By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Trips to the NCAA women’s tournament and 20-win seasons were the rule rather than the exception for most of the 44 years of women’s basketball at Vanderbilt University.
The last five have been among the worst, with a 46-83 record that included 13-55 in the perennially tough Southeastern Conference.
On Wednesday, Vanderbilt turned to former Terry Sanford High School and University of Connecticut player and assistant coach Shea Ralph to turn things around.
During the press conference announcing her hiring, which was streamed live over the internet, Ralph admitted it was difficult to leave Connecticut, where she has spent more than half her adult life as both a player and assistant coach under legendary Geno Auriemma.
“I’m invested, and I’ve been there for a long time as a coach,’’ Ralph said. But she added that when she looked at Vanderbilt, it was hard to understand why it isn’t included in the conversations about elite women’s basketball programs in the country.
“Every person I spoke to wants and desires excellence for our student-athletes, both in the classroom ... and on the field or court, or wherever you compete,” she said.
As she arrives at Vanderbilt, the school is involved in an ambitious project called Vandy United, which aims to raise $300 million for a total upgrade of the school’s athletic program.
But both that fundraiser and returning the women’s basketball program to the heights it once enjoyed will take time.
Ralph said she would certainly like for the Vanderbilt women to become winners sooner rather than later, but her experience at Connecticut has taught her it doesn’t work that way.
“When you build something the right way, it may take a little bit of time, but it will last forever,’’ she said. “That’s what I plan to do.’’
She doesn’t consider the job before her one of rebuilding the program. Because of Vanderbilt’s past success, she looks at it as a revitalization.
“We’ve seen that it can be done here, and I’m coming in here thinking it’s going to get done,’’ she said. “I’m just excited to be part of it because I think it’s such an amazing opportunity.’’
She said there will be bumps in the road, but she says she has the support of the school’s administration along with the staff she plans to assemble and her players.
“We’re all going to be pulling in the same direction,’’ she said. “This kind of stuff isn’t always unicorns and rainbows. A lot of hard work goes into it. We have to trust in the process and know it might not be overnight.’’
Ralph said the greatest knowledge she brings from her years at UConn is what it takes to build and sustain an elite program. “It’s not easy to do,’’ she said. “If it was, you’d see a lot more programs doing it.’’
Ralph said she enjoyed being part of the inner workings of what it takes to be a consistent contender for NCAA championships. “I have intimate knowledge of that a lot of people don’t have,’’ she said.
She thinks the Southeastern Conference is the best in the country and looks forward to the regular battles in a tough league.
“I think in those really tough moments of adversity, that’s when you grow,’’ she said. “I’m really excited for our players that we’ll have an opportunity to do that literally every game.’