Since being named to her first head coaching job at Rhode Island in April, 2019, Tammi Reiss has guided the program into the win column for just the third time in program history. Last season the Rams saw their most wins in a quarter century, and Reiss was named A-10 Coach of the Year. Rhode Island is 17-6 at home in her first two seasons.
Reiss was an All-American guard at Virginia, playing for coach Debbie Ryan and with Dawn Staley. During that time the Cavaliers won two ACC regular-season titles and made three NCAA Tournament appearances, including two trips to the Elite 8. After graduation, Reiss pursued acting, where she found roles in the movies “Juwanna Mann” and “Double-Teamed,” as well as the TV show “Sister Sister.” She returned to basketball in 1997, where she was drafted by the Utah Starzz. She began her coaching career as an assistant coach at San Diego State, and then worked at Cal State Fullerton before taking the same role at Syracuse.
Currently, the Rams are 9-3 on the season.
Not all successful players go on to become successful coaches. What is it about your playing days that prepared you to become a head coach?
I think I had the best coaches, the best teachers and the best mentors, who taught me the game from a cerebral perspective – not to just go out and play on talent. They made me think the game like a coach.
Starting out with my sixth grade teacher, who became my trainer in high school, all of the coaches I worked for and studied to no end when I was a young coach – Pat Summitt, Geno, Tara. All the legends I was fortunate enough to play against and be recruited by, I respected them, and I respected the game, and I studied everything they did. I played with some players who were incredible thinkers of the game, including Dawn Staley. I was taught to think the game. Don’t just pick up a basketball and go on the court because it’s your God-given talent. I wasn’t blessed with the most athleticism; I had to work at everything I did, so I had to be very skilled, I had to be in the best of shape, and I had to think the game. I have to pay a tribute to my mentors that prepared me for that next journey. You look at Debbie Ryan’s coaching tree and it’s absolutely incredible. I was taught that you can outwork talent, and that’s what I hung my hat on is a blue collar work ethic.
Originally you coached at the pro level. How did you come to move into the collegiate ranks?
I was out of college, in New York City acting, and Debbie called me. I really really didn’t want to. My father was so devastated I didn’t go overseas and play; he loved the game so much, and I felt like I let him down. So I thought alright, let me go back and coach, it’s my alma mater. It was really difficult for me; I was really young at 22, some of my friends were still on the team. Some of my former boyfriends were still in college. I was in drama school experiencing all these different things, I had no rules, I was just living. I was that kind of adolescent that pushed the boundaries. I liked to experiment and experience things. So going into the rigidness of coaching at such a young age was just not for me. It wasn’t the right time for me. I didn’t want to be defined as having spent my whole life in this game. I had some other aspirations as to what I wanted to do in life, and I wanted to experience different things.
So even though I went back for a few years I decided it wasn’t the right time for me. So I went to LA and I went right back to acting. Then the WNBA called in ’97. Val Ackerman gave me a call and said she was starting a league coming off the USA Basketball tour. She’s a UVA graduate and she asked me if I wanted to go to the combine. I packed my car up and drove to New York and got back with my sixth grade teacher-turned trainer. And I had six months to get ready. I was five years removed from the game. I was drafted first round, fifth pick overall.
Recently your team played at your alma mater, Virginia, and your former coach Debbie Ryan was there. How did she shape you as a player, a person and/or a coach?
She’s one of the main reasons I chose UVA. She started recruiting me at a very young age. I got my first letter from Geno in sixth grade after Cathy Rush Basketball Camp – he was an assistant at UVA at the time. I put it up on my wall and said, that’s the school I’m going to. Eventually every school in America recruited me. Dawn and I had a lot of the same schools. As we got to know each other, it came down to the fact that we both really liked Virginia. We got on a call together and she said do you want to play with me and I said oh hell yeah. Do you want to play with me? And she said yeah. We had made the decision we were going to UVA and do something great there – take the program to higher heights.
Once we got there….once Debbie taught you the game, she gave you the freedom as a player to just play. She let us run the team, she let us have the best four years of our lives and just be. It wasn’t always about basketball, and she didn’t shove rules in our faces. We had an amazing time. The balance of basketball and life and academics, it was an overall great student-athlete experience, and it’s the reason I coach today is because I loved it; I loved my college experience. That whole coaching staff, everything there, it was just four of the best years of my life. When you love something like that, it’s natural to say hey, I want to do that, I want to mentor young women. And that’s why her coaching tree is everywhere.
What is your coaching philosophy?
Number one, it’s to mentor young women and give them a great student-athlete experience. When we talk about that, when they’re ready to graduate, they’re ready to take on the world and conquer anything – any hope, any goal and any dream. They can walk into a room and get any job; go overseas and prepare to be a pro. Of course I want them to turn into champions, whether it’s in the classroom or on the court, and in life. My philosophy is that you’ve got to love them before you can coach them. I’m a player’s coach because Debbie was a player’s coach. People say I’m a softie now, but I guess it’s when you age…..I’m not all 24/7 basketball. I’ve acted, I’ve run businesses, I’ve played pro, I’ve had a wide range of experiences that has given me perspective on life. Basketball is a component of life – it’s not your whole life.
People get so consumed with it that there are no boundaries. I have kids that want to go pro, but I also have kids now who have other hopes and dreams. I’ve experienced a lot of things that playing basketball and being an athlete helped me to go out and conquer. You have to enjoy every day. I tell my kids, go after every experience you can when you’re young. Don’t start working until you have to. Go, go do it, if you want to backpack across Europe or go play pro and see the world, go do it. Do your bucket list. That’s what your 20’s are for: go try things, be what you want to be, go find you.
I’m all about balance. My life experiences have molded me into who I am, and I’m glad I became a head coach later in life because I was immature and I wasn’t ready. I needed more life experiences, I needed to make mistakes. When I took this job, that’s when I felt I was ready to be in charge of 15 young women. That’s a big task.
When you got to Rhode Island, your first head coaching position, what did you put in place to make the program yours?
Culture. And everyone uses that word, but this was a dog of a job, They were the worst in conference, and everyone’s advice was Tammi, don’t take it. No one’s ever been able to turn that program around. It’s never won. But when I met with the AD, Thorr Bjorn, it’s like you meet someone who can complete you. Finished every sentence, process-oriented and not results-oriented. I’ve focused on the work, and the results will come – I’ve always been that way. I’m very didactic and I’m ver OCD in that way. When watched film I knew what they were like off the court. I said Thor, you must have 50 million problems off the court and in the classroom. Bad things are happening, correct? And he said, oh yes.
How you do anything is how you do everything. It starts with culture and what you’ll allow. My first year, and when I say it tested me, it made me an incredible coach but my God, it was work. It was 24-7 every day of holding kids accountable. We lost games because I had to suspend kids. And they did a pretty good job, I have to give them credit, because breaking habits you’ve had for years is difficult. We were able to bring a lot of our kids in as transfers, so at least they were involved in the culture shift so that last year it was most of our kids, and we could play basketball. It was getting our chemistry, finding our rhythm. We had good players, and then suddenly things started to change because the culture was set. But there was a thousand-item checklist to complete before we could worry about basketball.
It was a heck of a way to begin your head coaching career, by seeing your first year end in a global pandemic. What did you learn from the experience? How did you grow as a person and a coach?
For the mental health of our athletes, I had no problem with what went on, because there wasn’t one distraction. All the things that can pull your team apart, the kids had nothing but basketball. For us it was a point of unity. I’m not sitting in my room, I’m living in the gym. They spent all their time together because they weren’t allowed to do anything else. They bonded and they got better; they were very focused. Even though it was hard on them mentally, as a coach, keeping them in a bubble was a coach’s dream.
For me in the pandemic I flipped it for our team and it became a positive. I give credit to those kids across the country – it was hard for them mentally. But we focused on the only things we had, which was school and basketball, and that year we had the one of the highest GPAs in the country. And we had the first winning season in 25 years, and we didn’t have one (COVID) case. The girls did an amazing job.
If I walked into a Rams practice, what would I see?
You’d see me on the sideline, high energy, screaming. You’ d see energy, effort, communication and competition. Our kids getting after it and a competitive practice from start to finish. I’m high energy all the time, 100, or I don’t go around my team. I set the example, and my whole coaching staff is like that. You’ve got to challenge your kids, you’ve got to motivate them, you’ve got to find a way – that’s my job. I’m very passionate in everything I do, and highly-competitive.
You had such a storied collegiate basketball career, and you played in the WNBA in its first years. What are the biggest changes in the game since then? How have the young people who play the game changed over the years?
The first thing is technology, undoubtedly. Not only in a bad way – not just the social media and the keyboard assassins; it’s also in a good way. When we were athletes, I wish we had the technology these kids have now, from everything like the shotguns to get that perfect shot arc. All the different modalities from the late 80’s and early 90’s that we just didn’t have. You want an ice bath? Go sit in this bathtub. You need a rebounder? You better find someone. You wanted a good vertical jump, you didn’t have Vertimax.
You look at the media coverage. I remember growing up you got to watch one game every year and it was the Final Four; no games were televised. And now look at the specials, look at the NIL deals. My dad had to drive me around to see the best players in world, like when Suzie McConnell-Serio played at Penn State, or when I got to watch Kim Mulkey. I had to watch men because you couldn’t watch women. Men were my heroes when women should have been my heroes. You couldn’t watch Candace Parker or Jonquel Jones. The increased media coverage has grown our game tremendously, and the NIL deals are growing our game. I thank the trailblazers like Cheryl Miller for paving the way.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
I get to go to work – I should say play – in sweats in the gym. I’m coaching basketball, for God sakes; it’s not a job. The best part of acting was going on sets and pretend I was somebody else and play all day. That’s why I love basketball and that’s why I loved acting. Believe me, I’ve had shitty jobs that you worked your ass off and didn’t love, and that was work. When people have to sit in cubicles with bad lighting doing something they don’t love to earn a paycheck, that’s work. I get to work with kids and coach the game I love every day, and build relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life, like Debbie Ryan, like Dawn Staley, like my sixth grade teacher. Our basketball community is strong, and it’s an unbelievable community that you can make memories with. You go on the road and you see all your best friends.
When I coach I hope I’m teaching them the love for the game, so they’ll want to coach. We need more women in our game, whether it’s coaching, officiating or commentating – we need more of that. I hope to see more and more former players fall in love with this game and want to grow it and contribute.
If you could go back in time and give the younger you a piece of advice, what would you say?
Shut your mouth and listen. I’m not going to say take back any of the mistakes I made because everything I did when I was young brought me to the place I am today. You need to grow from lessons learned. I was this cocky little shit that thought I knew everything, but I didn’t know anything. I talked too much, and I wish I would have absorbed more wisdom at a younger age and not wait until I was older.