March 21, 2009
By Ernie Palladino
The Journal News
In the dark moments at 3-6, Lindsay Gottlieb looked inside herself first.
Call it a time of doubt, that Christmas vacation spent back east with her family, nine games into the 31-year-old's first college head-coaching job, at the University of California-Santa Barbara. A crisis of faith, even. But for those few days, the former Scarsdale High and AAU girls basketball standout looked deep into her philosophy following an 11-point loss to Kentucky.
A conference championship and a No. 15 seed in the NCAA women's basketball tournament seemed improbable at the time. She needed to fix things first, no easy task for any rookie coach, even one who was an assistant at 20-win programs such as Richmond and the University of California.
"I'm saying in my head, 'Gosh, am I doing the right thing?' " Gottlieb said Thursday as she prepared her Gauchos for tonight's opening-round game against No. 2 Stanford in San Diego. "Are we on the right track?
"I spent a lot of time thinking, and I really made a decision to stay true to my process; that what I do is the right way to do things; that eventually, everything would click."
Her process took root in the earliest of her eight-year stretch on Luke Vaccaro's AAU team, then blossomed at Scarsdale High under Paul Celentano.
"I'll tell you this, she doesn't fool herself," Celentano said. "She's so intelligent, there's no reason not to look inside and trust herself. If she has a plan, she always analyzes it and picks out what's best for her and her team. Always was like that."
Best friend and teammate Hilary Howard would eventually play in the Final Four with Duke. But Gottlieb would become the coach, hashing out strategy with Howard, Vaccaro's daughter Joy, and anyone else willing to listen.
"As a high school kid, usually you play the game and you're done," Howard said from her home in Pebble Beach, Calif., where she now works in the golf industry. "But we'd sit together and talk X's and O's. She blew out her knee as a senior in high school, and she turned into sort of an assistant coach. A lot of times, she'd pull me aside and say things you just don't hear from a 17-year-old.
"She might even call plays, like a clear-out for me, telling the other players she wanted me to take the shot."
Celentano actually outfitted her with a coaching shirt and whistle. He might have known something, even then.
Underlying it was an ability to communicate with teammates great and small.
"That's where she's really good," Vaccaro said. "She knows she was lucky she was around good teams and good players when she was young.
"Big school, small school, she learned a lot from everybody. She mingled, which is big for a girl. They tend to keep in their own circles - four girls here, three girls there. But she talked to everybody."
All the better to coax players through the tough times, which is exactly what Gottlieb did after Christmas.
"We just looked at each other and said, 'There's no more do-overs,' " Gottlieb said. "I don't want the season to slip away and say we could have done this or that. We have to stay true to the process.
"We upped our intensity level."
The Gauchos won 13 of their next 14 games, 10 straight. There would be one more critical bump, however. In the Big West Conference championship game, her team was down 27-12 in the first half against Cal Poly, a team it beat twice in the regular season.
More communication was needed, quickly. No introspection, though. She'd settled those issues at 3-6.
"In the huddle, it was pretty amazing," Gottlieb said. "I looked in their eyes and said we've got a lot of work to do."
Her players responded. They cut the deficit to six with three minutes left before halftime, then to three at intermission.
"We knew we'd be OK," Gottlieb said.
They won 64-57.
Stanford will present bigger problems than the process. The unranked, 22-9 Gauchos are a long shot against second-ranked Stanford. Having spent the last three years helping her mentor, Joanne Boyle, build Cal into a Pac-10 force, Gottlieb has an intimate knowledge of the Cardinal.
"I think she's got a shot," Howard said. "One of these days, she's going to contend for a national championship, and it'll be sooner than later."
All because she stuck with the process.