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Cohesive staff, role of assistant coaches more important than ever

Matthew Mitchell AP Photo/James Crisp

Two coaches struck similar poses and spoke of similar subjects, one as April began and another as the month concluded.

In starkly different ways, each was proof that the health of a program is sometimes best measured through those we often overlook.

At a Final Four news conference, Geno Auriemma wiped away tears as he accepted an award as national coach of the year. The emotion was the only surprise moment during a Final Four that saw Connecticut complete another undefeated season, its legendary and legendarily acerbic coach barely able to get out the words as he thanked longtime associate head coach Chris Dailey.

"You do get caught up sometimes in the chase for the next thing," Auriemma said minutes later by way of elaboration about a coaching staff on which Marisa Moseley, a junior member of the staff, just completed her seventh season. "And then every once in awhile, you're kind of, hit with reality again, that it is about the people you surround yourself with. And I don't know -- I think just the overwhelming feeling of what our coaches do every day. What they do every day, and how they do it, and how when you think back to how many years we've been doing it this way."

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, too, sat in a news conference some weeks later. Nominally to address the return of former assistant coach Kyra Elzy as Mitchell's new associate head coach, the question-and-answer session had more to do with damage control.

For more than 40 minutes, Mitchell took questions about a program in turmoil.

At the time, six players and two committed recruits had parted company with the team since October. All three assistant coaches left, too, one by mutual consent and two by choice. Mitchell took every question but acknowledged a lack of answers. What he repeatedly returned to were themes of instability.

"It's been a three-year revolving door of staff, and that just creates tremendous upheaval," Mitchell said. "Some of that has been my decision to part ways. Some of that has been coaches' decisions to leave for other opportunities or a better situation that they think. But how you combat that, you don't worry about that right now. That's going to take care of itself only when I can show a path forward of stability. That's what I have to do. I believe we're on that track. I believe that's going to come into focus over the next several days."

Wednesday, Kentucky announced the return of former assistant Niya Butts, more recently the head coach at Arizona.

It also announced the departure of sophomore post player Alexis Jennings, now the ninth player or committed recruit to prematurely part ways since last fall.

"It's been a three-year revolving door of staff, and that just creates tremendous upheaval. ...That's going to take care of itself only when I can show a path forward of stability. ... I believe we're on that track."

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell

There has been mostly silence from those who left, beyond the occasional social media farewell posting. Mitchell indicated there was no other shoe waiting to drop, and in an interview with the Lexington Herald Leader, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said there would be no internal investigation of the departures, unlike recent developments at Duke, Loyola and Nebraska.

But even if further study confirms that no one did anything wrong at Kentucky, something clearly didn't go right. And it might well be that rather than falling short as a recruiter or tactician in the effort to compete with the likes of Connecticut, Mitchell fell short as a manager.

A program can't afford for a coaching staff to be anything but an asset, even if the assistants who make it so often work in increasingly challenging anonymity from Storrs, Connecticut, to Lexington, Kentucky, and across the map.

Washington coach Mike Neighbors, whose team ended Kentucky's season in the Sweet 16, knows both sides of the coaching relationship. He was a longtime assistant coach, perhaps most notably for Kevin McGuff at Xavier and Washington, and for many years saw himself following the same path as Connecticut's Dailey or Stanford's long-serving associate coach Amy Tucker. That perspective informed how he approached assembling a staff when he took the head job at Washington three years ago.

"It's the one thing, I think, as a head coach that you have to be very, very selfish about," Neighbors said. "If you don't have a staff of people that will protect the culture you are trying to create and protect the head coach, I think you're starting off behind the eight ball. Those people have to have a very good understanding of who you are and what you want your program to feel like to be a part of."

That will again guide his thinking this offseason as he replaces two assistants who accepted head coaching positions, Adia Barnes at Arizona and Fred Castro at Eastern Michigan. And the culture he wants the coaches to be able to enunciate is one in step with the times. Neighbors contends that the present iteration of the generation gap has become a chasm, the differences heightened because the current generation is the first that grew up with so much knowledge available at its fingertips. If they wanted to know why the sky is blue, they asked Google.

"These recruits don't need me to give them information," he explained. "They need me to help them interpret information, tell them how they can use the information they can access at the touch of a button.

"I think as an assistant, you have to really be attuned and understand that the gap exists."

In some ways, technology makes life easier for assistant coaches. Scouting no longer requires lugging out VHS recorders for editing work that could take days. An opponent's tendencies and vulnerabilities are all there for digital perusal. The flip side is that coaches are always available at the tap of a button, too. As a player at Arizona State 30 years ago, Stephanie Norman didn't have that expectation. Now the associate head coach at Louisville, she recently faced a mini-crisis when she dropped her phone in the lake on a vacation. To be offline for even a day is unthinkable, even if it's a day off.

"I just feel like you were more singular," Norman said of her generation. "Whether that's good, bad or different, I don't know. It was just, that's how we had to do things. You didn't have all the resources that these kids have today. So now I think they are very much more in tune with wanting time, wanting that dialogue -- whether that be via a text message or FaceTime, they crave that.

"I feel like that's a big niche and a need that we as coaches have to fill and be available for as we move forward in this industry."

"If you don't have a staff of people that will protect the culture you are trying to create and protect the head coach, I think you're starting off behind the eight ball."

UW coach Mike Neighbors

An assistant can't just know the best way to attack the matchup zone. She or he has to be part counselor. That has always been true, of course, the assistant almost typecast as the good cop to the head coach's bad cop. But that gets more challenging as a generation feels more free to express itself.

The star of a Bowling Green team that reached the Sweet 16 nearly a decade ago, Kate Achter recently completed her first season as an assistant coach at Xavier after four seasons at St. Bonaventure.

"You know what you're obligated to tell your head coach," Achter said. "But if it's an issue about playing time or wanting to play more or things like that, that's your job as an assistant. You have to filter those things, and you have to understand how you can help them improve without losing the trust of the kid who is sitting in your office.

"It's a touchy one because you want to have that great relationship with the kids, but at the same time, you work for your boss. And you have to protect him and you have to protect the best interests of your program."

For her, Xavier was a chance to move back to her Ohio roots but also up a level in competition to the Big East. The job offered a chance to take on more recruiting responsibility, experience she felt she needed to eventually be a successful head coach. It wasn't necessarily easy being the junior member of head coach Brian Neal's staff, the other two assistants having been with the coach in some capacity during his first two seasons. Connecticut's stability aside, college coaching staffs are often almost as fluid as rosters. In Achter's case it helped that one assistant, Mark Ehlen, had been Toledo's coach when she played in the same conference and could offer an insider's perspective.

"If your chemistry doesn't fit, you're going to have a very difficult time working because you're basically on a pedestal for your kids," Achter said. "They see you every day, you're their model. And if you guys can't get along then it's not going to bode well."

There are so many potential places for all of it to break down. If it doesn't, you might get what Auriemma compared to a mighty ship crossing the Atlantic. If it does, people start looking for life preservers.