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Five Preseason Questions: What makes Azzi a 'natural' coach? How will that help her at USF?

If you were wondering how much University of San Francisco players know about first-year coach Jennfier Azzi, you're not alone.

"These guys? Not so much," said Azzi's former Stanford teammate and current USF assistant Katy Steding. "I think they know that we were successful and things like that. But, you know, I think it's a different ball game because it was so long ago. I think they know the name, but it's another thing to have watched them play a lot because most of them were in junior high or so even when Jennifer was playing (in the WNBA) and I retired two years before that. It's a little bit different."

While some of their players might have vague memories of their coaches' professional careers, the oldest player on USF's team wasn't even in grade school yet when Azzi, Steding, and Stanford University won the NCAA National Championship in 1990 - 22-year-old University of Colorado transfer Kelly Jo Mullaney hadn't yet turned three at the time. And at that time, women's basketball on the whole didn't quite have the visibility it has now, particularly if you consider the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to be something of a turning point for women's basketball.

But even if it was a different time, it's not that difficult to imagine how the younger generation of women's basketball players might find out about their coach.

"I think some of them knew some, but now I know they know everything - they're up to speed," said Azzi. "In fact when I was working with them on their shooting one of the players, Mel actually said to me, 'Coach, I know exactly why you're saying [that] - Coach I watched your video on YouTube.' So now they listen to everything."

And it's not just her players: everyone in the gym - including the younger college students - seemed to know where she went to college when it was asked as a trivia question during USF's exhibition against Sonoma State last Friday.

Whether because of her Stanford fame or her role as a founding member of the ABL's San Jose Lasers, Azzi was something of a Bay Area basketball legend long before induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and later the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Or to put it another way, if you were alive and followed basketball at all, you had probably probably heard the name 'Jennifer Azzi' once or twice.

Regardless of how you explain it, the bottom line is still that Azzi's players not only know of her, but know enough about what she means to women's basketball to look up to her as something of a hero even if women's basketball was less visible and documented then than it is now.

"I definitely looked up to her as a player," said Mullaney, whose first game in a USF uniform was in their exhibition game last week. "Everyday you think about what she's been through as a player and it just encourages you to do better. She was a great leader on the floor and I respect her for everything that she's done. She's an amazing role model and I couldn't be more thankful that I get to play for her. I just can't believe it - it's amazing."

And as much as the magnitude of who Azzi was as a player could be seen as something of a distraction for a team that is a long way from a NCAA championship, Azzi sees it as an advantage she has as a first-year coach.

"I think it does help them to know I've physically done it, so then when I'm working with them on especially the technical stuff - like their shooting or their footwork - they know that I've been there, done it," said Azzi. "And I think that's been an asset for me. And we do fun games with them. I mean, I don't really get out there and play with them - I had to once because we didn't have enough players and we were like we didn't want to waste a practice so our whole staff got out and played. But we a good time with them too."

Of course, while coming in with a legacy worthy of player respect is valuable, more important once the team gets into the thick of their schedule.

1. What kind of coach will Azzi be in her first year?

From watching YouTube videos of her career to playing basketball year-round, women's basketball and its players have changed significantly since the early 90's when Azzi and Steding played about an hour away at Stanford University. And that alone - just understanding today's players - will be an adjustment.

"Everyone told me coming in, 'This generation, they don't work hard, they're not going to be motivated,'" said Azzi. "But I get calls all the time, 'Will you come in and shoot with me, let's watch film.' I mean, they're excited about being as good as they can be and that's what we're focusing on this year."

Of couse, Azzi is making this adjustment with help. Steding has experience as a head coach in the NAIA and as an assistant in the WNBA with the Atlanta Dream and the NCAA with Columbia. And obviously, they both played for among the greatest coaches in women's basketball in Tara VanDerveer. While Azzi did note that she gets advice from the coach for whom she lead Stanford to its first NCAA Women's Basketball Championship, she's also charting her own course.

"I think Jennifer's style is different from Tara's, but I still think she's got the same level of intensity and strategy about her that is reminiscent of Tara," said Steding.

We can usually assume that most coaches are knowledgeable about the game, but stands out most about a coach like VanDerveer is her ability to communicate that knowledge to others - whether it be media or players - and allow people to understand her vision. Azzi definitely possesses that ability to communicate the game just from talking to her twice and as passionate as she is about the game, she discusses basketball with a second-nature ease that you simply wouldn't expect from someone without coaching experience.

But perhaps the most immediately striking thing about Azzi as a coach is that she possesses the type of intensity that often defines a competitor of her ilk yet she's hardly the type of person whose presence dominates the room - to the contrary, her presence has a sort of calming quality that then-Stanford assistant coach Julie Plank suggested she needed to provide Stanford back in 1990. Perhaps it's that same poised point guard mentality that she brought to the court in leading her teammates that she brings to coaching now.

"I put a lot on our captains," said Azzi. "They are the leaders of our team and they are the liason between the team and me and our staff. And I think at the end of the day, this is about educating them to be competent women when they leave USF. So I think a lot of the lessons that we can instill in them and help them be as self-sufficient as possible while they're here, and I think really having them a part of the process has been really valuable for us."

And it quickly becomes evident that Azzi embraces the teaching aspects of coaching in addition to the necessary drilling, especially given the climate of today's basketball culture in which youth spend a lot of time in AAU programs and possibly playing for different coaches.

"In terms of technical things - little things just like setting screens and kind of maybe the quote 'old school stuff' that we learned growing up because we learned the more technical part of the game - the way the game has gone, the young athletes go from game to game to game to game," said Azzi. "They're playing all summer and there's not as much practicing and teaching time. So I'm finding that we're having to backtrack and teach shooting, teach footwork, teach squaring up, teaching how to set good screens, how to use screens, not to waste your dribble. Little things. But they're very open to it. And I think that's where having especially Katy and I, they understand that we know those little details."

And as a teacher, Azzi also recognizes the importance of not only communicating the knowledge effectively, but also allowing players to put it into action. And striking the balance between them makes the atmosphere lighter for everyone.

"And I think she makes it fun for everybody - even for us as a staff she makes it fun," said Steding. "So she's really good at seeing that players need to play. You know, we can take them through all sorts of drills but if they don't try it out, it won't have any effect. So that's been kind of our mantra from day one: they've gotta play."

At this point, Azzi has all the ingredients of what one might imagine from a successful coach except for the one thing: a record. And building a winning program at USF is simply going to take time.

2. What is the first step in turning around a struggling program?

Put simply, the Dons were not very good last year - they were 5-27 overall and didn't win one road game in conference play. Although that does speak to the capacity of Azzi's personnel, they're also not dwelling on it as they move forward in this new era.

"Last year surfaces at times and for us it's really good to learn from our players in what worked well for them and what didn't," said Azzi. "So we don't want to discount it for them like it wasn't, but we've never focused on it. I mean, I watched all the film from last year in the spring. So I was pretty much done with last year in the spring. So this is a new team. I told them from day one we don't have starters - everybody is going to have to earn their position. And everything we do is new."

As someone who seems to truly embrace the role of coach as teacher, she's starting with the basics. But she's also starting with the strengths already present on the team.

3. What strengths does this team have right now?

From watching the team, their strength is clearly in their backcourt with Mullaney and All-WCC Preseason selection Rheina Ale, who give them a backcourt capable of scoring and distributing.

However, Azzi also cited the team's pre-existing chemistry as an asset.

"They definitely have improved a ton in conditioning, shooting - although our two point percentage was less than our three point percentage (in their exhibition game against Sonoma State)," said Azzi, whose team shot 42.9% beyond the arc and 30.76% inside the arc. "But I think we haven't really implemented a ton yet - we're going to kind of do that as we go. But I think our strength right now is our team chemistry and that's something that's really hard to get."

Mullaney, who holds the odd status of being a redshirt senior after getting an exemption to play this year after transferring from Colorado, was actually surprised by the strength of the team's chemistry as a newcomer.

"My teammates have been great," said Mullaney. "I didn't expect it to be such an easy adjustment, but they've embraced me with open arms and I couldn't ask for more."

As uncommon as it is to be a redshirt senior, Mullaney will also be called upon for leadership.

Jennifer Azzi Makes A Strong First Impression On San Francisco Players - Swish Appeal
"I don't think she had her best game tonight in the way that we've seen her play," said Azzi. "But she just adds a maturity, she's a senior, played at a very, very high level, so she brings a lot to us. Just even from up and down conditioning, she's just solid everyday."

4. What might be their biggest challenge?

Despite the chemistry, this is still a team that has some work to do on the court. In addition to their poor shooting from inside the arc - perhaps not unexpected given that they shot 33.8% from the field last season, nearly 10% less than their opponents - they also showed a turnover problem against Sonoma State, which doesn't seem to bode well against tougher competition.

"The things that we didn't do well I think are correctable," said Azzi when reflecting on their performance in their Sonoma State game. "Turnovers, we can change that. A lot of that is chemistry. We were trying a lot of people to see and games are different from practices."

Azzi explained both the shooting percentages and the turnovers by citing Sonoma St. packing it in with a zone and daring them to shoot from outside - shots inside were tougher to finish and it was harder to make interior passes. And Azzi is hopeful for better production out of her post players.

"We have four pretty good post players," said Azzi. "We got, obviously, [Donnisha Taylor] and Bailey (Barbour) and then we have Whitney (Daniels) and Katy (Keating)."

Although she's athletic and pulled down 14 rebounds - 5 offensive against Sonoma St - Taylor is listed at 5'10". At 6'3", Barbour was decisive on the block in the second half and had solid footwork from working with Steding.

That begs the question of how well they'll fare against WCC competition and Azzi was obviously not in position after one game to comment on how they might do against tougher teams. But the fact that the two were a combined 1-7 in the first half against a Sonoma State defense begs the question of how well they'll fare against WCC competition.

And Azzi was obviously not in position after one game to comment on how they might do against tougher teams.

5. What is a reasonable goal for USF this season?

"To be better than last," said Azzi when asked about her goals for the season. "But right now, not to be too cliche, but we're really taking it one game at a time. And I think that's our best way to attack the season and not get caught up right now in winning and losing. And really focus on getting better. Because if we start focusing on winning and losing and we get down 10 points in a game, we can't worry about it - we have to keep fighting and playing hard. And I told them if we play hard, people are going to come watch them play. Everybody has told me if they play hard, if they play with passion, then we'll get support."

While her answer definitely did sound cliche, it might indirectly reflect a personality trait that all successful coaches possess: not only are they focused on winning, but often times their focus is first and foremost on maximizing the talent of each individual.

"I think one old school thing that doesn't work is 'Hey, I'm the boss and do this because I told you to,'" said Azzi, who is a self-described player's coach. "I think what does work is, 'Hey, let's work together to create something really great.' And I think if you can approach them that way, then they want to be a part of the process.

That knack for connecting with players and bringing people together is also evident in the ease with which she relates with others just in watching her brief interactions with people. That genuine interest in relating to others even in interactions that don't demand it is just one part of what makes her a seemingly ideal fit for the role of a coach trying to build a struggling program.

To some extent, she's well-prepared even though she has no experience. Now it's just a matter of whether she can pull together all of those personality attributes to be successful as at USF.

"I think Jennifer is a natural coach," said Steding. "I keep telling her like, 'That's a decision I would make with years of experience and everything too.' And yet there's ways in which she is willing to go kind of off the traditional coaching guidelines, like what you'd normally do in a program. I think she's very thoughtful about what she wants to see and what she thinks is the best way is to get the players there the fastest."