Coach’s Chair: Carolyn Kieger, Marquette University

Marquette coach Carolyn Kieger calls out a play during a game. Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.
Marquette coach Carolyn Kieger calls out a play during a game. Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

Since being named head coach at her alma mater in 2014, Carolyn Kieger has guided Marquette to a first-ever Big East Tournament title on its home floor in 2017, and a regular-season conference title and second round NCAA Tournament appearance the following season. She was the Big East co-coach of the year in 2018.

Currently, the No. 8 Golden Eagles sit atop the Big East with a 10-0 conference and 19-3 overall record.

Kieger starred at Marquette from 2002-2006, where she became the only player in program history with at least 1,200 career points, 400 career rebounds and 600 assists for her career. She remains the Golden Eagles’ all-time assists leader, and graduated cum laude.

Prior to her return, Kieger was an assistant coach at Miami for six years under head coach Katie Meier, who calls her “an exceptional person with an extraordinary ability to get the most out of everyone she coaches.”

What was the Marquette program like when you took it over? What did you set in place to begin making it yours?

It was a unique situation when I came back. One of my years playing, we were in the top 25 but weren’t successful at the championship level. In my senior year we joined the big league and were playing UConn and Rutgers. When I came back it was different competitively and culturally. What I focused on for the first three years was building culture, and making sure everyone here involved with the program, from student-athletes to coaches to those in academics, were on the same page with the vision that we had. The first year we struggled in rebuilding our culture, but our group came in and really bought in. They realized how great they could be, and there’s been no turning back.

What are the keys to a successful program?

The biggest thing is having the right culture. You need to know where you’re headed, with one specific mission and shared core principles. In this group, we all have a purpose and know where we want to go and what our mission is. We want to be the best version of ourselves. If we go from there, things are pretty simple. We all have the same standards. If we’re flourishing, the score doesn’t matter; being excellent does. We’re not playing an opponent – we’re playing the scoreboard, and we’re trying to be as excellent as we can. With every group, the question is, how can we grow?

Your former boss, Miami coach Katie Meier, had high praise for you when you were hired. She said your value system permeates a program. To what is she referring?

I owe pretty much everything I have in my pro career to coach Meier, who helped develop me. She’s value-based and does it for the right reasons. Being competitive is important, but at te end of the day, it’s all about family and building relationships. We each come from a large family and are inclusive and loyal.

With a team it has to be all for one and one for all. No one is bigger than the next person. There is no hierarchy; everyone is equal, with all hands in the pot. Everyone’s grinding. Everyone’s working the same amount, whether they’re involved with recruiting and scouting or individual workouts. I like to hear different ideas, and everyone has a voice. At the end of the day, we are only as good as the sum of our parts. Everyone’s got to grow.

One thing I’m really about is player development. Once you have that, the team just rises. We do a lot of skill work and individual film sessions. We keep them together, but also develop their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Meier also said you have a immense ability to get the most out of everyone you coach. How do you do that?

I’m very intense. I have an idea for everyone’s potential, and whatever someone thinks is their best reach or their max, my job is to show them: that’s your body talking and not your mind talking. I push a lot. I push players staff and myself, because at the end of the day, we’re all here to make each other better, and I’m never going to let you settle for anything average or less than your best. (That approach) is not for everybody. Not everyone wants to be told their weaknesses all the time, but to get to where you need to go, you have to be authentic. No sugar-coating. There are no short cuts; there is a lot of hard work.

How do you view personal and team goal-setting?

For the team, our mission is to be the best version of ourselves, and and with each and every team, we go over what our goals are for that season ahead of time. We have a thing in our program: setting the mark, raising the mark, leaving the mark. With the freshmen we go over their personal, academic and basketball goals, and then as players go along through their careers, we keep revisiting those goals to see where they’re at. It’s vision casting and goal-setting.

Where did you come up with this strategy?

(Another coach) came up with “leave your mark.” I started thinking about it a bit more. The last three years, I adopted this mental side: I ask players, if a kid sees you for only one game, what are they going to see? It is good for athletes to understand things besides X’s and O’s.

Are the Golden Eagles where you thought they would be at this point?

It’s what I envisioned, hoped for and have been working for from the moment I took over this program. I believed we could be a top 10 team, and we have great administrative support, are in a rich recruiting area and this is a basketball school and city. I knew it would take a lot of hard work. I’ve been talking to our fans and have told them, we’re just getting started.

Carolyn Kieger is in her fifth season as head coach of the Golden Eagles. Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.
Carolyn Kieger is in her fifth season as head coach of the Golden Eagles. Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.

How do you be a leader?

As a leader you set the vision, and then honestly work your butt off to obtain it. If you see me working in the trenches, I’m being authentic. Players have got to know I love them and care about them. When I’m hard on them, they have to know it’s because I love them and I see a potential in them that they don’t yet see.

Most people want to be successful and don’t know what it takes. That’s my biggest job is to show them what it takes – to show them what discipline looks like. I’ve got to make them ready for the real world.

What kind of a player were you, and when did you know you wanted to coach?

I knew I wanted to coach since I was 12 years old. I was the type to play every sport imaginable, from football to field hockey. I was always bossing around all the kids, and that hasn’t changed much. As a player I was a work horse. I wasn’t overly-athletic or fast, but I had a great basketball IQ and never stopped talking on the court. If you weren’t on my team you wouldn’t like me, and if you were on my team you might not like me either because I told people the truth.

What did you learn at Miami, and when did you know you were ready to be a head coach?

I learned so much at Miami. Coach Meier does a fantastic job of mentoring and putting people in a good position to flourish. I learned what it is to be at a high level. I worked with top five (WNBA) draft picks, the ACC player of the year, and I was coaching people who were elite and wanted to be great. But you still need to stay on them, because they need people looking over their shoulder and holding them accountable. The biggest thing I learned from coach Meier was how to generate real relationships with players on and off the court. She does that every day. She’s one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met.

You don’t ever know until you’re in that position because you learn on the fly. I think I was really well-prepared, blessed and lucky.

Was getting the job at your alma mater surreal? What does it mean to you to head the program you once belonged to?

It was pretty crazy. It was a dream of mine always to come back here someday, and I didn’t know when it would be or what it would look like. I played for coach Mitchell, and then the job came open she was the first person I talked to. She was phenomenal and really encouraged me. I didn’t see it coming, but I have so much pride in Marquette. And the opportunity to come back to a place that gave you your degree, and that I could never pay back, honestly, it’s a dream come true, because I come every day to a place I couldn’t care ore about. And when I talk to the team, I’m not only talking to them as a coach, but as an alum. I care about where we’re going.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That I made people better. Were they better because I was in their lives, and did I help them get to a place they couldn’t get to by themselves? Did I build lasting relationships with players and the community? I tell players the goal is to make the jersey better than how you found it.

What is the best thing about coaching?

Being a part of a team. That’s why I love this group right now. I feel like we’re doing this together. It’s not just me or the staff – it’s all of us.

The reward is in timeouts, when players are giving me suggestions. It’s been really neat to see them grow as people, and I can’t speak enough for the maturity that they’ve adopted into becoming great young women.

What’s on coach Kieger’s playlist?

I am very random. I like a little bit of everything: country, hip hop, R&B, and pop. The only thing you’re not going to find there is heavy metal.