Since taking the reins of the Ole Miss program in 2018, coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin has built it into a burgeoning super power with her vision and infectious energy. Despite beginning her first season with only four returners, the Rebels bested their SEC win total by two games from the previous year. The following season was challenging, as Ole Miss went 0-16 in conference play. But it ended on a high note with the signing of a top recruiting class, and the transfer of star center Shakira Austin. The 2020-2021 proved historic for the team as they upset three top 25 teams within a month, improved to 15-12 on the year and just missed making the NCAA Tournament. They were runners-up in the WNIT Championship.
Prior to coming to Oxford, McPhee-McCuin was head coach at Jacksonville, which she guided to becoming an Atlantic Sun power. During her five-year tenure, she guided the Jaguars to their first ASUN Tournament title and first NCAA Tournament berth. Her coaching career began with assistant positions at Portland, Frank Phillips College and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where she earned a Master’s degree in physical education. She spent two years each at Pitt and Clemson before taking her first head coaching job.
A native of the Bahamas, McPhee-McCuin played two years of basketball at Miami-Dade Community College and two at Rhode Island, where she helped the Rams advance to the A-10 title game in her first year. She has coached the Bahamian National Team since 2013, and guided them to their first CentroBasket championship in 2016. She was inducted into the Bahamain Athletic Hall of Fame and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Known as “Coach Yo,” as well as for her outgoing and engaging personality, McPhee-McCuin is part of the WBCA’s “So You Want to be a Coach” program, and runs a foundation in the Bahamas. Her trademark motto #NoCeilings advocates for living without limits.
Going into their final SEC regular-season game this weekend, Ole Miss is 22-6 overall and 10-5 in conference play.
What was your goal and intention when you took the job at Ole Miss?
Well, I wanted to be a Power 5 coach. I wanted an opportunity to compete against who I think are some of the best. At the time when I got into the league, you had Vic Schaefer at Mississippi State, Dawn obviously, Gary Blair. I would look around in the room and they had six coaches who had coached in the Final Four or who had won a championship. I thought, I’m around some legends. So I wanted that, I wanted that opportunity to recruit a different kind of player that I couldn’t recruit at Jacksonville. And then after talking with administration here, I wanted to get us back into the glory days, when they played in the Tournament. I wanted to be a part of bringing back pride. I didn’t mean to, but I guess I created a reputation where I know how to build programs, and I did that at Jacksonville and I wanted to do that here.
You’ve been taking small steps that seem like huge steps. How would you describe your journey in Oxford so far?
I had a four-year plan, and the reason I had a four-year plan was that in Mississippi, you get four-year contracts. So my four-year plan was that in year one, I’m going to assess the situation. And then in year two, I was going to build a foundation and design our recruiting class. I treated it like building a house: first you assess it, and then you’ve got to lay the foundation. And no, we did not win a conference game, but we did sign the No. 1 recruiting class in the SEC, and No. 2 in the country. So that’s a foundation. Then the third year was proof of concept: let’s see if what we said we were building is there, if you can see it. We went to the WNIT championship, won some big games, and now in year four there is stability. But when I got a new contract, like I did last year, it was a real one with money – it was for real. So it wasn’t just a re-up, and I started year one again. So it’ll be assessment again this year, because my program is at a different place now.
How do you build and cultivate a good program?
By doing those things. First of all you have to have people that embrace the ends, the four ends. They got to believe in it, they’ve got to buy in. That’s players, that staff, that’s everybody. Everyone (helps to) win championships, and so you have to get everybody on board. Sometimes that’s trial and error, and if you get it wrong, get it right, and not be afraid to get it right when it’s wrong. Change may be movement, it may be a roster change, you cannot be afraid to be wrong, or to want to get it right. And I think a lot of coaches, a lot of CEOs, make mistakes when they get something wrong and they don’t want to fix it.
What are the tenants and principles of what you teach your athletes?
So we have three pillars for the program, and I know that sounds cliche, but I really believe in this stuff. It’s communication, and I think it’s one of the hardest things for people to do. You see it on social media where people just can’t communicate. And then team: you’ve got to want to do it with people and lock arms with them. And then it’s work ethic. It’s just how I’ve been raised and all I know – I don’t know how to get stuff without working for it. That’s been the story of my life. So those are the three pillars we hold everybody in our program to, and including me. You know, to make sure I communicate effectively, to make sure I’m always about team, and I put team first, even when I’m making decisions. And then it’s about working hard. I try to make sure no one outworks me. I’m usually the first person in office and the last one to leave. And so that’s something I take pride in.
What are your keys to success, both for yourself and for your team?
I’ve always felt like feel I’m a Christian, and within my Christian faith, I’ve always felt like God had a plan for me that was unique. And so I truly feel like my steps are ordered, that this is my ministry. I’m confident yet very humble. I know that there are people out there, that are better than me – I’m not oblivious to that. But I’m confident in myself. And I’m been taught from a young age that leadership, without it being forced on me, by my mom, who was a principal and an administrator for 30 years. And my dad is a Hall of Fame coach. So I’ve learned philanthropy, I’ve learned leadership, and I’ve learned how to make tough decisions by just watching them.
You bring a lot of energy and joy into your work. Where does that come from?
Probably it’s where I’m from, the Bahamas. You know? We’re happy people; we have the sun and the beach. Honestly I was a naive when I first came to the United States because I thought everybody was like that, and it was a culture shock, and I learned quickly that that’s not the case. And I’m OK with that. But also I think because I’m from another country I’ve learned how to appreciate different people, different people’s points of view. I’ve had to do that. Since I came into the United States to play, I’ve realized that not everybody thinks the same, not everybody believes the same. Like I remember the first time in – and this may not fit into the interview, I’m just telling you – the first time that I met someone that was not heterosexual was in college. I never knew of it. I’m sure we had it, but I was naive, I didn’t know – I was in shock. I’ve had I’ve always had to learn to adapt, and that’s why I’m OK with people having a difference of opinion, or thinking differently or being different, because everyone’s different to me, being from the Bahamas. I’ve learned to value, love and appreciate what they bring.
If I walked into a Rebel practice today, what would I see?
A lot of energy, intensity, defensive focus. My coaches – everybody engaged. Loud (laughs). That’s what you would see.
And you remind me – I didn’t put this on my question sheet, but you kept Armintie Price from the previous staff. She pretty much is Ole Miss.
When I came here, coach Mint was the director of play engagement. But I needed people to step in, and she did a couple things for me I was was like hmmm! Here I am looking for an assistant, and this chick is right here staring me in the face. Oh my God, she is Ole Miss. She’s the boss around here; she’s a pro. And when I say pro, I mean professional. She loves Ole Miss. How could I not hire her? She’s perfect for everything.
You’re known for your excellent recruiting skills. What are the keys to being a successful recruiter?
I think just being authentic, and being you. I lose recruits all the time because I tell them the truth. Like hey, I don’t know that I can offer you this starting role. Or, you want me to say this, but I can’t lie to you like, I just can’t. This is what I’m about. These are the type of players I want to coach, and after spending some time with you, I don’t think we’re a good fit. I know what works for me and what doesn’t, and I think my journey inspires people and they they want to come and be a part of it; they think it’s that simple.
How did your Bahamian heritage shape who you are? How did you get to the University of Rhode Island from the Bahamas?
I did not. I started off at FAU. Started off at Miami-Dade – total shock. Then from Rhode Island came coach Bo. Coach Wilson recruited me – her assistant. I was like, I had never seen snow. So I said, are you guys going to get me my own apartment, and they said yeah. And then I said, am I going to start? They said yeah, so I said, sign me up. So my college coach works with me now: she’s our associate AD. I hired my college coach.
So how has coaching the Bahamian national team expanded your coaching perspective?
It’s one of the one of the coolest experiences I’ve had, because when you coach a national team, you’ll have a long time with them, so you’ve got to get right to work. And I think that really helped me during the pandemic, with all the changes. I’ve also had a chance to see other coaches from other countries, their style of play, and I’ve been able to take some things from them. I think every stop in my journey has prepared me for where I’m at right now. I have a huge appreciation for being a coach in the A-Sun, which has some high-level X’s and O’s coaches from Greg Brown to Karl Smesko – I’ve had to go up against them. These are tacticians, and they’ve helped me improve my skills from an X’s and O’s stand point tremendously. Every step I’ve had has helped me.
Which year in your coaching career taught you the most, and why?
Wow. I don’t know that I can say. But when I really built my character was when we were 0-16 in conference. Two years ago I was tested. My character was tested, my resilience was tested. There were times I didn’t think I was the one for the job. But I chose not to shut down in that moment, and I was hoping people would experience the pain that I was going through. I shared my thoughts on Instagram like, hey, it’s tough right now. And so it was like out in the open, and I thought I needed to do that to inspire people because sometimes we see on social media things that things are always happy, but that’s not real. So that was my most challenging moment, but getting through it was my most beneficial.
I appreciate that authenticity. Many people seem to think that transforming a program is an overnight job.
I think that sometimes I chuckle because people look at us and they say, oh, you should have the program going, when I was given a bad situation in arguably the best conference in the country. When I showed up there were four players here. It wasn’t easy. So here we are in year four, and people think we should be in the Tournament this year. But really, in a normalcy, should we? This is not easy to do, and we are defying the odds. So my record is not as attractive, but last year we did beat Arkansas, and Kentucky twice. We lost to Tennessee by three points. We beat Alabama when they were red smoking hot at the time. And then we go all the way to the WNIT Championship. I mean, cmon, we’re doing our thing. So you can’t look at the overall record because the first two years were a wash.
In the second year, I opened up Twitter and saw, “Is coach Yo on the hot seat?” I was like, you’ve got to be kidding.
(Me, laughing) I was thinking the same thing.
So my last question is always a fun question: if you were going to pick a theme song for yourself, what would you pick and why?
That’s tough because I have a bunch of alter egos. Sometimes I’m listening to Moneybagg Yo; sometimes it’s “knife talk” by Drake. It just really depends.