Jose Fernandez this year enters his 16th season as head coach of the South Florida Bulls. He began as assistant coach in the spring of 2000, was elevated to interim head coach that October, and was named head coach two months later.
Since that time Fernandez has guided the team to 11 postseason appearances, including three trips to the NCAA Tournament. He is the program’s most winning coach. This year the Bulls have been ranked in the AP top 25 for the last several weeks.
Fernandez is a lifelong Florida resident and lives with his wife and five daughters.
Sue Favor: You were recently given a contract extension through 2020-2021, meaning that when that term is up, you’ll have been coaching at USF for 21 years. Did you ever count on that happening?
Jose Fernandez: Looking back, when I took over this program I didn’t imagine being in one place for 15-16 years, but it turned out that way. I was fortunate to get a great opportunity at a young age, in a place where there wasn’t a tradition or history.
I was able to get the program off the ground and mold it the way I wanted it to be. Women’s basketball wasn’t a thought there in 2000. Before I took over they played their games where they played volleyball, in an arena with a 700-person capacity. Paul Griffin was AD, and he gave me a shot. My first year we won four games, in my second year we went to 14, and the fourth year we went to the WNIT. In year six, we were in NCAA Tournament. I was able to turn things around quickly and get the city of Tampa excited about about women’s basketball. As a result of that transformation, there’s a waiting list for courtside season ticket holders, and the entire lower bowl is frequently sold out.
There are so many people to thank in city of Tampa. We hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament last year.
Sue Favor: There aren’t too many coaches who have been at the same school their entire coaching career. How do you think that has benefited you? Would you ever consider coaching somewhere else?
Jose Fernandez: It’s definitely helped the program on the continuity side. I’m excited about the new leadership at South Florida and for their support in women’s basketball being a priority. With the previous administration, women’s basketball wasn’t a priority.
I’ve had opportunities to look at other places, but Florida is home for me. Number one, I’m not a fan of cold weather, so that rules out other places. I have seen us go from Conference USA to the Big East, we redid the Dome, got a practice facility four years ago, and now we’re in our third year in the American Athletic Conference. It’s transformed our recruiting in the players we get. I have great kids and a great coaching staff.
Sue Favor: You have a reputation as an intense coach? Do you think that’s accurate?
Jose Fernandez: (laughs) Yeah, more than accurate. You can say that. It must be my Cuban blood.
Sue Favor: What do you expect from athletes who come to play for you?
Jose Fernandez: Where we’re at didn’t happen overnight. When we were building it was a little different culture and work ethic. Loyalty is so important in our program, as are work ethics. I don’t have to take a chance on a kid if there’s character or work ethic questions. We’re so selective on who we get involved with. They have to be a great fit on and off the floor, and in the classroom.
Sue Favor: When you came to USF, the program wasn’t much. How were you able to build it up to where it is today?
Jose Fernandez: Little by little – it wasn’t going to happen overnight. We took chances on junior transfers, but that’s only going to help in the short term because it’s a Band Aid. You can’t sustain yourself. When we started winning and embraced community and connected with travel coaches around the state was when things took off.
There were so many things we did, in bolstering our summer camps with recruiting, running an annual coaching clinic. We recruited in Florida and Georgia to get things going, and now we reach all over the world. It’s transformed itself into that. That’s why you see international kids on our roster.
Sue Favor: How do you maintain a top program?
Jose Fernandez: I think it’s easier to turn a program around than to sustain it. People can come in with a great vision, a great staff and a recruiting class and turn it around, but how do you keep it there? The most important thing is you gotta continue to recruit and recruit better and better kids. Who you have, you have to continue to develop. We’ve got to develop our kids, they’ve got to keep improving.
Sue Favor: What captured your interest in basketball, and when was that?
Jose Fernandez: I always loved the game. My uncle was a PE teacher and was the first cross country coach at Miami. My family was full of educators. I was an average basketball player, but the coach I played for at my high school, who just retired, was an unbelievable influence. He and Cesar Odio at Dade were my two mentors.
Sue Favor: You have five daughters, and you coach women. That’s a lot of women!
Jose Fernandez: We had a full house for Thanksgiving. Our house could be a reality show: five girls, four dogs. Our house is the house everybody likes to hang out in.
Sue Favor: What do you like to do when you’re not coaching?
Jose Fernandez: I love to freshwater fish – that’s my outlet. And I love red wine.