Coach’s Chair: Lindsay Gottlieb, University of California, Berkeley

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb speaks to Asha Thomas and Kianna Smith during a game. Marcus Edwards/KLC fotos.
Coach Lindsay Gottlieb speaks to Asha Thomas and Kianna Smith during a game. Marcus Edwards/KLC fotos.

Lindsay Gottlieb was named Cal’s head coach in 2011. In her second year she guided the Bears to a program-first Final Four appearance, to cap a first-ever Pac-12 regular-season title. She was named the conference coach of the year. Gottlieb has taken the team to six NCAA Tournaments and coached five players to nine All-American nods. Three of her players were drafted into the WNBA.

A Scarsdale, New York native, Gottlieb got her start in coaching as an assistant at Syracuse in 1999. A stint at New Hampshire followed, and then she went to Richmond to assist head coach Joanne Boyle. In 2005, Gottlieb followed Boyle to Cal to be her assistant coach. Four years later she was hired as the head coach at UC Santa Barbara. When Boyle left to become Virginia’s head coach, Gottlieb returned to Berkeley.

Gottlieb graduated from Brown in 1999, where she played basketball. In her last year, she was a student assistant coach. She and her husband Patrick have one son, Jordan, 20 months old.

Chamique Holdsclaw told me once that you used to sit on the end of the bench drawing up plays. Have you always been fascinated with the X’s and O’s of the game?

I have. I was such a sports nerd as a little kid. I don’t know where it transitioned into X’s and O’s, but my family’s dinner table conversation was about legal cases, because my dad was lawyer. We were always talking about politics and sports. They ddn’t say, “did you win the game?” but, “what happened in the game?” I was that 13-year-old girl in New York City looking for the best girls and boys games, so I was destined for something beyond playing.

I think what Chamique was talking about is that I was that girl from the suburbs on a club team, and we played her team. There was a game in which we beat them. My teammate Hillary was on the court waving off the coach’s call because I had drawn up a play. When I got to college, I didn’t get on the court much, and at that point I stepped more into a coaching role.

Who in basketball, whether players or coaches, did you look up to when you were a kid?

Hillary started getting heavily-recruited, and through going with her on unofficial visits, I had the opportunity to spend time around UConn when they were on the cusp of becoming UConn. She ended up going to Duke in the fall of 1995. Through all the practices and games that I saw, I was just mesmerized and captivated by women’s college basketball. My brother took me to women’s Dartmouth games when I was 10, and I grew up watching Patrick Ewing play. I absorbed as much as I could from everything, so I wouldn’t say there was any one person or team that I followed.

How did your approach to the game, and those who play it, change as you worked as a collegiate assistant coach?

It changed in two ways: a part of the reason I went into college coaching is because when I was a student-athlete, I fell in love with the X’s and O’s. I thought, “I can’t believe you get paid to do this for a living.” I became acutely aware that kids experiences as college athletes is how their coaches made them feel: the effect that coaches have on them is tremendous. It became clear to me that the effect coaches have on 18-22-year-olds was more than I thought it would be. Relationships and people matter, and the ability to handle and care about young people is more important than what you know about basketball. And from Joanne, I learned that work ethic and discipline has to be part of your approach. There are many successful ways to do it, but whatever way you choose, you have to have a plan, a vision and a work ethic.

What did it mean to return to Cal in 2011 as the head coach?

I tell people that when you take your first head coaching job, you can only be successful if you’re going to a place saying you’d want to be there for at least 10-15 years. You can’t take a job thinking you’ll be there three years. I took the Santa Barbara job with tears, but knowing it was the right decision. I wasn’t angling to get a different job. When Joanne decided to go back East and take the Virginia job, it took me by surprise. But (contemplating coaching there) I was thinking, this isn’t  the next job, this is my dream job. I had largely formed who I was going to become as a coach, and the program was meaningful to me. When I got the job, I was incredibly humbled and grateful.

What are the building blocks of success in a program? What is the best way to sustain success?

My number one philosophy as a coach is that you have to be in it for the players. You can’t expect them to just be in it for you. How am I setting them up to be the best players, the most equipped people, the best student-athletes? And as a team, how do we form this unit to be the best we can be? You have to show up every day committed to be best version of you, and believe in team goals. You have to be wrapped up in the team goals. I tell them, you are always representing Cal and something bigger than yourself.

How do you motivate players?

I try to get them to see what they’re capable of becoming. I’m not a big believer in negative motivation; I try to motivate by showing what is possible. I would say I’m a mixture of logical and emotional. I connect with them on the heart level, but I bring facts with the head level. I try to show film, I read books, I find things that will get to them. At the same time, you have to be real with them.

The alumni support that Cal has is like no other.

It’s amazing – it’s probably my greatest joy. I have my dream job. The greatest feeling with that is helping to guide young people to find what their happiness is. Te relationships we have with the alumni are unbelievable.

What is different about the game, and the kids who play it, from when you were of college age?

It’s hard because I was at a different level at an Ivy League school, where kids are maybe even more driven in some ways. Today, the idea of professional basketball for women is a possibility, and their eyes are open to more opportunities. Social media has changed things, in that there is less creativity in thinking up how to spend your time. When we had a long break, we had “Jeopardy” challenges. The talent level of these kids is incredibly  high, but the one overall negative thing is that I don’ t know if young people come to us with the best coping mechanisms anymore. They have less of an ability to handle adversity. When we have to handle the disappointment of losing, I have to model. how to do that.

Lindsay Gottlieb confers with Kianna Smith during a game. Photo courtesy of California Athletics.
Lindsay Gottlieb confers with Kianna Smith during a game. Photo courtesy of California Athletics.

What are your goals for Cal basketball?

We want to continue to establish and maintain an elite level basketball program. Cal is about excellence, and this sport is no different. We compete at the highest level. We aim for postseason championshps and we make runs, while we simultaneously value people. No one can control how many points they score. I want players, in their excitement or disappointment over athletics, to know that they’re in a place that values and cares about them.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That I stayed true to what I was. You can be malleable and flexible, but with who I am as a human being, I’m about the kids and ability to guide them towards what they need to be. I’m about true and meaningful relationships, and I have used my platform to be a role model for women here and in the Bay Area. I want players I’ve coached to on and be better and more capable.

How has having your son changed your outlook on coaching, and on life?

I don’t think I was one of those coaches who was cold and unrelatable, and needed a kid to make me a human being out of me. I do think that for me it’s super special seeing our players be a part of the family life in a more tangible way.

Jordan is trying to say everyone’s name. His first steps were in Haas Pavilion. It’s more about the connection, because people can say the team is supposed to be about family, and I can say, it really is. It’s cliché to say, but when you have a day when you feel like crap, that kid is still cheering for you.

If you had a day where you could do anything you wanted and go wherever your heart desired, what would you do?

I love to travel. In some ways you could drop me on the island of Greece. But in a more regular day-to-day way, I would love an off day where I can do my work and watch film at a coffee shop in the Bay Area, then go hang out with Jordan. I have this incredible balance that I love where I can be a coach, have a family and can be around the team. So I guess, get up in the morning, have good coffee and conversation with Patrick, do my film in a relaxed way, meet up with Jordan and go to a Warriors game. How about that?