Since coming to Utah in 2015, Lynne Roberts has guided the Utes to three postseason appearances, three 18-plus win seasons and a trip up the AP top 25 rankings list for the first time in a decade. Both team and players have notched statistical milestones – especially in rebounding and blocked shots.
A native of Redding, Calif., Roberts played at Seattle Pacific University and began her coaching career there as an assistant to her former coach, Gordy Presnell. She was head coach at Chico State for four years before taking the same position at Pacific University. Over nine seasons, Roberts took a team that won 11 games the year before to a program best 27-8 record in 2012-2013, and a Big West regular-season title. She was also named Big West coach of the year.
After an injury-riddled year in 2018-2019, Roberts said “it is time for (Utah) to pivot to being great” this season.
This is the second season that the team has been comprised of entirely your own recruits. Does it feel like your program now?
It totally does. Last year the only player we had on the team we didn’t recruit was Erika Bean, but I recruited her at my old school, so I felt like she was ours. Coaches by nature are competitive beyond reason. You always want things to happen faster than they do, and that you can make them happen faster than they actually do. It takes patience.
What have your biggest challenges been at Utah?
The obvious answer is that my timing was not great in (Utah) joining the Pac-12 (in 2011, and now with the best RPI of any conference in the country). Every year I’ve been at Utah we’ve got better as a program and the league has got better as a league. It’s so hard to leap frog other teams. I took over a last-place team, and last year we finished sixth, but it’s hard to move up. Not that I feel sorry for us. I feel like we’re a top 25 team, but it’s so hard to show that in this league.
Then there is perception vs. reality. People have a perception of what Utah is, but the reality is different from the perception. It is a swim upstream in recruiting. If it’s a 400-yard dash to land that kid, then I have to start sprinting 800 meters before that, because you want to get kids who can compete in the Pac-12. We don’t have that sexy brand appeal across all our sports.
Utah as a state has cultural perceptions. I’m from California, and when they called me I said, what is Utah? We get a high percentage of commitments when we can get kids to visit. This is a college town, and it’s a city without some of the (weather) elements you find elsewhere. You still feel like you’re in the West.
What was your vision for the program when you stepped in, and how did you go about creating the framework?
The vision is that I want it to be a nationally-respected program. What that means is that we’ve got a great fan base, we’ve got good attendance and we’re an NCAA Tournament team. We’re a brand, and whether you’re in Florida or Oregon, you know we’re good. I saw a potential for women’s basketball, which had never really done anything here; attendance had never been great, while in the other sports it is. My vision has been that. How you do it is like chopping wood: you methodically attack all those areas. Things won’t be good if you don’t have a good fan base and a good atmosphere, and that’s been a big push for me. Attendance has been up 500 percent in the four years I’ve been here. There’s been a lot of pushing I’ve had to do internally to change what people think it possible. This year we had 7,000 for our first game, but we’ve got to keep winning to keep people coming. Another part of the vision is that you’ve got to get the right people. Obviously that means staff and recruiting, and then developing those people. If you get right people motivated, things happen.
How have you pushed attendance?
What haven’t we done? I’ve never said no to a speaking engagement. The marketing department has got into the act. I will sneak in 10 minutes before the football press conference and take the mic. You catch bees with honey. We do a lot of things in-game, and I’ve tried to make us accessible. The target is families, so we focus on how we can do that.
How does Utah differ from California and the Northwest?
The weather, of course, but it’s fun to be somewhere where there are four seasons. In California it’s, do you wear shorts or not, and if it’s really cold, you wear socks. Utah is very outdoorsy and friendly, with a West coast feel but a Midwest family vibe. It’s down-to-earth, really friendly and family-centric.
You rebuilt the program at Pacific and turned it into a mid-major power. What did you learn through that process?
I’m thankful for that experience, because the Pac-12 isn’t where you can learn and cut your teeth – especially now. I’m grateful for what I had learned coming in here. It’s like anything – you learn from doing it wrong. What I learned there is that you have to get the right kids. There’s a lot of talent out there, but I had a couple of instances – love is blind – where you want to think they’re going to be different. In recruiting I made mistakes early at Pacific, and I figured out not to do that. The other big component is when you’re taking over a program, you have to objectively stand back and evaluate what can we be and what can’t we be, what is our identity, what could it be, who can we recruit and not. Otherwise you end up chasing your tail.
Blue chip kids have an edge to them. They want to prove others wrong. Kids who come here are not coming because they want Twitter love; they want to come here because they believe in the Pac-12. It’s the same with me. I could do it other places, but here, it’s never been done.
I did it in Seattle as a player, I did it at Pacific when we won our first title. It’s possible here, but it’s really freaking hard. You can’t get too high or too low. As a head coach, I can’t be flying off the handle, good or bad. I’m pretty consistent.
There is so much pressure. It’s not life or death, but ultimately you have to win or you will lose your job.
Who were your main influences in coaching? At what point did you know you wanted to coach?
I played at Seattle Pacific for Gordy Presnell, who is now at Boise State. During my junior year I couldn’t find anything academically exciting, so he asked me to be a GA. I did that and that’s how I got into coaching, and I have done nothing ever since. I was a GA for two years and worked at Safeway and went to grad school. I was an assistant coach for three years and I was making $17,000 and thought I was rolling in it. Gordy has been my biggest influence.
How has your approach in coaching changed over the years?
I’ve got a grasp on competitiveness and perspective on life. I enjoy the teaching part around the players and I enjoy seeing things come together. I like creating a culture and a unit and leading and motivating, and the science of having 20 different people motivated and wired differently come together. I love creating but I don’t enjoy the games, which is bizarre, but winning is relieving and losing is just devastating.
The games aren’t what motivates me. I’ve shifted a lot on that, and I’ve become more aware of consistency and being even-keeled. I’ve learned a lot about college kids too over years, and I care just as much – I just care differently. I don’t talk to them after games because I want emotions to die down and for them to be able to look each other in the eye and talk.
I’ve been a coach for 18 years, and that’s crazy.
How would you describe your coaching style?
I’m very honest and direct, but I use humor and I don’t take myself too seriously. that’s my thing about life: we’re not curing cancer, we’re playing basketball, and it’s important to remember that. I try to laugh at myself, but I’m also intense. They know I’m competitive, and I don’t let things slide on or off the court. In the moment, I’ll confront it. If you’re not in class, I’m going to walk up to you. If there’s an issue, I’ll address it immediately and move on.
If I walked into a Utes practice today, what would I see?
Intensity, but if something is funny, we’re going to laugh. If have to dial up the intensity I’ll dial it up. Our practices are one hour and 20 minutes, tops. I don’t like to hear myself talk, so I know they don’t. I know they learn by doing, so we don’t do a lot of talking. We correct it and do it right. Our practices are fast and furious, positive and full of life.
What are the most important tenets you want to impart upon your athletes by the time they leave your program?
Self-reliance. Ownership, meaning I’m in charge of my own destiny: if it is to be, it’s up to me. I think that’s something our culture is losing a foothold on. Kindness, acceptance. I want them to be exposed to people of different everythings, and understand how to impact others in a good way, no matter who they are. College is a great time to be exposed to many things you haven’t been, and sports is a really cool way to do it. We have a cool platform.
Let’s say you were given $100,000 to spend on charitable causes. How would you spend it?
I would love to support women that need a hand up. Maybe a single mother that has to work two jobs, or maybe a minority who can’t get an opportunity she’s a minority.