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Home College Coach’s Chair: Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, Boston College

Coach’s Chair: Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, Boston College

Boston College Athletics photo.
Boston College Athletics photo.

Since being named Boston College’s head coach in 2018, Joanna Bernabei-McNamee has re-energized the program into ACC contenders. In her second season, the longtime coach guided the Eagles to a 20-12 record, the most since 2011, and was named conference coach of the year. Several players have flourished in her system, collecting all-ACC honors.

Bernabei-McNamee was a Division II All-American at West Liberty State, and spent one year as head coach at West Virginia Wesleyan before diving into the Division I assistant coaching ranks. She spent time at Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia before becoming assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Maryland. During that time, the Terps and head coach Brenda Frese won a National Championship. Bernabei-McNamee took a hiatus from coaching, from 2009-2013, to focus on raising her infant sons. She returned to the head coaching ranks at the University of Pikeville, and then moved to take the same position at Albany in 2016.

You had an incredible collegiate career. At what point did you realize you wanted to go into coaching, and what drew you in?

I realized I wanted to get into coaching probably after my last basketball game of my senior year of college. You don’t realize how much you love the game – you don’t ever picture your life without he game. After having the last game of my career I thought, oh my gosh, is this it? And the separation anxiety was off the charts, I was bummed out. I thought, no way am I going to pharmacy school – I’ve got to keep basketball in my life. So at that point I decided I wanted to coach. And I was always coaching; I coached in high school – that’s how I made money in the summer. I coached fifth and sixth grade, and when I was in college I was coaching a 12 and under AAU team. So I was always coaching, but it was never something I thought I’d do. Coaches are crazy, right? Now I’m the coach that my players think is crazy. *laughs*

You had some fantastic stops in your coaching journey, including being a part of Maryland’s national championship of 2006. How did those experiences help you grow, both professionally and personally?

In each step that I’ve taken professionally, I have felt very fortunate and lucky to be in the shoes that I’m in. I definitely don’t take any of the jobs I’ve had for granted. I’ve always thought that I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by great support and good people. Every opportunity has come because of the people who befriended me, or who I’ve been surrounded by, and because of my support system. Growing up, I was always taught to have a great work ethic. I felt lucky to get the job at Maryland, and before that getting the job at West Virginia, which is the flagship school of the state, and I grew up in West Virginia. And from there to get the job at Maryland, I was super thankful and grateful to work for Brenda Frese, who I considered a friend before working for her. And to win a national championship with a group of spectacular young women who are now adults and great people, that was amazing, and it set me on a path. I felt like I could do anything I set my mind to, and that came from working with great people.

It was you and Jeff Walz and who as assistant coaches for the Terps?

It was me and Jeff and Erica Floyd, who’s not in the profession anymore. I learned so much from being on that staff with Brenda, who allows you to coach and to be a true part of the staff.

You took four years off to focus on raising your kids, which is unheard of in college coaching. How did you make that decision, undoubtedly knowing it would be challenging to get back into the profession?

It wasn’t even a decision, because I knew that’s what I needed to do; it had nothing to do with my job. I was at the height of my profession, and I was at that pinnacle of being about to get that head coaching job that I’d been dreaming about. My last year at Maryland I had a three-month old when I realized I was pregnant again. I thought, “oh, I can handle this,” because my first son had been so quiet and so easy. But then he got sick one day while I was the only one at practice, and I couldn’t get to the nannies to pick him up. So it was my first experience of, he was six months old, and when I got there he was struggling to breathe. When I took him to the pediatrician she asked me, “why did you wait so long?” I’m emotional because I’m pregnant and I’m crying – and I wasn’t a crier. And it was at that moment that I thought, I have so much love for this baby, and I’m going to have two of them. That was the first time I had to juggle a job with being a parent in a tough way. Before that, the hardest thing was dropping them off. I almost put him in jeopardy and I thought, what am I going to do when I have two. So that night I went home and talked it over with my husband, and we decided it made sense. It was a no-brainer, and I didn’t want to miss anything – I wanted to be there. I’ve watched these coaches that have young babies and can do both, but it’s different for head coaches. As an assistant coach it’s harder, but as a head coach you’re on your own time; when you’re an assistant, you’re on somebody else’s time. If I were a head coach, I would have made it work, because I’d have made enough money so my husband didn’t have to work.

You had very successful stints at both Pikeville and Albany. How were you able to reach those heights?

At Pikeville, what really made it great was that my mom was the one who really talked me into getting back into coaching. Once the kids got into kindergarten and first grade, I was bored. I thought what am I doing, this is not for me. I’m calling my family asking what should I get into? My mom said you’re a basketball coach, are you kidding me? I said, if I get back into coaching what it’s going to be like for the kids, because I’ve already sacrificed my career for the kids. She told me, if you get back into coaching, I’ll come stay with you in the winters, and it’ll be like you’re with them because I’ll be with them. As we’re having that conversation, my husband grew up in Pikeville, Kentucky, and that’s where my nieces and nephews lived. (Someone) called and said, “the Pikeville coaching job is open!” and we laughed. But then we started talking and said, why not? It would be getting my feet wet. Kind of like a Division II job: you don’t have the money to be gone all summer, because there’s a small recruiting budget. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, this could be perfect. My husband’s job would transfer, and I’d be able to spend most of the summer at home. So we did it, and it was great. My mom lived with us through each winter and the boys didn’t notice when I wasn’t around. Getting to live there was like Disneyworld for them because they were around their cousins all the time. We ended up winning and doing great, and out of the blue Albany called, and they called because Brenda Frese recommended me. So again, it all comes down to the people you surround yourself with and your support system, so she put my name back in the mix. I literally heard about that job, and seven days later I had that job.

Why did you want to take the job at Boston College?

They called – I wasn’t looking, to be honest. Wherever I’m at feels like a great place, and I just set myself there. At Pikeville, I thought I’d be there. At Albany, I really loved it and I thought I’d be there. Then this job came up, and once I met the people here at Boston College – I already knew it was a beautiful college, and it was an opportunity to coach in the ACC. The stars kind of aligned when I interviewed, and I really liked the AD and the administration. So it made sense.

When you take the helm at a school, what are the first things that you do? How do you grow a program?

The first thing you do as the head coach is to figure out who your staff is going to be. Hiring your staff, that is your second family. You’re going to be around your staff, at times, more than your family. So you really have to hire people you enjoy being around, that are going to have your back, and that compliment you and have diversity of knowledge in what you’re blind at. It’s not unlike choosing a spouse in that you have to have the same philosophies at heart. It’s choosing people who understand work ethic and how to instill work ethic in the people they’re coaching. And choosing people who aren’t in it for their own personal success. I already had a couple of people like that on my staff at Albany, and I was able to bring them with me. The next thing is to convince the team to buy in.

Describe your coaching philosophy and what the Bernabei-McNamee style of play looks like.

The heart of it is coach your players exactly the way you’d want to be coached, like the golden rule. My philosophy with them is to make sure I treat them as people, players and family, and try to build that trust, but not in a soft way. We talk about working extremely hard without excuses, and I surround myself with people wo are super-competitive. Recruiting is like hiring your staff – you try to bring players in who are going to compliment your style and buy into what your second family is going to look like. In recruiting, I look first for competitors: people who love to win and hate to lose. Then I look for people that I can trust, and who will trust me. Then the chemistry builds from there, because if you have true competitors and trustworthy people, you usually find good chemistry. One thing that’s universal when they get here is they all love the game of basketball. Are they willing to sacrifice for the team? You can usually tell that about a person right away. Like my staff gives everything for the player’s success. They do so much for a scout because it’s important for them that our players win. And when you’re recruiting you look for players who want to win so much that they’re willing to sacrifice sometimes for wins. And of course, first and foremost is the talent; they’ve got to have talent.

You seem to be big on player development.

It’s really important, and my staff is all in on that, because player development is huge. When I first got the job, I talked to the players about what separates us from the top teams in the ACC, and they said talent. So how did those players get that much talent? They put in all that time. So what are we going to do to close the gap on them? My team is always going to play together and have each other’s back, and we’re going to have better team chemistry compared to anyone we play. We’re going to pass up a good shot for a great shot. That’s my philosophy on getting them to buy in. No one’s going to have more fun than us, no one’s going to love each other more than us. How do we close the gap on talent? We work harder; we put in the time. Our coaches will work hard with you, we will put in the time.

What are you teaching athletes when they’re playing for you, both on and off the court?

On the court it’s a lot of basketball, because I’m really big on having a great basketball IQ. We talk a lot about the non-negotiables, like focus and attention to detail. Setting great screens, sprinting to set great screens, understanding what seeing the next pass is, offensively. Defensively, being gritty and guarding your yard. When we do closeout drills I don’t tell everyone hey, you’ve got to do it like this. I say, you’ve got to figure out how to close out and not get beat and not give up the shot. How can you close out to keep that from happening against this player. Like Taylor Soule…..if another one of my players don’t have the speed that she does laterally, they have to be distracting with their arms, or close out shorter and cross step and move their feet. We work on those kinds of things, and running the lanes hard, sprinting in transition defense – the things you’ve got to have a chip on your shoulder about. If I’m a coach at this level and if I have to coach your effort and intensity level, we’re never going to win. If I have to continue to coach that out of you, you probably won’t play.

All of the unselfish qualities you bring from off the court are who you are as a person. To keep moving forward to the next play, you have to have a high level of communication. Inevitably you’ll have freshmen come in and they’ll be quiet. And you tell them, you have to talk, and they’ll say, “I’m focused.” But they’re focusing on themselves, and they’re supposed to be focusing on their team. That’s the whole point. You come to one of my practices, it’s generally loud and excitable and not fake. I’m never a fake it til you make it person; you need to really feel it. Really talk to each other. Really watch each other, so that if someone is going ahead of you in practice during a drill, watch them and genuinely be fired up. Once your team has that unselfishness they’re on their way to becoming great as individuals, and then you can actually find success.

Boston College Athletics photo.

The Eagles were challenged last year, during the pandemic season, after having such a momentous year before that. In what ways did you and your athletes grow and change during that time?

We grew and shared heartache in a certain way. We all felt the pain of getting things taken away from us through the pandemic. Then we felt the pain as everything continued through social injustice and all the racial tension that resulted. We shared it together through Zoom, and in whatever way we could to communicate with each other. We talk a lot about about having each other’s backs, and the team really leaned on each other through that time, because they do like each other, and they needed each other through that time. My former teammates are still my closest friends, and that’s what I want them to have when they leave here.

What is your goal for the program? How do you help athletes set their own goals?

The goal for program is to be a year in, year out NCAA championship contender, in getting to the NCAA Tournament year in and year out. To build that consistency where we’re winning 20-plus games per year, and putting ourselves in a position where we make that top 68 and advance to postseason play. When you’re a good program, the way the seeding works, you always have an opportunity to win it. But you can’t win if you’re not in it.

We meet just one-on-one meetings maybe four times a year. In each of those meetings I reassess, and I talk to each player: this is what your goal was – is this still what your goal is? And we go from there. My goal for each of my players is to help each of them attain what their personal goal is. Some definitely want to play at the next level, so I make sure I do everything I can for them to help make that happen. Some know they might play at the next level, but they might also want to go to law school. So I might say, stop having a plan B – let’s go for plan A. If it’s law school, you have to prepare and work to be a professional. It’s OK, but they need to be making sure they’re working their butts off while they’re here. My biggest goal for them as individuals is to truly understand how much they’re in control of their lives. They set the bar for what they want, and whatever that is, they have to go after it. No excuses – just do it. Two things I’ve never regretted is working hard and being a good person. Do those things, and don’t limit yourself.

What are some things you try to impart to your players that you wish you had known when you were younger?

Sometimes you can’t take yourself so seriously. Try to be immersed in the moments and enjoy them. Don’t try to look too far into the future, and don’t look back unless there’s a lesson to be learned.

What is on your bucket list?

For sure, winning a national championship as a head coach. My bucket list of retirement is traveling: I want to go everywhere – the pyramids of Egypt, China – I want to go everywhere. I’ve always wanted to go to some secluded beaches, but I also love fun and excitement, crowds and energy. I kind of like everything. And of course on another level is watching the players that you’ve coached grow up and now be adults with their lives and stay in touch with you, and you get to see how they’re doing. That’s one great thing about social media is the ability follow people. So my bucket list is to see everyone whose lives I’ve been blessed to be a part of succeed, and that includes my children. I want to see everyone enjoy success.