Stephanie Gaitley enters her eighth year as Fordham’s head coach, and her 33rd year in coaching overall. She has guided the Rams to five 20-win seasons that have earned them an Atlantic-10 Championship, four trips to the WNIT and one to the NCAA Tournament. Gaitley became the program’s most winning coach in February, 2017. She is the second-most winning coach in A-10 history.
A New Jersey native, Gaitley was an All-American at Villanova, where she also played with her sister Courtney. She was head coach at Richmond, St. Joseph’s University, Long Island University and Monmouth University over a 25-year span before coming to Fordham.
On the court, Gaitley emphasizes defense with her teams. Off of the court, she helps them to achieve great academic heights. She and her husband have three sons, all of whom are involved in basketball: one is an assistant coach with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets; the second is an intern with the Miami Heat; and the third, a sophomore player at the University of Richmond.
At what point did you know you wanted to coach?
I grew up in a big family – I was one of eight – and my mom and dad were both athletes. I followed my dad to baseball games, and watched my brothers and sisters play sports. Basketball came into play when my sister was a sophomore in high school, and she helped start a winning tradition. By the time I was a senior, we had won 100 games, so I helped complete what she started.’
I had a really good high school coach who I still stay in tough with who motivated me. She was ahead of her time, very much the disciplinarian and very tough. She made you the best you could be. So I knew I wanted to coach at a pretty early age.
How has goal-setting for you changed from when you first began your career until now?
When you’re a young coach you see everything defined by wins and losses, but as you get older – and me being a mom – you get a different perspective. About 21 years ago when I was at St. Joseph’s we were up 16 at the half, and our kids were thinking, “this game is over.” But that was one of the years that Pat’s (Summitt) team won the Championship, and we ended up losing that day. I was driving home and one of my kids is 11 and the other is five, and they wanted to stop at McDonald’s and get a happy meal. I said, “what about this is happy right now?” My youngest popped up over the back of the seat and said, “mom, it’s just a game, get over it.” He had a point.
As I’ve become older, a great part of coaching is being a role model to kids. Winning becomes a driving force, and the more time you put into individuals, the more success you have. There are so many good coaches out there, and it’s not about any special offense or defense. The number one thing is how you treat people. If you give them your heart, they’ll give it back.
So much has changed in 30 years. How has the game changed? How have young people changed?
The game has expanded because there is so much more exposure on TV and social media, and because there’s more money in it. People see coaching as an opportunity when that wasn’t always the case. Now that there’s more money in it, we have more men coaching than women.
I still think my best teams over all my coaching years then would hang with some of the better teams now. The difference is depth. Now, for us, we do a lot of overseas recruiting. We used to steal kids before we had the Internet, but now everyone knows about them.
My dad has always said it’s important to be a good listening, but the problem sometimes today can be the (athlete’s) parents. Many think their kids walk on water, and when I have a kid visit officially, I want to meet the parents.
Not all longtime coaches are able to keep up with the changes to the game and remain relevant. Many of my friends who are high school coaches are getting out of coaching.
When you came to Fordham, you were tasked with rebuilding the program. What were the steps you took to accomplish that?
After I went through our first practice, I said “wow.” In this job I knew we were getting great people; I just knew we needed to bring in more talent. So we picked up (some transfers) here and there and began building from there.
Your teams are known for their passionate defense. Does offense flow from defense, or the other way around?
We are known for our position defense – not a press-and-cause turnovers defense. It’s more of a positional, “make you earn it” type of thing. What we’ve been able to drum into the kids’ heads is that the bread and butter comes form defense, and letting them know that the offense is going to catch up at some point. Defense dictates the flow of the game, and though the players change, our defense doesn’t.
What are the keys to motivating athletes?
The main thing is to let them know you care about them. They have to know you care and that you believe in them, and that you have their best interests at heart. That you’re fair. The kids of this era do want discipline, even though they don’t act like it.
Academics is very important to you. How do you help your athletes balance classroom work and basketball?
You get what you demand, and if you dictate that academics are important, they are. Every year we split them up and put athlete groups with each coach, and we have challenges. It’s hard not to do well when there is such a structure in place. We make it competitive, with the team earning the highest collective GPA winning T-shirts, and the team with the lowest having to make dinner. The more you create a competitive atmosphere and let them know it matters, the better the results.
I also remain flexible. One kid a couple years ago took a class, and I would let her leave practice early for it. I believe the more you give, the more you get, and anything that is going to improve their personal situation, I am willing to work with them on it. I tell them, if I can make it work, I will make it work.
What is the best thing about coaching?
Seeing them grow as individuals and laughing with them later when we remember certain stories. Sometimes I get notes 10 years down the line: “I didn’t get it then, but I get it now.” Those are the best. Players come to visit, and that is also the best.
On those infrequent occasions when you do get free time, how do you like to spend it?
We’re a movie family, and we love to go to or watch the movies. I love the Hallmark movies, and I’m so glad they started early this year. I don’t know if my husband is, though.