UW head coach Lisa Stone has dreamed of coaching at Wisconsin since third grade. After 19 years of coaching, the Oregon, Wis. native is finally living that dream.
“I’ve always dreamed of being the coach of the Wisconsin Badgers,” Stone said. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been a Badger fan. Not many people can be in a dream situation. You can always hope and dream. Well, I have it now and my hope and dream is to pack [the Kohl Center] and win Big Ten championships and get this team as far in the NCAA tournament as we possibly can every year.”
After an impressive playing career at the University of Iowa, during which she was twice named the Hawkeyes’ MVP and served as a team captain for three seasons, Stone accepted the head coaching job at nearby Cornell College. Entering the head coaching ranks one year after graduating from Iowa, Stone began her career as the youngest head coach in the country.
“To be a college basketball coach is my ultimate dream and to be able to do that right out of college was awesome,” Stone said. “I’ve never been an assistant coach; I’ve only been a head coach. I was the youngest college basketball coach in the country my first year at the age of 21. I started early and I’m still learning.”
After three solid years at Cornell, Stone took over as head coach at UW-Eau Claire and found immediate success. In her first season at Eau Claire, Stone led the Blugolds to a 24-4 record and reached the Elite Eight in the Division III NCAA tournament.
“When I first went to Eau Claire and we went 24-4 in my first year, that was not anything miraculous that I did; that was 12-15 players believing in each other and their coach,” Stone said. “We went on and we beat people and exceeded expectations, and that’s what this program (Wisconsin) is on its way to do very soon.”
Before Stone arrived at Eau Claire, the program had recorded just one winning season in school history. In a remarkable turnaround, Stone led the Blugolds to 12 consecutive winning seasons, including 11 20-win campaigns.
She led the program to 11 NCAA Division III tournament appearances, including four trips to the Elite Eight and an appearance in the 1997 championship game. In 12 seasons at Eau Claire, Stone posted a 277-59 (.824) record, the most impressive mark in the history of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC).
After establishing herself as one of the top Division III coaches in the nation, Stone made the transition to Division I by accepting the head coaching job at Drake University. In her first season at Drake, Stone won more games (23) than any first-year coach in the history of the Missouri Valley Conference and became the first coach to be named Missouri Valley Coach of the Year in their first year in the conference.
“That was a big year for us,” Stone said. “We overcame some adversity that year. We had a player with cancer and a brain tumor and we overcame all of that to advance to the NCAA tournament and win the conference.”
That season silenced Stone’s critics and proved that the Division III legend could perform at any level.
“There are a lot of people that have said, ‘How can a Division III coach be successful in Division I?’” Stone said. “Well, I had great players.”
The next season Stone led Drake to the Sweet 16, the farthest the program has advanced in the NCAA tournament in school history.
“We were playing a No. 2 seed at their place in the NCAA tournament,” Stone said. “Little Drake University, with our 200 fans, we went into that place, sold-out arena with 17,000 people on national TV, and we beat Baylor to advance to the Sweet 16. That’s the farthest Drake has ever been. I’ve been in the Final Four and the national championship game in Division III many times, but that Sweet 16 game was probably the most memorable of my entire career, beating Baylor to go to the Sweet 16.”
Stone still maintains strong ties to the 2001-02 Drake squad that advanced to the Sweet 16. Stephanie Schmitz, who played point guard for that team, currently serves as an assistant coach under Stone at Wisconsin.
After achieving tremendous success at Drake, Stone served as an assistant coach for the USA national team that won a gold medal at the 2002 World Championships for Young Women Qualifying Tournament in Ribeirao Preto, Brazil.
“We took our team to Brazil, and I was able to stand on a podium while they played the national anthem,” Stone said. ” … When they hang a gold medal on your neck and you sing the national anthem in a foreign country, it’s very patriotic and very special … it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
During her illustrious career, Stone has been named coach of the year seven times and led her teams to 13 postseason appearances. She currently holds the ninth-highest winning percentage (.761) among active Division I coaches. In her first 18 years of coaching, Stone never had a losing season.
“I look back and over 19 years, I know the first team I coached,” Stone said. “Three of those players were in my wedding. One year I had eight players get married. That summer I was in every one of their weddings. You build a relationship with these players and you care about them a lot.”
Though she will finish under the .500 mark for the first time in her career this season, Stone has not altered her approach.
“If we were 20-5 or 5-20, I’d still be coaching the same way,” Stone said. “If you watch me, I’m still coaching my basketball team right to the end, no matter what the score is, and I will continue to do that.”
While Stone has achieved tremendous success and earned numerous accolades during her career, one goal remains: winning a national championship.
“I’ve been close, lost at the buzzer,” Stone said. “This is where I’m going to be, I’m not going anywhere else. When you’re in a dream situation and this is the place you’ve loved your whole life, you’re going to do everything you can to get there.”