At last, Jennifer Azzi ready to coach

Apr 29, 2010 - 7:14 PM By JANIE McCAULEY AP Sports Writer

SAN FRANCISCO(AP) -- Since a few years into her professional playing career, Jennifer Azzi has kept a notebook detailing the traits she likes of all the different coaches in her life.

And she has long considered herself a capable coach, going back to her days running the floor as an All-American point guard for Stanford, an Olympic gold medalist and then a WNBA star.

On Friday, it became official at last. Azzi took the reins of the struggling University of San Francisco basketball program, formally introduced in one of the mid-major school's most high-profile coaching hires.

Azzi, named to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame last year, has turned down plenty of chances to coach at every level along the way. She was finally ready to take the leap, considering USF a good fit right at home in the Bay Area.

"In an intense way, I miss a team. I miss the gym," Azzi said. "I've been a coach my whole life. I was a point guard. If I can't coach, I must be nuts."

When forward Katy Keating greeted Azzi in the locker room Friday morning with a "Welcome home," that "meant the world to me," Azzi said.

Azzi is just the eighth women's basketball head coach ever on the Hilltop and she inherits a team that won only one game in West Coast Conference play last season.

"People have told me, 'What in the world are you doing?"' Azzi said. "It's a risk for me. It will be one of the challenges of my life."

She leaned on Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer during this process, and former Olympic teammate and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who previously turned around the Temple program.

"I don't know if I ever want to play Stanford," Azzi joked of the NCAA runners-up this season.

This all came together so fast - she interviewed on campus just last week - that Azzi didn't have time to update her wardrobe with any green and gold, so she grabbed a pompom featuring the school colors from the office of athletic director Debra Gore-Mann on the way to her introductory news conference.

Azzi dropped off a bag in her now-empty office, ready to get to work right away. She soon will hit the recruiting trail, and hopes to have two of her three assistants hired by the end of next week.

At first, she plans to focus her recruiting locally and regionally - and she's not counting on her name carrying her. She realizes it will be work.

"I acknowledge the fact a lot of the young people may not have any idea who I am," Azzi said.

Gonzaga is now the measuring stick in both men's and women's basketball in this league. The Zag women reached the regional semifinals this season - putting the WCC on the national map.

"We're ready to start working with her. She's one of the greatest women's basketball players ever," said USF guard Rheina Ale, who will be a junior captain next season. "She started off by saying, 'I know I haven't had coaching experience.' But she's going to surround herself with great coaches, and she's played for some great coaches. We can turn this program into a success. I feel like next year we're going to shock a lot of teams. We're not going to be the underdog. They need to watch out for us."

Azzi knows there will be times she won't be able to avoid reflecting on the "glory days" with her new team.

She led Stanford to its first NCAA title in 1990 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.

Gore-Mann, who also played at Stanford before Azzi and came to USF from Stanford, gauged Azzi's interest when they ran into each other last month.

"I believe Jennifer can teach our student-athletes how to learn the game," Gore-Mann said. "Winning will come."

Azzi was the choice over former Southern California coach Mark Trakh.

She replaces Tanya Haave, who was fired late last month after four disappointing seasons. Azzi - who refers to herself as a health and wellness enthusiast on her Twitter account - has worked as a motivational speaker and stayed close to the game.

Haave went 36-86 overall and 12-44 in conference play during her tenure, including 5-27 overall and 1-13 in WCC play this season. It marked the Dons' fourth straight seventh-place finish in the conference.

"This is a great day for the conference, a great day for the University of San Francisco," said WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who attended Stanford during Azzi's time. "Some people have natural leadership qualities and some don't. This is someone who has that innate ability to lead and people will follow. You only have to be around Jennifer for five minutes to understand that. ... From a league perspective, all you want is programs that can get better. Jennifer Azzi will settle for nothing less than continuous improvement. That's in her DNA."

No one has shouted yet.
Be the first!