Stefanie Pemper enters her tenth year as Navy’s head coach this season on the verge of becoming the most winning coach in program history. She has guided the Mids to eight winning seasons; a regular-season conference crown and two shared crowns; three Patriot League Tournament titles; and three trips to the NCAA Tournament and two trips to the WNIT.
Pemper is a Huntington Beach, Calif. native who played four standout years for Idaho State. She began her coaching career there, serving two years as an assistant before taking the same position at Harvard for three seasons. She was named head coach of Bowdoin College, and in ten years notched a 235-48 record – fourth in Division III history. Pemper was also the senior women’s athletic administrator at Bowdoin, and her teams went to the NCAA Tournament all but one season of her tenure. In 2003-2004, Bowdoin went 30-1, with their lone loss coming in the NCAA National Championship game. Pemper was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
You seem like you were born to coach. Was that always a dream of yours?
It definitely was something that excited me as early as junior high school. There was a need for women role models at my school, Liberty Christian. I admired one woman at Huntington Beach High School: Joanne Kellogg, the athletic director.
I had two older brothers and was a tomboy growing up, playing all sports. You don’t know how tangible it was that I had a woman to look up to.
You’ve had tremendous success in your two head coaching positions. How did you approach each job that lead to that success?
When I took the Bowdoin job I wanted to be that person at this nice little college where they can feel at home for 25-30 years. You don’t see lot women doing that. But I got cold up in Maine.
Coaches have easy access to words of wisdom from male coaches, but I had a cool role model in Harvard coach Kathy Delaney Smith. We had had three great years at Harvard, winning Ivy League titles. That was my first real success in basketball as a coach, and it was intoxicating. The way Kathy ran the program was great. The women who played loved it, and took ownership of the program. It was very appealing to try to replicate. But it’s all about the relationships and the journey.
Our goal is to get a lot out of what we have and to play to the best of our ability. We end up where we end up, and we can’t always control that. We want to have a special program that the women can connect to. (A coach) has to be somewhere for a bit of time for that to happen.
I love practice; I’m very process-oriented. I certainly delve into recruiting, and at Bowdoin I had to because I didn’t have a recruiting coordinator – I did all of it. It’s about attracting people who are attracted to you. They respond to your coaching, even when you do something you wish you’d done differently.
Lot of things came together at Bowdoin, and I ended up having more success than I imagined. When I came to Navy it was a bit of “can we do things the same way?” The Patriot League is similar to the NESCAC and the Ivy League. The difference was that I have a different kind of staff at Navy, and the challenge was in having to manage that. I appreciated the opportunity to represent such a unique educational institution.
What are the tenants behind a successful program?
Trust. The players have to be able to trust you to make good decisions in everything, beyond making decisions with players on the court.
Being honest with them, which is a character thing. The sign of a really good program is good character throughout, and that starts with the head coach.
Organization and preparation. And one of the tenants of being successful is luck. I can remember some games where the opponent had a really good shooter, and she missed the shot at the buzzer.
What is your coaching philosophy?
I’m not super corporate. I just love it. I see the good in people and situations, and I love the sport of basketball. I love working with intelligent strong women and trying to get them to work well together to achieve something special together, which will be a model that for the next phase of their lives. Life is tough, and what we do in Division I is like life. There are so many rich challenges and learning situations.
What is a coach Pemper practice like?
It’s going to move; we’re going to try to get a lot in. There’s not a lot of talking by me. I admire coaches who talk a lot. The drills are really competitive; we always have a winner and a loser, and we shoot off ties. There is a lot of fundamental work. Games are won and lost by simply passing and catching the basketball, so there is a lot of small group work like three-on-three, two-on-two. People are sweating. Unlike schools where there are athletic scholarships, these women don’t have to play. I’m only going to play nine a game, and I’ll have someone who won’t get in, so I want practices to be challenging. I like to get as many people involved as I can, and I coach everyone equally hard.
How do your players balance the military, school and basketball?
It’s really tricky tough for them. They get a double major in time management, because in the end they do all of those things in the same amount of time. They can meet me 20 hours a week, and I feel like we have to make the most of it, because it’s their favorite part of the day. Some days they will have a training in their company, so (basically) they are on two teams in the academy: the basketball team and their company team. There are 30 companies, and each person stays in that same company for four years. They have to manage their relationship with their company and with the team.
Half of the faculty at Navy are civilians half are active military. Everyone exists for the undergrads, because there is no grad school here. You have to graduate in four years, and then you will be commissioned into the Navy or Marine corps. There are a lot of officers who don’t feel like basketball is critical to success, but we do. In basketball you must be a leader, a follower and perform under pressure. We think it’s an incredible trifecta of responsibility and opportunity. Players get encouraged when struggling academically to drop their sport. They are aware that it’s on them to make that work.
Are the recruiting rules different in the Patriot League than non-military institutions?
The thing with academies is the admissions standards and when they can formally be admitted. Because we have to wait until later, we have to project out, but at other schools you can zero in and get commitments from kids a little earlier. It’s so easy to say “yes” to a state school, and for some kids it’s their dream. For the Ivy Leagues and the academies it’s different, because we have to keep more names in our hopper than other schools. When you’re at a big (tournament) in July it’s comical at 10 pm because the coaches you see still at a gym are Ivy, military and mid-major coaches who look in the cracks of the woodwork for players and stay a little bit longer to find them.
How do you approach goal-setting?
A couple of different ways. When you’re a head coach you try a lot of different things over the years. Sometimes a player will remind you of something you (coached) 11 years ago. We’ve done game performance goals for teams, which has been motivational. We’ve done Jeff Janssen championship team-building, where you decide on your mission and your focus to accomplishing that. Right now we’re doing individual goals, Katie Rokus is my assistant coach and our mental toughness training person. Everyone has goal buddies.
How did you come to start playing basketball, and what kind of a player were you?
I had a great intro into the sport, with my two older brothers and dad on the driveway at first. Then Ann Meyers Drysdale was a first role model. I did get to go to Pauley Pavilion and see her play. In 1979 the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson. I didn’t know who he was, but my dad had a premonition that the Lakers were going to start winning, so we got season tickets and started going up there for games. I went to a Christian school for eighth grade. I knew public school would get more attention so I went to Huntington Beach High. I had a good coach there and a good teammate who went to play DII. I was discovered late in my senior year in December and got a scholarship to play at Idaho State. I worked camps a lot growing up, and in college I worked at Stanford on Tara’s staff.
What is the best thing about your job?
Coaching is a service job, and the best thing is to try to serve women the best that I can, and to serve our staff and our institution and community the best that I can. I care about people and I care about the work that we do. I strive to be the best we can be. That my responsibility. We lost a tough game (recently) and a lot of things didn’t go well. Ultimately that’s my responsibility. I am so honored to be a coach,.
Coaching and educating keeps you young, but really, you have to adapt. Basketball is such a beautiful game, and getting a chance to watch it played really well, and to see people playing together really well – it’s romantic.
If you had some down time, how would you use it?
I like to be outside. I take my dog on a hike or a walk. We have a lot of water in Annapolis. I also love to travel, especially internationally. I’ve done a ton of that.
What’s your favorite destination?
I did spend nine days in Italy, which was really neat. New Zealand was really neat.