UCSB head women's basketball coach Carlene Mitchell, who masterfully led the Gauchos on an epic title run to the Big West Championship, an NCAA bid to The Big Dance and who garnered national attention as a finalist for the prestigious Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year Award, has been named Sports Figure of the Month for March 2012.
She recently participated at the Villa 7 Conference on Nike's Oregon Campus as a key member of the "Young Gun" panel speaking about success as a young coach.
Mitchell, 38, was seemingly destined for a life in hoops from the time she was a fifth grader first shooting hoops in her DeWitt, Arkansas backyard.
Amongst her later impressive credentials — NJCAA National Champion (1993-94)…. single season assist record holder (337) including a record (17 assists) for one game … senior starting guard for her Kansas State University team (1995-96)… very experienced assistant college coach … and, most recently, Rutgers University — a perennial Top Ten team — associate head coach who was responsible for recruiting, which is the lifeblood of any successful program.
She inherited a UCSB team comprised of players recruited by both immediate predecessors – Gaucho Hall of Fame coach Mark French and Lindsay Gottlieb, who left to coach Cal Berkeley after a regular-season Big West title last year.
"That's a tough situation to come in to — when expectations are sooo high. It's hard on the coach and the players," said C. Vivian Stringer, Rutgers' head women's basketball coach who hired Mitchell as an assistant in 2001.
After assembling her coaching staff and a player skills assessment, Coach Mitchell went to work in quickly shaping her Gauchos — and they would rapidly become one of the nation's top defensive teams.
Off the court, there was also a refreshing re-commitment to Gaucho Heart in re-connecting and giving back to the community.
Gauchos were seemingly everywhere again!!
Kid's hoop clinics … Page Center's Fragile X Basketball Bonanza for the Autism Society… Montecito YMCA … Maravilla Senior Living Community … Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table's Women in Sports Luncheon, etc…
And during the early season, there were golden flashes of that gritty, hustling, exciting, fun-to-watch team into which they would morph.
Mitchell had a vision. And a plan.
She got the Gauchos to believe in her and they 'never stopped believing in themselves…'
"I understand a team's growth during the season and knew we would 'be there' when it counted," she told Presidio Sports.
The Gauchos – "all great kids with no off-court issues," according to Mitchell – caught fire at just the right time – finishing the regular season with 9 wins, 3 losses.
Included was a four-game tear to the Big West title – avenging teams they lost to once during the regular season: UC Davis & Long Beach State – and even twice: UC Irvine & University of the Pacific.
Even more impressive, perhaps, was the total teamwork, balance and maturity they demonstrated during this championship s-t-r-e-t-c-h …
"They certainly took on the coach's personality and her competitive drive," said Mark Massari, UCSB's athletic director. "They're all very good complementary players and they took turns stepping up each game during that last run."
Indeed they did. Box scores confirm six different players amongst the scoring leaders.
The final result, of course, in addition to the championship hardware, was a first round playoff date in the NCAA Des Moines regionals with top-seeded Baylor University and Brittney Griner, the nation's best player.
"We can use that to motivate our players next season," said Mitchell.
That will include her three top 'blue collar' recruits who can play the 3-4 or 4-5 positions, giving the Gauchos some extra impact up front.
And the promise of next season will help ease but never erase the pain of this past one ….
Shortly after being named Gaucho head coach last May, there were heavy personal losses for Mitchell – the passing of her favorite uncle and, immediately upon returning to Santa Barbara after his funeral — the shocking news that her mom had died suddenly.
Four months later, in November and only hours after her first head coaching victory, tragedy struck again — news that her former coach, longtime friend and mentor, Kurt Budke – Oklahoma State's head women's basketball coach and assistant coach Miranda Serna were killed in a plane crash while on a recruiting trip.
Budke's was a special friendship that started when Mitchell was just about to graduate DeWitt High School …
"It was very late in the year and I was just coming off an ACL injury. Quite honestly, I didn't have many options," she said.
Two years later, she was Budke's starting record-setting playmaker on his Trinity Valley Community College team – the 1993 NJCAA National Champions.
"He called me his 'Little Razorback," she recalled fondly.
He also nurtured her dream of being a college coach one day …
Now with one quick championship, one NCAA bid and a couple of nets under her belt later, Coach Mitchell is already considered one of the premier young college coaches.
"It doesn't surprise me. She's been masterful from the beginning," said coach and big fan Stringer – who just happens to be the 10th winningest women's college coach in the history of the NCAA.
Further, she added ….
"Carlene is very conscientious … has a great understanding of skills … always looks on the bright side of things even when times are tough … and she couldn't be more deserving of the success out there … I've respected and trusted her with my own future … and she will continue to do well."
And from a more local perspective ….
Perhaps Dave Yossem – a seasoned member of the Gauchos uber-passionate fan base – The Fast Breakers – summed it up best about Coach Mitchell's performance earlier this year:
"She's great! We just love her!"
Yes, it's been quite a year for her – personally and professionally – and it's safe to say that UCSB Coach Carlene Mitchell 'has arrived' in this beautiful place we call home …