When Anne Donovan resigned as head coach of the Seattle Storm on November 30, 2007, most people assumed it was far from the end of the line in her coaching career.
In fact, when her friend Carol Blazejowski called and hired her to become an assistant coach on the New York Liberty in April 2009, not many people were surprised at all. There had been cries already heard to replace current Liberty head coach Pat Coyle the prior season, and most assumed that Donovan was brought in as the "head coach heir apparent," which came to pass only a few months later.
As a New Jersey native, a successful WNBA coach with a title under her belt from Seattle, the New York market seemed a great fit, especially when word of a Cappie Pondexter trade to the Liberty came out. What was a surprise though, was on the same day that Pondexter to NY was officially announced, Seton Hall University, long one of the doormats of the Big East Conference, a school that lost the prior season to Connecticut by a score of 91-24, had a press conference announcing that jersey girl Anne Donovan, WNBA champion, Olympic gold medal winning coach, was taking over the program.
The fact that Donovan was going to a college wasn’t in itself surprising. She had coached college ball before, assisting at Old Dominion and head coaching at East Carolina University. She had enjoyed the experience of working with student-athletes and teaching them, grooming them. It was a prospect that appealed to her after years of working with professional players.
Perhaps the most important thing that Donovan has brought with her to Seton Hall is credibility. She was a Hall of Fame player at ODU, and won two gold medals as a player. As a coach she has made the WNBA finals with two different teams, eventually winning the championship with the Storm. She won gold with the 2008 US Olympic team in Beijing as head coach.
"I think most of the girls came and watched the Liberty [this past summer] so their hunger has really helped me," Donovan explained. "Who I have been able to coach, what my background has been with the Olympics and the WNBA, they are hungry to get whatever the can from me. That has helped me from the credibility standpoint. I have coached a long time so there have been a lot of different situations and different roasters and trying to bring out the best in the rosters that I have had and that has helped me throughout my career."
That credibility is crucial when trying to recruit the Northeast corridor against programs like Connecticut, St. John’s, Rutgers, Syracuse…and that’s just in the Big East.
So Donovan took off into previously unchartered waters this summer, coaching a WNBA team while helping her assistant coaches try to recruit and get things started at Seton Hall. On the WNBA side, it was so successful, with the Liberty going all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, some thought she may not leave for Seton Hall after all. I talked to her about last summer and the Liberty, and how much fun it is to be coaching a talented player like Cappie Pondexter.
What was the impact on the the Seton Hall season though? Has it been difficult to adjust to the different skill and success level that goes with a young team in the Big East vs. a WNBA contender?
"It has been an adjustment for the kids with me and with me being back in college again. It has been a challenge. It is one that I have enjoyed and I probably have had the greatest highs being with this group of kids and the greatest lows, losing as we have. I really am enjoying this process and most days keep the focus on the big picture. Our goal is dhow competitive can we stay and we haven’t done that very often. We got down recently at Notre Dame and we lost by fifty because we got down and we just put our heads down and didn’t respond."
She talks about her experiences in coaching the best in the world with her current players, and she talks about the WNBA, too.
"I have been fortunate to coach some of the best players," she said, "and my kids are hungry to learn about those players. They have loved watching them and they are hungry to do what it takes to get to that level."
The team currently sits at 8-19, 1-13 in the Big East conference. There have been some bright spots though, especially an early season out of conference schedule that saw them defeat Temple, UMass and Army. The highlight of the season though, was on February 12th, when the Pirates went into Cincinnati and defeated the home team, 51-44 for Donovan’s first Big East conference win.
Based on the way her team competed at Connecticut, however, better times are on their way for Seton Hall. I’ve seen my share of teams come into either the XL Center or Gampel Pavilion and not compete with the Huskies very well this year: Duke, Oklahoma, Florida State, and more. Yet there was Seton Hall this past week, dropping eventually by 21 points, but putting 11 three-pointers in on the Husky defense, showing an improved offense to go with a pretty solid defense.
"We pretty much had to rely on defense if we were going to stay in games or win games and our offense has slowly come around," Donovan shared, "Offensively I hope we can continue to gain confidence."
How her team has to approach offense compared to her pro teams, is actually the biggest difference in coaching at Seton Hall.
"You can’t draw up a play and have a go to player. Jasmine Crew is probably the closest I have to go get a bucket. It is very different because you are trying to orchestrate with five players and keep some of them out of the way and get your primary looks to get the ball in their hands. It is much more complicated than in the pros when you could rely on someone.. It is just a different game now."
One thing is for certain, and that is that the Big East is better off for having Ann Donovan in the conference coaching, and trying to build Seton Hall into a contender. It won’t be easy, and her teams are going to take their lumps for certain for most likely the next couple of seasons. They are a young team, with only one senior and three juniors. They will continue to learn from their coach, hopefully go see the Liberty in New Jersey this summer, and continue to develop and bring in better and better talent. If you don't believe me, how about the master of Big East Coaches, Geno Auriemma of Connecticut?