In Marlene Stollings’ first season as Minnesota’s head coach in 2014-2015, the Gophers went 23-10 and made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years. She is the second-fastest coach in program history to reach 50 wins, and began this year with a 58-38 overall record. Under Stollings, Minnesota has been ranked in the top ten in the nation in scoring, and as a team have made at least 200 three-point shots each season.
An Ohio native, Stollings began playing basketball as a small child, and practiced relentlessly at home. She played two years at Ohio State and transferred to Ohio for her last two seasons. After a brief pro career she served as an assistant coach at Jacksonville, New Mexico State, Wright State, St. Louis and Ole Miss before being named head coach at Winthrop. She was head coach at VCU for three seasons before taking the helm for the Gophers.
Stollings’ is known not only for offense but for team conditioning, intensity and a fiercely-competitive spirit.
Let’s start with the present. The Gophers are off to a great start on the year, and the team seems to be having fun both on and off the court. How did you build the kind of chemistry we’re seeing right now? How does the momentum continue?
It’s our fourth year after inheriting a program that hadn’t had a lot of success in about a decade. We had some really good pieces in Rachel (Banham) and Amanda (Zahui B.), but we didn’t have team talent. Behind the scenes I was building recruiting class after recruiting class. I loved our freshman class last year, and we had a tough schedule that was in the top 10 in the nation. The team was really thrown into the fire, and what we’re seeing this year is another great freshman class that includes Destiny Pitts. Combine that with last year’s newcomers and our upper class players like Kenisha Bell and Carlie Wagner, we are taking all that experience and implementing it.
You’re in your fourth season at Minnesota. Does the program feel like yours now?
It does, for the first time. This is the first season that it truly feels like our program, because we’re playing the way we want to play, and we have depth for the first time. For the first time since I’ve been here, we can go into our bench – we can go eight or nine deep. We play so fast, that we’ve got to go into the bench.
Now let’s return to the beginning. How did you first come to pick up a basketball, and what drove you in becoming such a celebrated player at both the high school and collegiate levels?
I grew up in a rural part of Ohio, and in that neck of woods, basketball is huge. I grew up watching a lot basketball. I was a big Celtics fan – Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge. I had a hoop on the back of a barn, and a dirt court to play on. From the time I was five, I picked it up and I loved it. I could have played college volleyball or softball, but I never loved it as much as I loved basketball. Over the years, I perfected putting the ball into the hoop.
My dad wouldn’t pave the court – it was gravel. The dirt court became a challenge to me. Wherever the grass started growing, I knew I wasn’t working on my shot enough from there, so that forced me to do it with my left hand, or whatever I needed to work on.
Dad made our hoop one inch smaller than regulation size, and he didn’t tell me that until I was 15. He likes to brag about that now.
You were a transfer way before transferring became so common. In retrospect, are you glad you made that decision?
When you’re a kid you don’t know everything you think you might know. I’m a Buckeye through and through, having been from that area. I don’t regret the transition in my athletic career, and I had a great end of my college career at Ohio. But I came from an area that was three counties wide in traveling to games. There was a lot of pressure on me from adults at that time, and if I looked back knowing what I do now…I felt like I was representing the Southern part of the state. I left Ohio State to play more minutes.
Transfers are much more prevalent now. Last year we and Northwestern didn’t have any transfers; we were the only two Big Ten teams that didn’t.
Was your offensive prowess as a player the impetus for your infamous “fury” offense as a coach?
I would have to say it is. I always loved scoring as a former player, and I have taken that into coaching. One of my strengths is having a pulse on the team, and I do call a lot of sets. It’s kind of a gift because I can know what’s coming, which could go back to my playing days. Scoring is what fans want to see. Everybody likes scoring, and it’s definitely something we spend a lot of time on. We have fun with it. We have great camaraderie on our team. I’m big on reward stuff – one of my favorites is cards – because we work really, really hard. But we have a lot fun and do reward things after a win, and that makes it even more fun.
You’ve had a coaching career that has taken you to various places. What are some of the most critical things you’ve learned at each school that shaped you into the coach you are today?
When I was being recruited in middle school, the rules were very different. In seventh grade I was playing AAU ball. Watching the coaches talking to college coaches and receiving recruiting mail made such an impression on me that by the time I was a freshman in high school I was set on being a DI college coach. So the moment I was finished playing, I had my first assistant coaching position at Jacksonville. I made $18,000, had rabbit ears on my TV and a lawn chair in the living room. I didn’t think about it because I was on a mission to earn my way up through the ranks. Almost every move I made as an assistant, I made for advancement purposes. Then salaries and ranks changed drastically, so it became really competitive to find that first head coaching position. For the head coaching opportunity at Winthrop, I’ll be forever grateful. Having the associate head coach position at Ole Miss catapulted me to the next level after that.
Because I started at the grassroots level, I have done everything from laundry to sweeping the floor to running the offense. Everything I ask of my staff – scheduling, scouting video clips, practice preparation – is something I’ve done. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I may not appreciate those things as much.
What is your coaching philosophy, and how do you approach taking over a program?
The first word I’m going to use is fun. That’s the biggest thing I try to stay in tune with, and I tell my staff the same thing. We get older every year, but those we coach stay the same age. We’ve got to evolve and stay in tune with how they are changing, and how we relate to them. I think with today’s generation, you’re going to struggle, ultimately. We work extremely hard to play 30 times a year. The piece we try to work in is anytime we can work in times to connect off the court, I try to do things. For example, when we were playing UNLV, we went and grabbed Krispy Kremes. I’m big on nutrition, but some of our players hadn’t tried them.
What do you want to make sure you get across to your athletes before they leave your program?
The biggest thing I stand for, and it’s what I say when I sit in those living rooms and talk to parents and kids, is that you are going to leave us as ready for the real world as you can be. The real world is hard at times, but it is also rewarding. I tell the athletes, you never have to question that I care about you and that I want you to be ready for the real world. You may not care about sitting in the first rows in class, and not wearing a hat might not be a big deal, but we’re teaching you what’s appropriate and how people see you. I always tell parents that we have your daughter’s best interest in mind. I tell kids that I don’t play favorites, and that I appreciate those who take care of business.
What are your goals for Minnesota? Does it feel like home to you?
I really does. It has that Midwestern feel that I had growing up in Ohio. The climate is the same as where I grew up, and campus is two miles from downtown Minneapolis, so we have the luxury of a mid-sized city, but we also have the world of campus. I love the proximity to the (WNBA’s Minnesota) Lynx. (Head coach) Cheryl (Reeve) is in and out, and we go to Lynx games.
We want to be recognized and respected as a top 25 team, in the big picture. I have to recognize that larger picture because I’m competitive, but I have to be patient. Things are moving, but it takes a moment when you’re inheriting a program that’s been stagnant.
(Gopher alumni) Lindsay (Whalen) and Rachel (Banham) usually come back around January. They’ll come to a few practices, as the Big Ten limits the number of times they can come. Often, they’ll practice with us.
Who are your role models?
My parents. In coaching, I really studied the coaches that were hot during my youth in coaching. I read every Pat Summitt book I could get my ads on; I read Pat Riley’s stuff, even Phil Jackson. I read and studied certain things, I highlighted and took notes. Wendy Larry was a coach I got to be around a lot. Four years as an assistant coach at Ole Miss when Van Chancellor was at LSU, Nell Fortner was at Auburn, and Carol Ross was in and out of Ole Miss was invaluable.
Name a fun fact that most people wouldn’t know about Coach Stollings.
I’m a heck of a ping pong player.