The magnitude of the task became clear on a summer afternoon in Williams Arena, in the geometry of a simple basketball drill. Gophers coach Marlene Stollings, on the job for only a few months, asked her team to run a three-player weave that should have involved three passes.
"They couldn't do it in less than five," Stollings said. "And it took a few weeks to get it to three."
That did not change her timetable for transforming the Gophers from Big Ten afterthoughts to NCAA tournament material. An experienced hand at rebuilding programs, Stollings took the same hard-charging approach to her reboot of the Gophers as she had in previous stints at Virginia Commonwealth and Winthrop. Though she hasn't yet achieved all the aims she set for her initial season, she is proud — and perhaps, a bit surprised — at what the Gophers have accomplished as they open the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.
Stollings said she had to "change the culture" of the program after she was hired last April to replace Pam Borton, who was fired after a 12-season run. She instilled a much tougher strength and conditioning regimen as well as a new high-tempo offense, and she challenged players to improve daily. While her players said the transition wasn't easy, it was smooth, as they quickly embraced a coach whose passion, ambition and sense of fun won them over.
That led the Gophers to a 22-8 record, equaling the second-highest number of regular-season victories in program history and giving Stollings her most successful regular season in four years as a head coach.
"My approach is, we're going to come in and we're going to be very aggressive in who we are and what we want to do," Stollings said. "We don't want to wait. But you never know how quickly it's going to happen.
"For our first year of laying the foundation and the groundwork of who we want to be and how we want to operate, with the adversity we've encountered, I don't think we could have asked for a better season. We're sitting in an unbelievable position in March, having faced all those obstacles of the transition to a new program, of rebuilding, of taking over and changing the culture, of losing Rachel [Banham]. I use the word 'amazing' a lot, and it really has been."
'Powerful drive to win'
Even before that first drill, Stollings knew there would be significant work to do. Given the pace of the offense she wanted to run, she had to get players to commit to a gut-busting offseason workload, even as she was still getting to know them. Excited for a new style of play, the Gophers jumped on board. Stollings credited her players for their adaptability, work ethic and unselfishness; they lauded her for her ability to teach, and for a competitive zeal that sharpened their own.
When the team met for its first full practice in September, Stollings asked the players to sit in a circle at center court and look up at the banners in Williams Arena. The one commemorating the most recent NCAA tournament appearance was hung in 2009, and she challenged them to commit to earning a new one.
"She is very motivating," freshman guard Carlie Wagner said. "She has such a powerful drive to win, and she's really instilled that in us, which has been huge."
Though the summer workouts were difficult, point guard Shayne Mullaney said the Gophers trusted Stollings' vision. A 14-1 start inflated their confidence, as did several games that were won because of their superior conditioning.
"Everything was very different, but it was a good change for all of us," Mullaney said. "We were going to put in the time and effort to do what she wanted. It's fun to play for a coach who's so passionate about the game."
Life without Banham
The Gophers are particularly proud that they have weathered the loss of Banham, whose season ended in December when she tore a knee ligament. Stollings called that the biggest test she has endured as a head coach. As a realist, she said, she knew how much her team would miss the Big Ten preseason player of the year, but she was not willing to adjust her expectations.
Stollings said she still is in the process of building relationships with the state's high school coaches. Assistants Nikita Lowry Dawkins and John Motherwell have been making those important recruiting connections, and Stollings said she plans to aggressively pursue Minnesota talent. Though she hasn't had time yet to meet coaches face-to-face, she noted that the best way to sell her program is to win games and develop stars such as center Amanda Zahui B., who rose from good to great this season.
She is looking forward to meeting more people after the season, and to learning her way around the Twin Cities without relying on her GPS device. She's already given the Gophers a road map to a more prominent place in the Big Ten hierarchy, in a season that is on an NCAA tournament track.
"You've got to get people to believe," Stollings said. "And I think we've done a fantastic job of proving what we're about in such a short amount of time."