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So many times, countless in my mind, when I told people that I covered the Arizona women’s basketball team for the Arizona Daily Star, I was given a blank stare.
This was back in the early- to mid-1990’s, about the time Joan Bonvicini was at the start of trying to build on her success as a two-time Final Four coach from Long Beach State.
This was when players such as tough-as-nails Adia Barnes and Brenda Pantoja tried to inject some fight into the listless program.
I could sense the casual observers, in my communication with them, had no sense of amazement when they learned my role at the Star at the time was covering Bonvicini’s team as the beat reporter.
I mostly heard a “Ooooh, really?” response. Some people referred to the team as the “Lady Cats”, a term that Bonvicini did not like because nobody called Lute Olson’s group the “Man Cats”.
The program has always searched for an identity as far as I can remember. I grew up in Tucson and was raised on Arizona athletics. Women’s basketball has never been “News at 10” material in Tucson. Even I was awestruck when the Star informed me it had in its budget for me to cover road games when Arizona played San Diego State and Texas.
I recall the many times I went to Bonvicini’s office, sat alone with her and the interviews commonly shifted to what she had in mind for the long-term goals of the program instead of only her outlook on the games that particular week. It was a constant discussion of “we need to do this to get that far” or “we’ll get there.”
After coaching the program 17 years, Bonvicini was let go with one year remaining on her contract in 2008 following a 10-20 season. Bonvicini’s overall record of 287-223 at Arizona should be a source of pride for her, considering the depths of the program since the early-1980’s when Judy LeWinter won only 37 games in five years and inexplicably kicked the daughter of Oscar Robertson — yes the “Big O” — off the team. After LeWinter was fired, Wendy Larry bolted two seasons later to coach Old Dominion to prominence.
Following Bonvicini’s dismissal, Arizona had only one winning season in eight years under Niya Butts and never placed higher than fourth in the Pac-12. Bonvicini remarkably won the Pac-10 title in 2003-04. A member of that team was Shawntinice Polk, a three-time all-conference selection, who died suddenly before her senior season in 2005 from a pulmonary blood clot lodged in one of her lungs.
"We're gonna go out there, touch fans, and make them part of the program." – @AdiaBarnes
HEARD THAT! pic.twitter.com/tY0c43YJfT
That tragedy can rock any program, let alone one trying to find its place alongside the Stanfords and USCs of the conference. Bonvicini was let go three seasons later, struggling at 29-63 after Polk’s death. In the previous three seasons with Polk, Bonvicini’s teams were 65-29.
The program has never really got back on track since Polk led Arizona to its last NCAA tournament appearance in 2004-05.
Barnes, another of Bonvicini’s premier players, a first-team All-American and Arizona’s career leading scorer, is now responsible for trying to not only steer the Wildcats back in the right direction, but drive the program beyond Bonvicini’s success level.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne introduced Barnes as the new head coach today. Barnes said in the introductory press conference that she reached out to Bonvicini after Byrne met with her for three hours in Seattle three weeks ago to discuss the coaching vacancy. Barnes says Bonvicini is a “mentor, a friend and someone I lean on.”
“I did check with her because she’s someone I trust,” Barnes said. “She’s one of the most winningest coaches in the country (701-421 in her career). She’s made a lot of different decisions in her career so I definitely checked with her, and we talked a lot about it. I’m big on going with my own gut (feeling) too and I knew this is the right place for me.”
In an interview with Tucson News Now sports director Damien Alameda on Wednesday, Bonvicini said of her discussion with Barnes: “I told her I was very excited for her. First I thought they were talking about her as an assistant. When she said it was as a head coach, at first I wasn’t sure. But when I really thought about it and all the things Adia has done, I just told her to go for it.”
“She’s never been a head coach before but I think more than anything, she’s a really good leader,” Bonvicini added. “Kids will enjoy playing for her. I think she’ll bring back the excitement and winning attitude back to the U of A.”
Barnes was greeted today by a room full of reporters, athletic department personnel and other coaches in the program. Her returning players were also on hand. She won the press conference, exhibiting an upbeat demeanor that belies the losing mentality of the program that she will try to rectify.
She commented often about Arizona’s facilities providing the resources she needs to recruit the talent necessary to take the program where it has never gone, to the Final Four similar to her experience with Washington as an assistant this year. The Huskies won only 45 games in the four previous years before she joined Kevin McGuff’s first staff at Washington in 2011-12.
Barnes knows of the challenge ahead drumming up support from fans, those who to this day in Tucson are apathetic about the program. In the season when Arizona won the conference title in 2003-04, Bonvicini’s team was fourth in the conference averaging 2,774 fans a game, a number Barnes should hope to at least double as her program gathers momentum.
She said her team will “touch fans and have them be a part of the program.”
“You have to do that to have a successful program … there has to be excitement,” she added. “There has to be people taking ownership in the program. … Creating that momentum, getting out there and meeting people, creating relationships. I think that’s important.”
Barnes hopes to grow that momentum through alumni becoming more involved. She said she intends on recruiting the state of Arizona, particularly Tucson, which should improve the amount of interest in the program locally.
She knows what it’s like to build Arizona from the ground up, losing by scores of 79-39 at Vanderbilt and 109-57 at Tennessee in her freshman season to advancing to the Sweet 16 as a senior in 1997-98.
More than 20 years after the time I covered the women’s program for the Star, Barnes is in the same spot as her mentor, Bonvicini, trying to make the Wildcats something out of practically nothing when it comes to being competitive.
With Barnes’ hire, Arizona women’s basketball is starting over — “A clean state,” she called it — which means Tucson once again has the opportunity to show it is not only a winner’s town by supporting her and her players through the growing process. For Barnes to go beyond what Bonvicini did, the fans — and the Tucson media — must meet her halfway.
If you win, they will come. The prevailing thought should be: If fans come, recruits and success will follow.
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.