Tuck Connor laughed. He tossed aside his morning newspaper and picked up the phone to inform the Jackson County Times-Journal editors of their mistake.
Thirty-eight points? That looked more like the combined score of a girls’ basketball game, not the output of a single young player, even if the voice on the other line swore the score was no typo.
But when an editor friend at the nearby Logan Daily told him of another huge total next to her name, Connor promptly marched to the newsroom and corralled a month’s worth of papers from all over the region. The Ohio AAU coach sprawled out on the floor, his fingers blackening as he thumbed through the pages of proof.
Thirty points. Twenty-eight. Thirty-six. Thirty-two.
Finally, Tuck stopped and shook his head.
His editor friend peered down from his desk at the frantic flipping on the floor. “You’d better get down there,” he said.
A few days later, Connor had his Ford Tempo cruising past the south central Ohio cornfields of Pike County until he found the tiny gym. There, Connor finally got to see her with his own eyes: a young phenom putting on a show in front of a packed house. Afterward, he pulled back the curtain.
Behind the house Curt Stollings built on a 2-acre plot just outside of Beaver, Ohio, was a barn. A netless, hand-welded rim — barely wide enough for a basketball to slip through — hung there, slightly bent, looking over a 20-foot ring of footworn clay carved into the grass.
There the 13-year-old culprit stood, her Reebok Pumps caked with the evidence. Marlene Stollings — eventual record-setting player and Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame inductee — was holding a basketball.
“My goodness,” Tuck breathed. “This girl, this is all she does.”
‘What is happening?’
Marlene Stollings reached down for the center of her T-shirt. Leaning back in her office chair, she pulled the gold ‘M’ outward.
“This,” she said, “is inherited.”
But like nearly everything in the middling Minnesota women’s basketball program the coach took over in April, the shirt isn’t safe from Stollings’ reach.
Gold draws the eye, not maroon, research tells her. Stollings has studied this. Just like she’s studied the way prospective players perceive negative space in mailed recruiting packages. She’s studied the perfect placement of the home bench. And the most efficient way to practice. And the best method for conditioning.
She’s changing it all.
“I’ve been here for three years now, and I was like, ‘What is happening?’ ” senior guard Rachel Banham said of the new intense practices and conditioning sessions. “I felt like I was a freshman again. Just completely new.”
In her third head coaching job in four years, Stollings — at 39 the Big Ten’s youngest head coach — is ripping up the floorboards of Minnesota’s program with the intent to rebuild it anew, layer by layer. Twenty-six years away from the girl who fired shot after shot at an undersized rim hanging off a barn, nothing about Stollings’ attacking approach has changed.
“I’m extremely detail-oriented,” she said. “I usually tell everyone that on an interview — that I’m probably one of the most if not the most detailed person that you will have ever worked for. ... It’s the only way I know how to operate and have success.”
Success is something Minnesota hasn’t celebrated lately. This season, the Gophers boast the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year in Banham and another preseason All-Big Ten selection in sophomore Amanda Zahui B. But as a program, the Gophers, who were beaten by South Dakota State in the third round of the WNIT last year, haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2008-09.
Enter Stollings, hired on April 7 to replace the fired Pam Borton, who posted a 236-152 record in her 12 seasons at Minnesota. Since April, the coaching duds have changed to a more powerful color. The women’s bench — last year it was opposite the men’s — has switched to the other end of the Williams Arena floor, so her point guard can easily spot her at the end of tight games. Practices have transformed into tightly scheduled speed shows. Players pant and sweat through high-intensity conditioning sessions.
For Stollings — who has found a knack for turning programs around, and quickly — meaningful change on the court begins in the details.
“I’ve been obsessed with succeeding at the highest level, I know that,” she said. “I’m a very black-and-white thinker. I do not like a lot of gray area, in general, in my life.”
Winthrop head coach Kevin Cook — first a mentor and then an assistant coach for Stollings — laughed when asked about his former boss’ fastidious nature.
“I mean this in the best, most complimentary way,” he said. “She’s a basketball android. And that’s why she’ll be successful at Minnesota.”
‘That’s how she is’
Niki Dawkins’ hands were full, literally and figuratively, when her phone rang one spring morning in 2012. The new mother was feeding her six-month-old twins on the couch in her home in Chesapeake, Va., while watching a WNBA game that their father, Tony, was officiating.
“Come work for me,” she heard Stollings — a former player of hers when Dawkins was an assistant coach at Ohio State — say through the receiver.
Dawkins wasn’t interested. She was in the midst of taking time off from coaching to raise her babies.
“No,” she told Stollings, who had just been hired at VCU. The coach on the other end of the line wasn’t convinced.
Oh, you’re going to make me recruit you, huh? Stollings remembered thinking as she hung up. OK, game on.
She called again the next day. And the day after.
“You’re going to keep calling me until I say yes, aren’t you?,” Dawkins asked.
Her new boss had won.
“That’s how she is,” said Dawkins, now at the start of her third season as Stollings’ assistant. “She knows what she wants, and she goes after it.”
She has since grade school and at Beaver High School, where she called the plays — as a shooting guard. In college, she stayed alone in the gym after practice until she had made exactly 500 shots. She transferred from mighty Ohio State to Ohio University because she craved more minutes on the floor. And as a professional overseas and then in a WNBA tryout, Stollings called herself “about as extreme as you can be as a player.” She stuck to a strict diet, counting out every almond and leaf of lettuce she ate. (Yes, she studied the exact number of almonds one should eat.)
“Marlene is so far above the norm,” said Amy Turner, who played with Stollings in Logan AAU, Ohio State and Ohio. “She’s the one that works hard during practice and after practice, when nobody is out there watching, when nobody is telling her to be out there, she was out there doing it.”
The hardworking guard was a natural fit for coaching, and she took her first assistant job at Jacksonville University. She furnished her Florida apartment with an air mattress, a lawn chair and a television with bunny ears on a $16,000 salary. The next year, she was on to New Mexico State. Then Wright State. St. Louis. Ole Miss. She climbed the ranks, unapologetically, even as she raised a few eyebrows at how quickly she bounced around.
“I wanted to coach at the elite level,” Stollings said. “I pretty much had blinders on going in that direction.”
By the time she was hired at Winthrop for her first head coaching job in 2011, Stollings had worked nearly every job at nearly every level. She had washed laundry and swept floors. She had scouted opponents and drawn up plays and recruited. She knew how she wanted things done.
Cook figured that out after turning in his first scouting report as her assistant at Winthrop. Stollings wanted certain words changed, and she wanted the colors on his highlighted sections swapped. Cook was stunned.
“Not many head coaches get that detailed,” he said. “But that was very important to her.”
After leading Winthrop to just its second winning record in 26 years in her one season, Stollings left again. VCU had called. Two nationally ranked recruiting classes and the nation’s 12th-largest win increase later, the rising star had another suitor: Minnesota.
Stollings sold yet another brand-new house, and said goodbye to newly made friends and colleagues.
“Moving is tough,” she said, a wistful quality momentarily tinging her voice. “But there’s this voice inside my head that wants this challenge. Wants to master it. And that voice inside of me is way more powerful than just the comfort of staying where I am.”
‘How I operate’
Carlie Wagner dropped her hands to her knees, sweat beads clinging to her forehead.
“I ran track in high school, and I’ve never done anything like this,” the freshman panted.
Stollings paced the sidelines of these summer conditioning drills, her maroon-tinted sneakers pressing an eager path. Her expectations didn’t need to be guessed. Here and there, the coach pulled players aside.
“I love knowing this is how she wants it and that’s it,” Banham said. “There are no in-between questions about it; you’re never confused about what she wants.”
At the same time, Stollings is learning to let go, in small ways. She’s allowing someone else to book her travel for the first time. She’s grown to understand that all players won’t be as extreme as she was.
“It took me into my early 30s before I started noticing that people were not all wired as I was with that drive piece,” she said. “I look at it very humbly as a gift and how I operate.
“I don’t expect people to be like me. But it did take me a very long time to figure out that people don’t treat it necessarily like I do.”
The expectations she has for herself have quickly translated into massive expectations for Minnesota, even in Year 1. The word “try” is noticeably missing from her list of goals.
“We very clearly stated our objectives and our goals for this program as a whole when we arrived,” she said. “Top 25 annually, take this program back to a Final Four, and have a shot at a national championship and Gopher Big Ten championships annually.”
That’s the mentality that has brought her here, to what she says is a pinnacle for a girl who grew up revering the Big Ten. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Stollings already has imagined — planned, even — what stepping on the Barn’s raised court for her first game will feel like.
“I’m sure my heart will be racing,” she said. “And I’ll probably have a big smile on my face. ... It will be a very proud moment for me, walking out there for the very first time, representing the Gophers.”