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Season to Believe

April 1, 2010
by Patrick Dillon

Women’s new basketball coach Joanne Boyle restores winning attitude

It is eloquent of her resiliency and steely resolve that Joanne Boyle says she’s tired of talking about the event that could have killed her, or at the least left her impaired forever. It’s not that she no longer recalls the surprise and suddenness of the searing pain in the back of her skull, or her first and last cogent thought for a while that an anonymous assailant had stabbed her from behind. She prefers to talk about here and now and about moving forward, about aspirations and challenges and living up to her responsibilities to help a group of young women student athletes meet theirs.

“Here and now” was a Monday morning with the January sun slanting into her Haas Pavilion office as Boyle sat meditatively overlooking Spieker pool. The previous day, her talented, freshmen-laden team had dropped its first home game of the season. Even with a thin bench, the Bears had played an up-tempo first half to scratch out a 9-point halftime lead over Arizona. But the deeper, fresher, and more experienced Wildcats overran the Bears midway through the second half, to lead by 13 with less than six minutes remaining. The Bears regrouped and cut the lead to 1 before poor free throw shooting doomed them to lose by 4.

“Specific things came back to bite us,” she was saying, ticking off a list of deficiencies—the missed free throws, turnovers, poor defensive communication late in the game, letting the other team regain its confidence, allowing too many Arizona fast-break baskets. “These are tangible teaching tools. I have been presented with a great teaching opportunity.”

Four and a half years earlier, she was midway through her ninth year as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Duke University, where she’d played in the 1980s, when on November 28, 2001, after jogging on the Durham campus, she was felled by a brain hemorrhage. She spent 13 days in Duke University Hospital—many of them in intensive care—as friends and family held vigil. Her life flickered and her fate seemed up for grabs. An abnormal cluster of blood vessels was spotted in her brain. Surgeons removed the bunched vessels and gave her body a chance to right itself. Joanne Boyle did her part. She had to learn to walk again, to feed herself, to speak. She exercised with excruciating repetition to regain her motor skills. And by late winter 2002, she rejoined the Blue Devils and helped coach them to the NCAA Final Four.

“The sickness forced me out the door,” she says, noting she is repeating what she has said before about her life-changing experience. “By overcoming this, I had given myself permission to take on new challenges.” She was referring to the offer she received in spring 2002 to become the head coach at Richmond University, which meant taking over a basketball program that had been mediocre at best. “I had even given myself permission to fail.”

Boyle was familiar with failure, having joined a Duke team that finished last in the Atlantic Conference the year before she arrived. Similarly, Richmond had gone 14-16 during the 2001–02 season, the year before she accepted the challenge to turn things around. During the next three years, the Spiders went 67-29, with a 23-8 record in 2004–05, competing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years.

That got first-year Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour’s attention. “I had known about Joanne through my associations with Duke, and I certainly watched her succeed at Richmond,” she recalls. “She had character; she appeared to be a good academic fit here, and she had been involved with or directed programs that had reached levels we aspire to. She seemed to have exceptional standards and certainly some remarkable personal experience.”

The two met last spring at the women’s Final Four in Indianapolis. “I remember distinctly what Sandy said to me: ‘I want to partner with you and win a national championship,'” Boyle recalls. Barbour smiled when reminded of her job offer—a five-year contract—her first major hire. “The first time I met with Joanne, I knew she was the one. She was an exceptional fit,” the athletic director said.

Within a week, Boyle was on the Cal campus, checking out the athletic facilities, meeting future colleagues, and looking at temporary rentals in nearby neighborhoods. “She called me on her cell from the Claremont Hotel,” recalls Lindsay Gottlieb, Boyle’s assistant at Richmond. “She said, ‘This place is amazing.’ I knew right then and there we’d be coming to Berkeley.”

Joanne Boyle grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the second-oldest of five siblings. She was a tomboy, she remembers, and as a teenager she was tall, gangly, and wasn’t asked to dance. In fact, she didn’t even go to the proms. “My parents were strict,” she recalls. “If I wanted to go out, I’d tell my parents I was babysitting.”

She also developed an independent streak. Raised Catholic, she sought more latitude and later became a nondenominational Christian. She didn’t even want to attend Duke, partly because her parents had wanted her to. But she changed her mind once she experienced the Durham campus and was invited to join the basketball team.

Boyle received her bachelor’s degree in economics in 1985 and went on to earn a master’s in health policy and administration from the University of North Carolina. While she initially wanted to join the Peace Corps, Boyle instead played basketball in Europe for three years, playing and coaching in Luxembourg and Germany.

“What makes Joanne so unique is her passion for the game, coupled with her genuine interest in the players. She had great determination and incredible spirit,” says Duke Head Coach Gail Goestenkors, who helped persuade Boyle to return from Europe and join her on the Blue Devil bench. “It was difficult losing her to Richmond, but I knew she was ready to be a head coach and I wanted her to pursue her dream.”

When Goestenkors learned that Cal had recruited Boyle away from Richmond, she told Cal Sports Quarterly, “They got a steal.” On taking over Cal’s basketball program, which hadn’t posted a winning season in 13 years, Goestenkors says: “Joanne has always been a great leader. She was one of the best recruiters I ever had on my staff. She’s very genuine and highly motivated to be the best.”

Boyle did not recruit the players she led to a 14-6 overall record (6-4 in the Pac-10) just over halfway through the 2005–06 season. Last year, the team was 8-12 overall and 2-9 in the Pac-10 during the same stretch. Her team is full of promise. Four of the starting five are local freshmen who were sought by other schools, including perennial powers Tennessee, Connecticut, Georgia Tech, and Baylor. It is also a team that has posed challenges neither Boyle, nor Gottlieb, nor any of her other coaches—Kim Hairston, whom she also brought from Richmond, and Dean Mendes, who was recruited from the University of Vermont—had encountered previously.

Some members of the team came from law-and-order challenged Bay Area neighborhoods. A couple were raised by single mothers and chose Cal over more distant schools so they could stay close to home and help care for infant siblings. All were high school stars, competing with and against each other in tough summer leagues, where individual playground tactics trumped technique. Each brought passive-aggressive, “show-me” attitudes toward the new coaching staff and, at times, to their more senior teammates, whom, the new players believed, they would supplant as starters. In fact, Boyle and Gottlieb suspended their star post player twice before the season was half over.

“One of our first lessons was to get them to sit up straight,” Boyle remembers. “They’d walk into practice 10 minutes late. They’d talk back, challenge. Their facial expressions, their demeanor, said it all—bad attitudes. They were sloppy. They were individuals used to getting by on individual behavior and not going 100 percent. This was not going to work.

“Immediately, we needed to know: ‘What are your expectations?'” says Boyle, who has resorted to using severe language to make her own expectations known to her team, as well as to referees whose calls she questions. “These players need to understand their own accountability to the team and to the standards we are trying to set in place. And they need to learn to trust us. But—I’ll tell you—sometimes they drain me.”

Athletic Director Barbour knows that Boyle’s coaching abilities transcend what does or does not transpire on the 4,700-square-foot stage that is an NCAA basketball court. “From the beginning, she saw that it was her challenge to instill heart in this team and give them a vision of what it would take.”

Boyle and her staff reacquainted the team with fundamentals. Conditioning was stressed. The players were stretched. They were held accountable for attending classes. They were told that being tired would never be an excuse. They were told they would not be allowed to keep the coaches guessing about individual problems any of them might be having.

“I’m learning to keep cool,” says Devanei Hampton, a regal and imposing 6’3″ post player freshman from Oakland, who was averaging 17 points per game at midseason. “I’m understanding how to communicate. Coach tells me that’s important for our general lives. I’m learning what my purpose is.”

Reneé Wright, the only senior starter, offers a historic perspective on what her new coach has achieved. “I’ve seen something new in our mentality,” the 5’11” forward from Antelope Valley says. “We think harder, work harder; we know there is nothing we can walk through. Coach Boyle’s game is faster; we have to grasp things faster. But she is a great mentor. My confidence is so much better.”

As the season progressed, the Bears progressed with it, accepting their own accountability, and trusting their coaches and each other. They swept USC and UCLA at home, and fought Stanford to a near draw without Hampton, who had been suspended for being involved in an off-campus scuffle, and without the coach herself, who had gone home to tend to her ailing father. Then they knocked off 13th ranked Arizona State.

Barbour remembers the Stanford loss as a seminal moment for the fledgling team. “We went in short-handed, and the bottom didn’t fall out,” she says. “Not only that, Joanne demonstrated to the team that, while she cared for them, when someone in her family was in distress, family comes first.”

Five nights after the Stanford loss, less than 24 hours after returning from a family emergency in Durham, Boyle gathered her assistants around her and stood in the hallway outside the Bears’ home locker room, waiting to address the team minutes before the start of the next game. She tends to be both pensive and alert at moments like these, her jaw set in determination, her frame erect. The only sound was the drumming of her fingers against the wall behind her. The drumming, both rhythmic and violent, sounded like the shoes of a flamenco dancer striking hardwood. “Anticipation,” she explained. And then she walked into the room where her young team was awaiting final instructions. Together, they would share responsibility for the next two hours. For some, the freshmen and sophomores, it will last two or three more years.

Patrick Dillon is executive editor of California magazine.

From the March April 2006 Can We Know Everything issue of California.

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