Now in her sixth year at Colorado, coach JR Payne has revitalized and galvanized the basketball program with her unique blend of positivity and teaching the game. The Buffs began their first season during her tenure by starting 10-0, and went on to the WNIT that year, as well as in 2021. Last January, Colorado upset then-No. 1 Stanford in overtime, avenging two previous losses to the Cardinal at the buzzer. It was the first upset of a top-ranked team in program history. Currently, the Buffs are 7-0.
Payne was head coach at Southern Utah for five years, where she guided the program back into the winning column before leaving for Santa Clara, where she did the same thing for two seasons. She began her coaching career as an assistant for Gonzaga before taking the same position at Boise State, and then Santa Clara, before going to Southern Utah.
A Tennessee native, Payne grew up in North Vancouver, B.C., and became heavily involved in sports. Her given name is Ali-Marie, but she earned the nickname “JR” from her father, after TV character J.R. Ewing, because she was tough and stood up to her brothers. Payne played for coach Kelly Graves at Saint Mary’s, and became an assistant coach for him at Gonzaga a few years later. She is married to Colorado associate head coach Toriano Towns.
You’re one of the most positive people – not just coaches. Where does all that joy come from?
I would say it’s how I was raised. My mom, who was a high school counselor for 30 years, instilled that in me. Whenever anything was hard for me – I failed a test, my boyfriend broke up with me – and I’d want to come home and pout about it or complain, she’d listen. She’d say, “I’m sorry that happened,” and then something like, “let me tell you about a young lady who came into my office today.” And it was always something so much worse than what I was going through. She wasn’t minimizing what I was going through; she gave me perspective.
Whatever you’re going through, ultimately you’re responsible for your response. That lesson right there is probably the greatest lesson I ever learned. In coaching and recruiting, you lose so many times before you win. Honestly, I feel like it’s s choice, how we act and treat people. The world is a tough place, and the more we can spread kindness and roll with the punches, the better off were going to be.
How do you balance that optimism with having to be a coach and get on players sometimes?
T and I are the prefect pair. We have always coached together – my mom says we’re yin and yang. He’s more negative, but he’s always looking long term and predicting where there will be a problem. His strength is organization, and he was raised in a way to foresee a problem and try to solve it. If everyone was like me, we’d not be a good staff and if everyone was like him, it wouldn’t be a good staff. When he balances me and I balance him, it sets the tone.
As staff, we never get too high or too low. But we do get excited.
What’s your basketball philosophy?
You have to remember that it’s a game and its meant to be fun, and when you win it’s more fun. The joy of what we do is in the journey, which is kind of cliché, but true. I had a meeting with one player today who is more talented than most, but not super-talented, and she is one kid who will always show up and do the work. I told her that’s fine but I think you’re capable of getting A’s in your classes. And that’s important so that 20 years form now, when walk into a room of men or people who don’t look like you, you can crush it. Because you’re capable of more than that. Part of the journey is getting them to strive for excellence. I don’t care if you’re talented, it’s what you’re capable of. Our staff tries to push our kids to be great.
How do you build a program?
Everything starts with culture and knowing who you want to be – who do we want to be – and being realistic about that. We’ve always loved to be blue collar; we want to be the hardest-working team – that’s our goal. We recruit players who also have a chip on their shoulder. Players like (guard) Jaylyn Sherrod, for who we were her only Power 5 offer. We believed in her. We invested time in knowing who she was, and it didn’t matter if she was small or under-recruited, she fit it. We don’t want to be prima donnas or prance around in warms ups with headphones on. We want to work, and we recruit people who want to work, who care about their studies. That’s who we are.
After that, it’s working to have really high expectations about who we want to be, and then holding players to those standards.
How do you execute the goal-setting process?
We try to be really thoughtful in what we put on paper. Even within our daily (routine), if we say we’re going to do something, we’ve got to follow up on it. We don’t put a lot to paper; we talk a lot everyday about winning the day, being the best we can be today, and having championship standards today. If we can do that possession by possession, drill by drill, then we breed habits that are championship habits.
How, where and why did you first pick up a basketball?
I played in the driveway with my older brothers and with my dad. I didn’t have a team until fifth grade, in school. Basketball in Canada wasn’t really good yet at that time, so when I was growing up it was soccer year-round, and basketball wasn’t that big of a deal. When they finally got a fifth grade team, the lady that was coaching didn’t know basketball, and she came to me and asked what drills we should do. I loved it. I played every sport; I was the only girl in the baseball league, and I also played volleyball. I didn’t get really serious about basketball until my sophomore year in high school.
You played for and worked for Kelly Graves, and have a great friendship with him. What did you learn from him?
Everything. Kelly is like my second dad, and we talk once a week. He had our game queued up the other night to watch us. He’s one of my favorite people on Earth. One of the biggest things I learned from him early on was that you can have whatever you want in a game – you can have all of those things and you wouldn’t have to sacrifice any of it to be good. He showed me that you can do all of that, and that the game was supposed to be fun. I was a junior when he came to St. Mary’s. When the game was in crunch time and everyone was stressed, he sat on the stool with a grin and said “isn’t this the best?” He was so excited, like a kid in candy store.
We do a lot of similar things in our practices today.
What do you want your kids to take away or know once they leave your program?
That they’re capable of doing anything. They are capable of conquering anything. If, someday, they’re the only woman in a boardroom and have to give a presentation, that they know they will go in and crush it; that they can go into an interview and know they deserve the job.
Do you have a highlight, or best game of your coaching career?
I would say beating Stanford last year. Only because…,,, for me it was the fact that they’d broken our hearts and ripped out our soul the year before with those buzzer-beater shots.
Do you have a motto or inspirational quote that you like?
I guess my favorite quote is, “The greatest glory is not in ever falling, but in rising every time you fall.”
If you had a day off where you had absolutely no other responsibilities, how would you spend your free time?
I would hang with my kids. I’d pull them out of school and we would kick it. I don’t know what we would do, but it would be fun.