McGuff said. "And maybe that would have deterred someone in the future from doing it.
"PASSION AND INTEGRITY, NO MATTER WHAT"
The fortitude the 43-year-old McGuff is showing right now isn't a surprise to those who know him best.
The Monday UW hired McGuff in April 2011, Arizona men's coach Sean Miller called me. Miller coached next to McGuff for five years when both were running the Xavier programs. Miller took time during the men's national championship game he was attending in Houston that night to tell me about his former co-Musketeer who was 214-73 leading Xavier's women.
"I think the world of him. Great coach. Great friend," Miller said of McGuff. "Glad to see him on the West Coast.
"You've got a great guy there."
The son of a former baseball player at Xavier, McGuff had played basketball for Division II St. Joseph's College in Indiana. He recalled Tuesday he didn't miss a hoops game from second grade through his playing career ending after he graduated from St. Joseph's.
He does everything with passion and integrity, no matter what.
"I always tell people I wasn't athletic enough to move quick enough. You know, you get going really fast and that's when you get hurt," he said, smiling. "I'm not a very good athlete. I was going kind of slow."
After being an assistant basketball coach for his alma mater of Hamilton Badin High School outside Cincinnati in 1992, McGuff went 25 minutes down the road to Miami University. He worked in marketing and promotions for the athletic department there in Oxford, Ohio, for about a year. Then coach Lisa Bradley gave the kid his first coaching job.
"He was the youngest assistant I ever hired," Bradley told me in 2011. "But honestly, even as a volunteer, his tireless work ethic superseded everything.
"He does everything with passion and integrity, no matter what."
Legendary Connecticut and United States national women's coach Geno Auriemma has known McGuff since McGuff's days as a Notre Dame assistant more than a decade ago. "Kevin is one of the best young coaches in the country," Auriemma said, "and, more importantly, is a person of high character."
JUST LIKE ROMAR
Even before he was introduced at UW two years ago, McGuff said by telephone from Ohio that he wanted to pattern his new Huskies program like the men's team Lorenzo Romar runs here.
He may not know that he's done just that with these decisive, principled suspensions this week.
On March 18, 2004, Romar was with his Washington team in Columbus, Ohio, preparing for a first-round NCAA tournament game against Alabama-Birmingham. Like McGuff is now, Romar was at the end of his second season at UW. Those Huskies had fought from 0-5 in the conference to make the first of Romar's six NCAA tournaments in his first 10 years at Washington.
Conroy, a team captain, and Jones sat as UAB roared to a 19-9 lead to start the game. Washington's season ended that night with a 102-100 loss.
"But what I remember was coming down to breakfast that morning, when I found out," Romar said Tuesday. "I was ticked because I knew what was going to happen.
"The decision wasn't, `Do we do this now? I mean, this is the first NCAA game!' I knew what the decision was; they broke the rule."
Kevin didn't make that decision this week. He made that decision when he got the job and he told them, `This is how it's going to be.' You have to admire him for that.
He admires McGuff for what he is doing now.
"If you are going be one that instills discipline, if you are going to be one that creates an environment of consistent learning - which is what discipline is, it's teaching - then you have to be sure that you stand by rules that you put in place," Romar said.
"Before you let your team know of the rules that you have for it, you have to go over in your mind: Am I willing to do this and enforce this, regardless of the circumstances? So when you do that, you've made that decision that even if the No. 4 team comes in you are going to do it. There are some that just talk about it, and there are others who enforce it.
"So Kevin didn't make that decision this week. He made that decision when he got the job and he told them, `This is how it's going to be.' You have to admire him for that."
I asked Romar what the long-term effect has been inside his program since he benched those two starters for a curfew violation the night before losing that NCAA tournament game nine years ago.
"Word got out. Things we've done in the past in terms of rules - and we don't have a lot of them - but when they've been broken word has gotten out, because of the repercussions," he said. "What happens is, players police themselves after that. They go, `Whatever you do, you don't want to do that. Coach is not going to compromise.'"
"A FANTASTIC OPPORTUNITY TO DO SOMETHING SPECIAL"
McGuff said Davis, Walton and Meeks were "disappointed" but understood their suspensions.
As for the veteran Huskies?
"They understand that sometimes kids make decisions and make a mistake that has to be addressed, and that it's my job to do that," the coach said. "They understand that and they respect that -- though they would certainly like to have us at full strength."
So who starts Thursday?
"Uhhhh... that's a good question," McGuff said.
Without Davis and Walton, the scoring burden is heaped almost entirely onto senior shooter Kristi Kingma and now-healthy freshman Heather Corral outside. Those two will likely need to play the games of their seasons if not their lives for Washington to stay with Stanford.
Daring, slashing point guard Mercedes Wetmore will have to be nearly flawless. Sophomore Aminah Williams will need to approach or exceed her 10.9 rebounds per game for the undermanned and undersized Huskies inside. Senior Jeneva Anderson and freshman Mathilde Gilling may have to be fantastic down low. Stanford has one of the nation's best post players in All-America candidate Chiney Ogwumike. Her averages of 22.7 points and 12.7 rebounds lead the Pac-12.
"Having everybody or not, Stanford is a great team," McGuff said. "This certainly changes us, having three players that won't be able to play. But we are going to go out there prepare the same way. We are going to focus on playing the best game we can play.
"We'll challenge our team to continue to embrace the game right in front us and look at that as a fantastic opportunity to do something special."
By building his program this way, the right way, McGuff already has.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.