Carlene Mitchell made a good first impression Thursday at the press conference introducing her as UCSB’s new head women’s basketball coach. Before taking the podium, Mitchell sought out former Gaucho coach Mark French and shook his hand. She acknowledged French’s seminal role in developing the type of program that would impel her to move across the country from New Jersey, where she was the associate head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
“I understand why you guys wanted him to come out of retirement,” Mitchell, 36, said of French. “Not only is he a brilliant man at Xs and Os, he established this program. You were all proud of him. What I want to do is bring that back.”
The implicit message was that something was missing during the three years Lindsay Gottlieb coached the Gaucho women after French retired. Part of it was the John Wooden effect — it is nearly impossible to meet expectations in the wake of a coach who spent decades (21 years, in French’s case) building character and winning lots of games — and while Gottlieb compiled a respectable record, she did not create an atmosphere that brought droves of appreciative fans to the Thunderdome. There was little dismay in UCSB’s ranks when Gottlieb departed to become head women’s coach at UC Berkeley, where she had been an assistant before coming to Santa Barbara.
Mitchell’s emergence as a leading candidate to replace Gottlieb aroused concerns that she was another outsider who would not hesitate to leave for a more lucrative offer at a school with a big-time athletic budget. A safer choice seemed to be Kirsten Moore, who has put down strong roots in the community as head coach of the Westmont College women’s team for the past six years. Moore fit the homegrown image of French and his former assistants, Cori Close, Tony Newnan, and Barb Beainy — all of them UCSB alums — who put a stamp of excellence on the Gaucho women’s teams in the 1990s. Newnan is Moore’s top assistant at Westmont and may have come back to UCSB with her.
On close inspection, though, Mitchell has a lot in common with Close, who was hired as head women’s coach at UCLA last month. As point guards in their playing days, they were leaders on the floor. Close set a season assist record at UCSB, and Mitchell set a record of 17 assists in a championship game at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College and later started at Kansas State. They both put in long coaching stints at their previous schools — Close seven years at Florida State, Mitchell 10 years at Rutgers — where both had been promoted to associate head coach. They both excelled at recruiting.
“I’m loyal to a fault,” Mitchell said. The Arkansas native’s first job as a Division I assistant was at Oklahoma State. “When I chose to go to Rutgers, I battled with the decision. I went through two interviews just to be sold on the fact that it’s okay to leave a program and go to another with a Hall of Fame coach.”
That coach is C. Vivian Stringer, the third winningest Division I women’s coach of all time. Rutgers was in a lull when Mitchell joined her. The Scarlet Knights went 9-20 in their first season together, but then followed nine seasons during which they averaged 25 victories and appeared in every NCAA tournament, reaching the championship game in 2007. That period was infamous for the disparaging remarks that radio agitator Don Imus made about the Rutgers players. “It only made us stronger as women,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully, society paid attention to racism and other issues that were raised.”
The Scarlet Knights displayed a grittiness that also was a hallmark of French’s UCSB teams. They were always hustling after loose balls, crashing the boards, and playing relentless defense. That style was one of the determining factors in the decision to hire Mitchell, according to UCSB athletics director Mark Massari. “In the end, it was about tough kids, and it was about defense,” Massari said.
UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang declared that Mitchell was the “unanimous number one choice” of the search committee. French endorsed her by saying, “I know she will continue to value the growth of our outstanding women, on and off the court, while bringing a strong dose of Rutgers and Big East toughness to the Gauchos.”
Mitchell was planning to spend another season at Rutgers when she got a call from UCSB. “People know my name; they know the work I’ve done,” she said. “When it’s the right program, they’ll find you.” She decided the Gauchos were the right program. Stringer did not want to lose her, but Mitchell said that after a decade at the side of the legendary coach, “I feel groomed to be in this position. … I told her it’s a perfect fit.” In discussions with Massari, she said, “It was never about money.” Massari said Mitchell’s compensation will be in line with Gottlieb’s, which was $175,000 a year. At Cal, Gottlieb stands to make a lot more; outgoing Bears coach Joanne Boyle made in excess of $650,000.
UCSB had a deep pool of candidates to consider. Massari and his associate, Diane O’Brien, reckoned they talked with 25 prospects, including “a dozen Final Four coaches, at some time in their careers.” Six were brought in for interviews. According to several sources, associate head coach Jonathan Tsipsis of Notre Dame, an NCAA finalist this year, was offered the job last week but did not take it.
Westmont’s Moore made a strong showing in her interviews, and UCSB came close to choosing her. She has coached the Warrior women to be very competitive in one of the nation’s best small-college conferences, and she had previous experience as a Division I player at Oregon, where she also was an assistant coach, and as an assistant at Cal.
The waters were muddied Tuesday when the local TV station and a Website reported that Moore was resigning at Westmont to become UCSB’s head coach. Their reports were based on a provisional press release that Westmont sports information director Ron Smith inadvertently sent out to a list of media outlets. Smith, who was covering Westmont men’s tennis at the NAIA Championships in Alabama, had prepared the story ahead of time so it would be ready to go in the event Moore was hired to coach the Gauchos. He accidentally attached it to a tennis memo. Smith was mortified by his mistake. Even when retractions were published, many people assumed that the cat was out of the bag, and that Moore would be making the trip across town to Thursday’s press conference. Instead, she got a call Wednesday night informing her that she was the runner-up.
Moore remains at Westmont, but she may have to find herself a new assistant coach. Cori Close has talked to Newnan about joining her staff at UCLA. If they make a deal, two of the coaches that turned UCSB women’s basketball into one of the West’s strongest programs will be guiding the Bruins. And a new UCSB coach, Carlene Mitchell, will be working to restore the Gauchos’ prominence.