- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer checked the scores and discovered the University of San Francisco mired in a nine-game losing streak.
VanDerveer reached for her phone, her interest less parochial, fretting at the struggles of another Bay Area team, than parental. San Francisco's head coach, Jennifer Azzi, was one of the defining players in the legacy of Stanford women's basketball.
"I called her all worried and she gets on the phone and she's fine," said VanDerveer, recounting the conversation from last season. "She's telling me, 'These are great kids, they are working hard.' I'm here worrying for no reason. She knew they were getting better. She's an incredibly positive person. I guess I just had to be reminded."
Azzi's storied playing career -- she has won a national championship, the Naismith Award, an Olympic gold medal and was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame -- was marked by hard work, tenacity and the ability to be in better shape than anyone else.
In her third year as a college coach, she's hitting the first two standards. Still working on the third.
Azzi assumed the first coaching job of her career at San Francisco in 2010. USF is a basketball school, a place where Bill Russell's and K.C. Jones' jersey numbers hang from the rafters of the gym, but where the women's program has never found consistent success. The program hasn't had a winning record since 2001-02, and only one since 1996-97.
Everyone who knows Azzi as a leader and motivator thought she had a decent shot at turning around a moribund Dons program falling further behind the pace set in the West Coast Conference by Gonzaga.
But reconstructing a basketball program takes time. It takes energy. Patience. And most of all, as Azzi has discovered, the ability to identify talent and then recruit it.
"We are not even close to there yet," Azzi said Tuesday. "Would I like it to be sooner? Sure. But I don't think anyone expected it to happen overnight."
Yet, something is happening on The Hilltop, as the USF campus is known to locals.
The Dons are 5-4 with good wins over Hawaii and Boise State. They face San Jose State this weekend, followed by a matchup against strong Fresno State and then Pacific before the WCC schedule kicks in after the holidays.
USF has won as many games already this season as it did all of last season, a gut-wrenching 5-25 campaign that had only a few high points around that aforementioned nine-game skid.
The Dons are playing a young lineup that includes two freshmen and a sophomore. The roster includes just five upperclassmen. Senior Mel Khlok is the team's leading scorer at 14.4 points a game. Sophomore Taj Winston and freshmen Zhané Dikes and Taylor Proctor are close to averaging double figures.
"We are getting better," Azzi said. "And we are doing it with a lot of young players."
When Azzi called VanDerveer in 2010 to ask the Stanford coach advice about taking her first head-coaching job, VanDerveer was, as usual, blunt: There were easier jobs out there.
"But she's fearless. And she always has been," VanDerveer said. "She knows what it takes to build a program from the ground up. Because we did it here when she came to Stanford [in 1986]. She knows that experience."
What Azzi suspected about rebuilding a program turned out to be gospel. It all starts with recruiting.
"You have to build relationships early because you need to know if someone is a fit," Azzi said. "And it's very different than a program that's an established success. You have to find players who are mentally tough, who work hard, who value the same things that you do."
And then you have to establish a culture. Which hasn't been an automatic, even for someone with a nose-to-the-grindstone ethic like Azzi.
"You want people who have a positive attitude," Azzi said. "We are living in a world where everything is so individualized and the entitlement can be frustrating, especially when you are working to get a group to play together."
Katy Steding was Azzi's teammate at Stanford and an assistant at USF the previous two seasons before moving on to Cal. She said Azzi "wants kids who work as hard as she did."
"And she's finding them," Steding said. "It's hard to get a toehold when you haven't had one. And it's tough when you are selling the promise and not the record. But that was the fun part, setting the vision for them. Telling them what it could be like."
Azzi feels she is on the right track.
Her freshmen, the first full class of her recruits, are making an impact. And she's thrilled with her signing class, which includes local standouts Kalyn Simon, from defending state champ Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, and Hashima Carothers of Palo Alto. Claudia Price of West Mesquite, Texas, also is headed to the Bay Area. "I'm ecstatic over this group," Azzi said.
Still, Azzi considers every day a challenge in some form. It is a challenge, for example, to be picked to finish last in the West Coast Conference, an understandable consequence of the team's 3-13 record in conference play last season. Azzi is just not a last-place person.
"You have to figure out what you can control and what you can't," Azzi said. "There are days when I wish that things were different, but other days where I just love it and I love seeing the growth in student-athletes."
Azzi believes that the need for instant success, the pressure to come in and immediately turn a program into a winner, actually slows the progress toward doing just that.
"If you are so focused on the winning, it's harder to get to the winning," Azzi said. "There's no quick fix. You will win if you do things right, build relationships. The tough part is that everybody seems to be so results-oriented and I'm very process-oriented."
Her former coach agrees.
"She's very competitive, but she doesn't stress about things. She's not a worrier," VanDerveer said. "She doesn't try to make it what it's not. It's a tough job, but she enjoys the process.
"I've seen her on the road [recruiting] and she's the Jennifer we know and love here. But instead of playing, she's coaching. And she's doing a really good job."