Impressive Debut for New Lady Lion Coach

Washington handles herself — and some touchy issues — well in her first Penn State press conference. Get the lowdown from the event at the Beaver Stadium media room Monday afternoon. TAP MEMBERS CAN CHECK OUT OUR FREE VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH THE NEW COACH.

Former Notre Dame assistant Coquese Washington was introduced as Penn State's new women's basketball coach Monday, a month after longtime Lady Lion coach Rene Portland resigned under pressure.

The hastily arranged proceedings at the Beaver Stadium media room stood in stark contrast to the hastily arranged proceedings in the same space four weeks earlier, when Portland's departure was revealed. Then, athletic director Tim Curley was a solo act.

This time, he was joined on the dais by Penn State president Graham Spanier and, of course, the 36-year-old Washington, a Flint, Mich., native whose first name is pronounced “ko-KWEES.”

“I'm really excited about being here and continuing on the great tradition the players and former coaches have put before me,” she said. Out in the room and in the football recruiting lounge above, 60 or so university suits smiled enthusiastically.

See our one-on-one video interview here:

Also on hand were the Lady Lion players, who appeared to be more relieved than anything.

“To be in the dark so long brings up some questions and some self-doubt,” sophomore guard Tyra Grant said. “But [Washington] is a good person, so the sun has come out. Once it came out, we were happy.”

Washington first met with the players Sunday evening, and by all accounts made a strong first impression. It was more of the same at the press conference Monday, where the woman who had spent eight years as an aide to Muffett McGraw in South Bend — including the last two as associate head coach — deftly handled softballs and a little heat.

On how she knew she was ready to make the step from assistant to head coach, Washington said, “Knowing you are ready to be a head coach is like knowing you are ready to be a parent - it just happens and you deal with it.” Most everyone in the room laughed. But in the front row of the press conference, her 2-year-old son, Quenton, was nodding off in the arms of her husband, attorney Raynell Brown.


Washington's family.

Queried on being a black woman in a profession woefully bereft of black women, she replied, “I'm proud to be here at a university of this magnitude. I recognize I will be a role model.”

Later, she was asked if she felt she needed to address the charges of homophobia that rose against the program during Portland's tenure. “I'd simply say my ideals and values run in line with the university's values,” Washington responded with an earnest smile. “I don't see that being a problem.”

In a roundabout way, Curley touched on the same topic.

“We think [Washington's] values really fit well here at Penn State,” he explained. “We think this is a good fit. We have a certain set of values we are going to live by. It is all about fit.”

Curley declined to reveal how many candidates interviewed for the job or if anyone had been offered the position before Washington accepted. While many expected Penn State to hire someone with head-coaching experience at the college and/or WNBA level, the athletic director said the new Lady Lion mentor offers strong credentials.


Curley (left) and Spanier flank
the new coach.

“Just look at her resume and look at what she's accomplished,” he said. “This is the complete package.”

The bullet-point breakdown is as follows:

• Washington was a point guard for McGraw at Notre Dame from 1989-93, and lettered all four seasons. She joined the Fighting Irish coaching staff in 1999, and helped guide the team to a .750 winning percentage, eight NCAA Tournament bids, four Sweet 16 appearances and the 2001 national championship.

• Washington played pro basketball from 1997-2003, primarily in the WNBA. Her career featured stops with the New York Liberty, Houston Comets and Indiana Fever.

• Washington earned a bachelor's degree in history from Notre Dame in 1992, taking just three years to complete her coursework. In 1997, she earned a Juris Doctorate from the Notre Dame Law School. She was the founding president of the WNBA's player association from 1999 until 2001, and later served as executive vice president of the organization.

If it seems like her playing, coaching and legal timelines intertwined, that's because for five years (1999-2003) they did. Now, however, her focus is squarely on restoring the roar to a Lady Lion program that has cobbled together consecutive losing seasons for the first time in the program's 43-year history.

Washington said she has not decided whether to retain any of Portland's assistants, though Susan Robinson was in attendance Monday and was seen chatting with Spanier and Curley before the press conference.

The new head coach will spend a week or so getting up to speed with Penn State recruiting (Curley said the school will honor all scholarships awarded by Portland) and conducting one-on-one interviews to get to know the current players.

Grant, PSU's leading scorer as a true freshman last season, said, “This is a very emotional time for me, because I am close with Rene.” But later she added that none of the current players seriously considered leaving Penn State after Portland stepped down because “we need to stick together. If we stick together, we'll be a strong team.”

As for meeting Washington for the first time, Grant said, “I was in awe. She's a great coach. … She's a great person.”

For her part, the new coach was equally impressed with what she found in Happy Valley.

“As soon as I was contacted by Tim Curley, my interest skyrocketed,” she said. “… I did not interview anywhere else. This is the only job I was interested in pursuing.”

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