SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jennifer Azzi is quick to point out that as a first-year college coach she never would have scheduled Stanford, her alma mater, to play at San Francisco. That one was already on the calendar when she took the job back in April.
Still, she acknowledges the intrigue: Azzi and USF assistant Katy Steding facing former coach Tara VanDerveer and the eighth-ranked Cardinal on Wednesday night—with VanDerveer making her third attempt at 800 wins against Azzi’s 2-9 Dons.
“I’m thrilled, though,” Azzi said. “It’s great for them to have the exposure. We’ll get a great crowd. I don’t think many first-year coaches would schedule the (No. 8) team in the country.”
And not many mid-major schools with a long tradition of losing have someone with Azzi’s Hall of Fame basketball pedigree running their program, either. She and Steding helped lead the VanDerveer-coached 1996 national team to Olympic gold in Atlanta and also brought Stanford an NCAA title in 1990. Both are former WNBA stars. That doesn’t mean recruiting comes easy.
The 42-year-old Azzi could have coached many times over the years at various levels, but it never felt right—until now, right at home in the Bay Area for a school that needed her help. She took a leap of faith, committed to turning around a struggling program that mostly goes unnoticed with all the high-profile sports teams in greater San Francisco.
“I knew that coming in, so I don’t think there have been any real surprises,” Azzi said, walking on the Hilltop campus one day last week. “Going elsewhere, or the WNBA or some other situations, it didn’t have the same motivation for me.”
There are few reminders of her own decorated career.
On the wall in her office hangs her old No. 8 WNBA jersey from
the Detroit Shock, the team that selected her fifth overall in the first round of the 1999 draft. Framed on her desk is the late John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success.”
“She has a team that will be much better, maybe not right away, but as she gets to put her stamp on it,” VanDerveer said. “What will be fun is going to dinner afterward with her, talking to her, watching her team. I’ve been there and I know what she’s going through. I just see it as an opportunity to see firsthand what they have. Obviously they’re in a different situation than we are. I always enjoy the opportunity to spend time with Jennifer.
“It’s really good for me because you realize it’s the same job whether it’s her first game or my 1,000th game. You’re doing the same job. I still have the same excitement that she has, and the same enthusiasm. It’s fun for me to see how she’s going about it.”
Before a recent game at Sacramento State, Azzi invited Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker—who lives in Northern California—to talk to the team. His message: You don’t always have to be the most talented team to win.
Last week, Azzi used a long bus ride back from Cal Poly to examine her team’s 25-point loss. She can accept the defeats when her team plays hard, executes and shows improvement, but this wasn’t one of those games.
The Dons are struggling heading into the daunting game with Stanford.
“I wish there was some kind of amnesia for losing games,” she said. “You want to learn from it, but it doesn’t have to be constant. Oh, because we lost a few games, it doesn’t mean we have to lose every game.”
At least Steding can be a sounding board. She spent seven years as head coach at Warner Pacific College in her native Oregon, leading the program to the NAIA tournament for the first time in school history in 2004.
“It’s not like she’s cut her teeth as an assistant,” Steding said of Azzi. “It’s not new for me, but it is new for Jen. She’s learning. She has a great vision. … It’s definitely coming (here). We see signs of it.”
It could take a while.
Azzi replaced Tanya Haave, who was fired after four
disappointing seasons. Azzi, who had been working as a health and wellness enthusiast and motivational speaker, took over a team that has finished seventh in the eight-team West Coast Conference the past four seasons.
Haave went 36-86 overall and 12-44 in conference play during her tenure, including 5-27 overall and 1-13 in WCC play last season.
Azzi has taken all of two days off since she was hired, typically working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. then making calls and watching film from home.
Right now, she takes joy in the little things, such as seeing one of her players run faster through better fitness or make her 3-pointers. In the end, Azzi wants the young women she coaches to be prepared for life in the world after college, after basketball.
“It’s a matter of them having a mindset that they can accomplish anything. I think it will take some time,” Azzi said. “When you’re coaching, I can’t go in the gym and work on my 3-pointer right now. You have to think long-term, and you have to think really strategically. It’s not just going in the gym and working. There’s so much to it, and there’s also a good bit you that can’t control, that is pretty challenging. As a player you can control pretty much your destiny.”
Azzi sure did. She was heaving underhanded shots at age 4.
She led Stanford to its first NCAA title in ‘90 with a 32-1
record and earned Pac-10 Player of the Year honors, was a three-time all-conference selection and finished her college career with 1,634 points, 751 assists and 271 steals.
Azzi went on to play overseas and five seasons in the WNBA.
Being on the other side of it is different. Joanne Boyle, coach
at California, told Azzi to give it 13 months before the schedule and constant demands becomes slightly more normal.
While Azzi isn’t one to broadcast her remarkable basketball resume, recruits do like the idea of playing for a pair of gold medalists and former professional stars. Especially considering she has to sell a “$52,000-a-year education in the world’s No. 1 city. That’s kind of crazy in a way.”
“I like to live in the moment and create and be thinking a lot about the future,” Azzi said. “I think that’s fun. Not like, ‘Hey, I’m so great, I’m in the Hall of Fame.’ I don’t want to look at that every day. I had so many people even before I took the job here say, ‘Why in the world would you take that job, take over a program that has no hope, a losing program,’ all of these things because I was so successful. Well, I didn’t start as that. I’m not afraid of challenges, and I really like the idea of constantly being challenged with things.”
(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)