Having the right drive for UCSB

By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press

Carlene Mitchell passes the breathtaking seascape of Goleta Beach whenever she drives home from her new job at UCSB.

But a community service sign alongside nearby Highway 217 is what commands her attention most.

Adopt-A-Highway: UCSB Women's Basketball."

The message is clear: Coaching the Gauchos is more than a day at the beach.

"I want to stop and touch up that sign with some paint," Mitchell said.

She's anxious to add her own hue to a program that has become part of Santa Barbara's fabric ever since a 6-foot-9, former UCSB baseball pitcher took it from the ridiculous to the sublime nearly a quarter century.

Mark French inherited a team that had gone 4-22 in 1987 and guided it to 13 Big West championships and a dozen NCAA Tournaments in 21 years. And three years after his retirement, he was the first to greet Mitchell at the airport.

"I remember getting off the plane, and going, 'Wow! This is beautiful here!'" she said. "And then there's this towering presence standing right inside the terminal door.

"We went to dinner, and he was able to share and give me some insight into the community and women's basketball, and how they go hand-in-hand here."

Mitchell spent a decade as the right-hand woman for a coaching legend of national prominence. Vivian Stringer, who's been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame even though she's still coaching, took Rutgers as far as the NCAA championship game in 2007.

But UCSB, which tasted the NCAA Sweet 16 seven years ago, will actually draw the small-town girl from Arkansas into a stronger limelight.

"At Rutgers, you'd go out and people wouldn't even know who you are," Mitchell said. "But here, everyone knows who you are. As soon as you tell them, they're all excited about women's basketball.

"We hope to bridge some of those gaps with the community and bring a new excitement. Our staff is really different. You can meet us on the street and we're going to talk to you. That's just who we are, it's not who we're trained to be."

She's hired two former Rutgers' players, Courtney Locke and Heather Zurich, as assistant coaches.

Robin Thormodsgaard, who played for Stringer at Iowa, has signed on as director of basketball operations.

"We're all very outgoing and have a lot of energy, and that's what we want to be known for," Mitchell said. "I think that's what the community wants - some excitement. People you can touch."

She can even decipher the cryptic touch of Stringer, who prefers to brainstorm her workouts on paper rather than computer.

"Look at this!" Mitchell said, pulling a thick notepad out of her desk. "This was her first practice plan last year. Think you can read that?"

They remain close, having shared the highs of their run to the 2007 Final Four as well as the racist low-blows of shock jock Don Imus, who called their players "nappy-headed hos" on national television.

"She tells me every day, 'Love you and miss you,' " Mitchell said. "When we had my going-away party, we both started crying, and then she goes, 'I wasn't going to cry!'"

Stringer still sends her an endless string of phone messages, although the time difference has made it easier for Mitchell to handle.

"The late-night texting continues, but when I was there, it was a little painful, at 2 or 3 in the morning," she said. "But here, it's doable, because it's before midnight.

"I told my staff, 'Don't let me go crazy guys! Don't let me be up at 3, calling your attention to something.'

"Even this morning at 6, I was thinking about some things. We had some kids on campus yesterday and we have another recruit today and tomorrow, so I started having all these recruiting ideas. And so I was telling them, 'Calm me down ... don't let me be a crazy boss.'"

Her most stress has come in trying to figure out UCSB's recruiting class for next fall's early signing period.

"Not having a top-five or top-10 recruiting list is the only part for me that's been a little uncomfortable," Mitchell said. "Typically you have 10 kids that you're working hard to get right now. And even though the previous staff had a list, we're kind of sorting through those and talking to all those kids, without still knowing if they fit what we want to do.

"Some of them, the previous staff had even offered (scholarships), so we're kind of back-tracking and trying to get caught up. We're evaluating right now instead of recruiting, and there's a big difference."

She hopes to sign three players in the fall, which will ideally include a big post player and a point guard.

"I think everyone knows that we need a big," Mitchell said. "Everyone keeps saying, 'You can get by with a 6-1 or 6-2 post in the Big West.' But for us, it's about the NCAA Tournament, and you have to have a legit 6-3 to match up with."

She inherits a roster of only 11 Gauchos, all of whom she knew on a first-name basis after their first skill workout.

"Sweets (Underwood) is going to be a pleasant surprise," she said. "I was really impressed with her skill level. Mel (Melissa Zornig) is a shooter. If you can get her an open shot, she's going to knock it down.

"And Kels (Kelsey Adrian) and Em (Emilie Johnson) looked really fundamental. They've been through the battles, and with all their experience, they give us a strong foundation on the mental side of things."

Mitchell, meanwhile, has gone Vivian Stringer on her youngest point guard.

"One player I really want to tap into that I don't have a total feel on yet - and she and I are talking a lot on the phone - is Nicole Nesbit," she said. "If she can be a true floor general, she brings different dynamics to the floor than if the ball is in Em's hands.

"I'd heard that Em had to work a lot last year, with the ball in her hands a lot, and also having to score. Nicole could be the one that could open up her game a little bit more."

Mitchell showed them all the video tape of a tough shooting drill that she had conducted at Rutgers just before her departure.

"Nobody (from Rutgers) made the amount of shots in the time that you're supposed to make them," she said. "I didn't tell that to the players here, and I had them do the drill."

Nesbit was among three Gauchos who passed it with flying colors.

"I called Coach Stringer and told her, 'We can shoot ... I don't know what else we're going to be able to do, but let me tell you, we have some kids who can put it into the basket.'"

Not a bad sign, either, as she begins to apply her own special touch.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com