New Gophers coach gets off to a running start

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2014 - 1:24 PM

New Gophers coach Marlene Stollings expects a faster tempo and better recruiting for her new team.

She grew up a Buckeyes fan, a girl from southeastern Ohio who believed there was no higher calling than playing basketball for the home-state university. Marlene Stollings still has vivid memories of driving to Columbus with her parents in the early 1990s, sitting in a line of traffic that stretched 2 or 3 miles as fans flocked to see Ohio State’s women’s team.

When Stollings was introduced Tuesday as the new head coach of the Gophers, she said she wants Minnesota’s young players to feel the same way. Stollings, 39, promised the fans who packed the Williams Arena club room — and the current players sitting in the front rows — that she would bring passion, drive and a tireless work ethic to a program that has not made the NCAA tournament since 2009. She also plans to quickly implement her fast-paced style of basketball, a change welcomed by both players and fans.

Stollings was given a six-year contract with a base salary of $350,000 per year, plus $75,000 per year for duties including media, fundraising, endorsements and community involvement. The former Virginia Commonwealth coach said she was not looking to leave that program after only two seasons. But when the Gophers fired Pam Borton after a 12-year tenure, Stollings was enticed by the potential to develop the Gophers into a national power, as well as a wealth of in-state talent she hopes will be part of that ambition.

“I know what it’s like to be a little girl and have a childhood dream to play for your state school in the Big Ten Conference,’’ said Stollings, who played for two years at Ohio State before transferring to Ohio University and becoming one of the top scorers in the nation. “There’s no bigger stage.

“I know many of those young girls [in Minnesota] grow up wanting to stay at home and play here, and that should not change. They should be counting down the days until they can get here. That’s the environment we want to foster here.”

Athletic director Norwood Teague said Stollings “worked miracles” in her two previous head coaching jobs at VCU and Winthrop. In one year at Winthrop, she led the program to its second winning season in 26 years. At VCU, the Rams won 11 more games in her second season than in her first, with a high-flying offense that averaged a school-record 75.8 points per game.

Teague said the Gophers attracted a deep and diverse talent pool for the job. He called Stollings an innovative thinker and strategist, a proven recruiter and a great head coach who came to the forefront after a search he described as careful and detailed.

Stollings promised she and her staff would be committed to building and maintaining relationships that will help her land more of the state’s top recruits. During Borton’s tenure, many of Minnesota’s best players chose to play elsewhere — including for Big Ten rivals.

“I’ve heard a lot from [Minnesota high school coaches],” Teague said. “[Stollings] will recruit at a high level. I knew that was an issue we needed to address going forward.”

Stollings is excited about the players she will have under her wing next season, including a pair of homegrown guards. Rachel Banham of Lakeville just finished her junior year as the leading scorer in the Big Ten and was named to two All-America teams. Guard Carlie Wagner of New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, the team’s top recruit, finished her high school career as the second-leading scorer in state history with 3,957 points. Wagner said after Borton’s firing that she still plans to play for the Gophers.

As she did at Winthrop and VCU, Stollings will make a high-octane offense the centerpiece of her program. She believes that “offense generates defense,” she said, and she wants the Gophers to become a high-scoring team that is hard to guard — something she expects will appeal to both players and fans.

The current roster, Stollings said, can successfully play that style and should be able to learn it quickly. Banham was ready to start immediately.

“We’ve always wanted to run,” Banham said. “We’ve always talked about it, but we never had the full opportunity to do that. Whatever [Stollings] wants us to do, we’re going to be ready for it. We all have that ability and versatility.”

Stollings would not address whether she will retain any current Gophers assistant coaches or bring any of her VCU staff with her. She said she will assemble her staff over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, she was simply enjoying what she called one of the best days of her life. “This is truly a dream come true for me,” Stollings said. “It’s exciting for me to come into a program with the amount of talent that exists here. We can move up the ladder and accomplish great things in a short amount of time.”

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