Bad times to big time for USF women

With a lawsuit stigma long gone, the Bulls are on the brink of a first NCAA berth.

Published March 4, 2006

TAMPA - He came to USF six years ago as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, an ambitious 28-year-old with no Division I coaching experience and the goal of being a head coach by age 35.

Jose Fernandez couldn't have foreseen the scandal that thrust him into that job just seven months into his tenure at USF, but then few would have imagined what he has been able to do since then.

Today, as his Bulls (19-10) open play in the Big East tournament against Notre Dame, USF is on the cusp of its first NCAA Tournament berth, a milestone that will punctuate a turnaround that started with one fortuitous hire. At 34 and finishing his sixth season with the Bulls, Fernandez is still young, still a recruiter, and now more ambitious than ever.

"It's unbelievable what we've come from," said associate athletic director Barry Clements, who oversees women's basketball. "If you'd asked anybody here when we went through what we went through, "Where will we be in five years?' Nobody would have ever thought we would be successful at all."

Fernandez joined Jerry Ann Winters' staff in March 2000, having spent two seasons as an assistant at Division II Barry College and four as a successful high school coach in Miami. By October, one week after the Bulls started practicing, he was the acting head coach. Winters was suspended, and two months later fired, for her role in a racial discrimination lawsuit from players.

Given a two-year contract as head coach, Fernandez went 4-24 that first season, learning on the job with assistants who'd never coached on the college level, with a roster that had no players from the state of Florida.

"It seems so long ago, with everything we've been through," he said. "I think that's why it's so rewarding. This program has a lot to be proud of, but I'm proud of the type of young ladies we now have in our program."

Fernandez opened his second season 7-0 and finished with 14 wins, but it wouldn't be until his fourth year that the Bulls would truly emerge. A strong recruiting class that now accounts for three key players - forward Jessica Dickson, center Nalini Miller and guard Rachael Sheats - would lead USF to a modest 14-15 record, good enough to merit the program's first postseason appearance in the Women's NIT.

Last season, the Bulls took another step, winning a school-record 21 games and hosting a first-round WNIT game, beating Florida. This season, the team's focus was solely on reaching the NCAA Tournament, with a nonconference schedule that included national heavyweights LSU, North Carolina and Michigan State.

Now, there are few negatives working against Fernandez's recruiting efforts. The Bulls are in perhaps the premier conference in women's college basketball, and Fernandez has a history of putting talented freshmen in key roles, as he has this season with point guard Shantia Grace.

Recruiting three or four years ago wasn't so easy. Dickson, who already has three of the four highest-scoring seasons in school history and ranks second nationally in scoring this year, had never heard of USF as a high school player in Ocala when she first got letters from Fernandez. On her first campus visit, she outright dismissed the thought of attending USF.

"I was like, "I'm not going to come here,' " she said. "Later, I came to watch them play Georgia (a 91-44 loss in 2003), my mom was saying how they were building something, and I thought "I'm still not going to come here.' And I heard about the racial things. But I knew Coach Fernandez wasn't part of that."

Overcoming a 4-24 record is one challenge, but shedding the stigma of a racial discrimination lawsuit is another. Senior Tristen Webb remembers questioning looks from friends, who would say things like "I heard about your school on HBO."

Fernandez and his staff are relentless recruiters, winning prospects over with persistence. Dickson remembers spotting assistant Harry Elifson, wearing the same sweater-vest, at game after game in high school. The allure of building something new, of achieving something that hadn't been done before, of creating history for a program, hooked them on the Bulls.

"What I was most impressed by was his recruiting," Clements said. "How do you sell a program when we couldn't sell it before and then we go through (the lawsuit). It was so beyond my conception how much of an impact that could have. We couldn't get players from Florida before Jose, but that was an area where he and the girls clicked right away."

The Bulls averaged 626 fans at home games this season, third-lowest total in the Big East, but that figure represents progress. Fernandez points to his team's combined grade-point average of 3.1 last semester, and Clements says the current players are role models he wants his 10-year-old daughter to watch and learn from.

Winters, who has worked in real estate in New Tampa since her firing, said she has followed Fernandez's progress and wishes the Bulls nothing but success.

"I think he's done an unbelievable job and has been able to accomplish an awful lot," she said. "I knew he was capable of being a tremendous recruiter and was an extremely intelligent young coach. I'm excited for him and the program."

Part of Fernandez's plan has been aggressive scheduling, not just landing a home-and-home with powerhouse Connecticut before USF was in the Big East, but giving the Huskies a rare home scare last season before losing in overtime. Should the Bulls win tonight, they'd get another shot at UConn, something coach Geno Auriemma lamented Thursday.

"I don't think they've surprised anybody in the Big East with their performance this season," Auriemma said. "They're going to be an NCAA-level team for a long time."

That's saying something for a school that never has been at that level, with only two trips on the men's side of the court. The WNIT banners, which represented unprecedented success just two years ago, now motivate his players like the glare of a silver medal, a reminder that they seek something more significant from their postseason.

"My goal is to win a Big East title," said Fernandez, whose team nearly upset regular-season champ Rutgers this season at the Sun Dome. "Once we get ourselves in the NCAA Tournament, then we can start talking about competing for a national title."