The first time I ever sat down to interview Wisconsin women’s basketball head coach Bobbie Kelsey, one trait shined through our conversation. This woman is a winner and will accept nothing less than complete success on and off the court from her team.
A quick glance at the record of the program thus far in Kelsey’s first year at UW (5-12, 1-4, as of Jan. 21), does little to awe eyes unfamiliar to the team. However, the changes are coming, and the improvements are there under Kelsey, even if they are gradual. But before judging Kelsey and her team by record alone, it’s important to understand the challenges a first year coach faces in taking over a program like that of the Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
The first major issue for a new coach is introducing a new style to a group of players that hasn’t been brought up with and accustomed to another. Kelsey likes to push the ball in an up-tempo offensive game while her predecessor, Lisa Stone, ran a more grind-it-out half court style resembling the men’s team. Kelsey told me at the beginning of the year that there aren’t teams in the NCAA tournament who are “walking it up the court.”
So the challenge began for Kelsey, as the first year coach tried to make the upperclassmen forget what they had known their whole career, as the freshman and sophomores benefited from being relatively untouched by the previous system. After 17 games in her inaugural season, Kelsey has the Badgers showing glimpses and spurts of what her offensive system can yield. In Wisconsin’s last two games, the team has averaged 69.5 points after averaging 51 points per game in the team’s previous seven contests.
“The kids believe they can win every game until they go out and it’s something different,” Kelsey said. “You have to believe you’re going to win; otherwise you’re never even going to have a chance to win.”
Which is exactly what a team and its players must believe if Kelsey hopes to build Wisconsin into a powerhouse in the Big Ten. Another large problem Kelsey faces is her personnel on her roster this season. It’s extremely hard to say just how good the Badgers can be when the players Kelsey is working with right now aren’t even her own. Every player on the current roster for the Badgers was recruited by former coach Lisa Stone, so it may take a few years and a few recruiting classes of Kelsey’s to see the true potential of a Kelsey team.
But there is plenty of talent on the current Badger roster to believe that Wisconsin still has a chance to have success this year. The true challenge that remains for Kelsey is trying to implant her mindset and the necessary steps for success into her current players. For Kelsey, it will take more than one season to change a program that has only reached the NCAA tournament seven times in its 37-year history.
“You don’t have a lot of time during the season,” Kelsey said. “It’s not that the players aren’t willing; obviously you have to light a fire up under them, but that’s everywhere you go. When they see the fruits of their labors a little bit even though we haven’t won a lot of games, they can see we’re getting better, and that makes them want to work harder and put in that extra effort. But it takes time to change the mindset of everyone.”
“I didn’t get to work with them in the spring and the summer because I was hired in April,” Kelsey continued. “When I first started working with this group this season, that work ethic hadn’t been instilled in them yet as a group, that this hard work is a Wisconsin basketball type thing. Some teams around the country are known for their work in the offseason, and it shows during the year. You don’t have to be a McDonald’s All-American to improve, that’s just you getting your butt in the gym, in the weight room, doing what you have to do to get better. That’s where the difference is made.”
That work ethic is something Kelsey has already begun to inspire in her players. During my time interviewing Kelsey on Jan. 17 after the team’s practice, redshirt junior Tiera Stephen was on the Kohl Center floor shooting jumpers.
“Success doesn’t start with the games,” Kelsey said. “It’s the extra work you put in. You never know if you’re going to play a lot in the game. I tell the team that the game isn’t the time to show me something new; you show me every day in practice what you can do, and I’ll decide if you can do it in the game. Don’t start doing something new in the game you haven’t been practicing.”
And that’s exactly the largest challenge Kelsey faces: changing the culture of a program that has only mildly tasted success. That exact fact makes Kelsey just what the doctor ordered for this historically underachieving program. Kelsey has never known anything in her life but success. As a player at Stanford, Kelsey went to three Final Fours in her five years in the program, including the national championship in 1992. In her past four years as an assistant coach at Stanford, Kelsey helped lead the Cardinals to four consecutive Final Four appearances including two appearances in the national championship game.
Throughout the interview with Kelsey, one quote in particular caught my attention when the question came up about the problems she had encountered in her first season. Her response was that she was trying to engrain in her team the necessary work ethic and the requirements of work outside of practice in the game.
“Right now we don’t have school, so why are you napping?” Kelsey said. “Get your butt in the gym. You say you want to win, so do what winners do. Winners work extra when nobody is around, when the big lights aren’t on and everyone is screaming in the gym.”
And that mentality right there is the reason Bobbie Kelsey will turn the Badgers women’s basketball program around. A winner’s a winner, and if the Badgers hope to reach historic heights as a program, it’s only fitting a proven winner is at the helm to coach.
Nick is a senior majoring in history and English. Have your own opinion on what makes a coach truly great? Let Nick know at [email protected]