Reusse: Short search for Stollings figures to be big upgrade for Gophers women's basketball

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2014 - 6:51 AM

Marlene Stollings was on Norwood Teague’s and Mike Ellis’ radar early on.

We’re not exactly talking about a Gopher Nation when it comes to women’s basketball. It might not even rate as a Dinkytown, after five consecutive seasons without a bid to the NCAA tournament.

OK, the Dinkytown joke was broken out when Tim Brew­ster mentioned Gopher Nation at his first news conference in January 2007, but it works here, too, so I’m going with it.

It has been a decade since the front-runners filled Williams Arena for a pair of NCAA tournament games, and we have long since disappeared. The Gophers were down to a precious few hundred for several games in Pam Borton’s 12th and last season.

Norwood Teague fired Borton and then promised a “national search,” as do most athletic directors — and particularly those with schools in a major conference.

The loyalists for women’s basketball at the U are small in numbers but vociferous in their views. They seemed to be expecting that Teague and his basketball man, Mike Ellis, would be twisting arms through the end of the Women’s Final Four (Tuesday night in Nashville) to find a prominent replacement.

Instead, it took no more than a week — from firing Borton on March 28 to finalizing details with Marlene Stollings — for Teague and Ellis to have a Borton replacement and beat feet to Dallas for the start of the men’s Final Four.

Teague and Ellis see it as a positive that Stollings is a graduate of the Villa 7 seminar for basketball coaches that they popularized at Virginia Commonwealth. Ellis had hired Stollings away from Winthrop for VCU in June 2012, before joining Teague in this new gig at Minnesota.

Now, we shouldn’t make a molehill out of the anthill of complaints I’ve received from followers of the program, but there seems to be a perception that Teague and Ellis didn’t put much energy into this “national search.”

Call the old college in Richmond. Offer the job to a coach with three years total as a head coach in secondary Division I programs. Get to Dallas to schmooze it up with Villa 7 graduates from the male side of the sport.

Was that it, Director Teague?

“Not at all,” Teague said Tuesday morning, as he and Ellis waited for their flights at DFW airport. “Marlene was one of the coaches we had in mind from the start, but we also went through a long list of candidates.

“We wound up interviewing three coaches who I would consider finalists, and Marlene stood out. We feel very good about this. She has a lot in common with Richard Pitino in her belief in an up-tempo game, but even more so, the energy she’s going to have away from the court — as a recruiter, as someone totally involved in making women’s basketball at Minnesota the great program that it should be.”

Teague was hired as Gophers athletic director on April 22, 2012. He didn’t take over for Joel Maturi until the early summer, but during that time he was out of the picture concerning decisions at VCU.

Beth Cunningham’s women’s program had flattened out at VCU and she returned to Notre Dame as an assistant coach. Ellis was prepared for this and quickly contacted Stollings at Winthrop. VCU hired her on June 5.

“We kind of targeted her as the one we wanted to pursue at VCU,” Ellis said. “In one year at Winthrop, she already was turning around a team that had been way down. Marlene’s smart, a grinder, she coaches the style of play that kids like to play.”

There has been a suspicion that the first choice for the job was Wichita State’s Jody Adams, the hard-driven former Tennessee star player.

After Tuesday’s conversations with Teague and Ellis, this is my strong impression: Stollings was the leading candidate from the time Teague fired Borton.

The men’s basketball coach at VCU was also the Gophers’ first choice in 2013. When Shaka Smart said no, that put Teague and Ellis into a scramble that led to Richard Pitino.

A year later, followers of the men’s program seem to be unanimous in the opinion that young Pitino is an improvement over Tubby Smith. At a minimum, Stollings figures to be the same in comparison to Borton.

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com

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