Matt Vautour: New UMass women’s coach Tory Verdi’s task is more than rebuilding

  • Tory Verdi at a press conference as the new head coach of the women's basketball program at the University of Massachusetts Wednesday at Champions Center. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Tory Verdi speaks at a press conference as the new head coach of the women's basketball program at the University of Massachusetts Wednesday at Champions Center. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

@MattVautourDHG
Published: 4/14/2016 11:11:25 PM

AMHERST

It’s hard to call what UMass is asking Tory Verdi to do a “rebuilding job.”

That would imply that he’d be asked to take the women’s basketball and return it to a place of past success. Other than a brief window in the mid-1990s, too long ago for any current player to remember, the Minutewomen have been at best mediocre, often lousy and frequently bad.

This is a building job.

The Minutewomen have had just seven winning seasons in the last 35 years and only one since Joannie O’Brien’s teams had five in a row from 1994-99. Since then UMass employed four athletic directors, and as of Wednesday, three women’s basketball coaches.

O’Brien’s run in the mid-1990s is the high point of UMass’ women’s basketball history and that feels like ancient history now. For all but a few pockets of dedicated and loyal fans, the Minutewomen have been an afterthought. Fans of the women’s game in western Massachusetts have often rooted for Connecticut, which naturally casts an enormous shadow from the south.

What does success look like for the UMass women’s basketball program?

Competitive in the Atlantic 10? NCAA Tournament/WNIT bids? Attracting occasional WNBA-caliber talent? UMass made the NCAA field in 1996 (as a No. 8 seed) and 1998 (as a No. 13), and the Atlantic 10 has sent at least two teams to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2002. How far is UMass from reaching that level?

It’s hard to really know. In some ways that’s an advantage for Verdi. Early on, even the slightest signs of progress will be celebrated.

When athletic director Bob Marcum fired O’Brien after her third straight losing season in 2002, he did so promising a path to greater, more sustained success. Reality featured anything but.

Verdi said all the things a newly hired coach is supposed to say at the press conference. Every coach promises their teams won’t be outworked and that wins, in fact a lot of wins, are in the future.

But Sharon Dawley and Marnie Dacko before her said the same things when they were hired.

For many UMass fans and would-be UMass fans, Verdi will have to prove himself before they’re sold because it wasn’t that long ago that Dawley looked like a home run hire.

She and Verdi shared several attractive resume lines six years apart. Both were candidates with New England roots and a track record of program-building, who had been to the postseason in the previous two seasons. Dawley never won more than 12 games.

Verdi has two distinct advantages:

New athletic director Ryan Bamford’s early reputation is partially tied to Verdi’s success and that of new hockey coach Greg Carvel. The two coaches are Bamford’s first hires and he’ll have plenty of motivation to do what he can to make them look good.

The Kennedy Champions Center practice facility is a key asset in recruiting. The men’s program just attracted its best recruiting class in the past two decades, and the coaching staff and the recruits themselves pointed to the building as a big part of the draw.

That’ll help, but it’s only part of the equation. Can Verdi build a fan base? Hampshire County and especially the Amherst-Hadley-Northampton corridor has always celebrated women’s achievement. If the Minutewomen can get reliably good, it seems reasonable that they’ll at least get a niche following.

The Pioneer Valley has a pretty large group of UConn fans. Would any of them consider converting or at least splitting their fandom if UMass got competitive.

Verdi pledged that he and his players would be out in the community, meeting people and selling the program one fan at a time if he had to.

To his credit, Verdi’s choice of metaphors seemed to reveal that he had an idea he had some building to do.

“We are going to pour the foundation,” he said. “We are going to let it settle and we are going to take our time.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage




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