The off-season for fans of Stanford Women's Basketball is primarily focused on the recruiting wars, but this spring has added an unusual diversion in following the coaching carrousel. The collegiate game is littered with former assistants to Tara VanDerveer, including current Pac-10 head coaches Tia Jackson at Washington and June Daugherty at Washington State. What was unusual in recent weeks was the departure of two Cardinal coaches. 10-year assistant Karen Middleton (Illinois) and three-year assistant Charmin Smith (Cal) each left for opportunities to climb the coaching ladder in their respective professional careers.
Each loss knocked the wind out of Cardinalmaniacs™. Middleton's long service and stability brought great scouting and recruiting talents to the program, while Smith added more of the same plus the perspective of a former Stanford player. After combing the country, the Cardinal have now filled those voids with a pair of impressive hires.
The first, officially announced last week, brings Bobbie Kelsey (1991-96) back to The Farm. Kelsey was a member of the 1992 National Championship team, four Pac-10 Championship squads and three Final Four teams while at Stanford.
The former Cardinal forward/guard was named the team's most inspirational player in her first and fifth years on The Farm, a co-captain her last two seasons and the team's most improved player as a redshirt freshman. Kelsey was a highly recruited and acclaimed talent out of Southwest DaKalb High School in Georgia, but she tore the ACL in her left knee in the summer of 1990 before her senior year. She sat out as a medical redshirt her first season (1991-92) at Stanford, which saw the Cardinal cut down the nets in Los Angeles. The next three years she was healthier, often the sixth-man off the bench and sometimes starting. Kelsey was a full-time starter for the 1995-96 season, her fifth and final year, but she tore the ACL in her right knee after 10 games.
"I thought this was finally my one year to let it all out, and of course it didn't happen," Kelsey says. "But everything happens for a reason. I believe that. I enjoyed my experience anyway, with the injuries and everything. I really enjoyed my time here at Stanford."
"I think there are a lot of things that Bobbie is going to bring to our program," says VanDerveer of her former player. "Number one is that through good times and bad times, she was really consistent. She was injured - things didn't always go her way - and she always, always has a positive attitude. She has great enthusiasm. She's fun, very upbeat and very positive. I think that's really important."
"I think people rooted for me just because I was the little puppy in the corner trying to get out, just trying to make it," Kelsey remembers. "You want to be out there, but I saw the impact of what you can do even when you're not out there. Teammates in their notes, comments or pulling me aside let me know how much they appreciated how I was handling my adversity personally because it inspired them to work hard. It gave me a sense that I was contributing in an important way other than just on the court and putting the ball in the basket."
While some former players stumble into coaching because it is the easiest thing for them to do, or perhaps they don't know how to separate themselves from the game, Kelsey is deliberately and deeply into a career of coaching. She started her first year out of Stanford as an assistant at Boise State, and 10 years later she has amassed experience at Florida, Evansville, Western Carolina and the last three seasons at Virginia Tech. Continuing the path that will lead her to her ultimate goal of becoming a college head coach, Kelsey is now ready to learn under a Hall of Fame coach in VanDerveer.
"I think a lot of the same things that made her a great teammate will make her a great coach," offers VanDerveer. "She shows a great passion for the game. She truly enjoys coaching, and this is what she really wants to do. When they come to Stanford, you don't really know what they're going to go into. I thought if she had gone into business, she'd be great at business. If she had gone into teaching, she'd be great at teaching. If she'd gone into law or whatever she chose, I knew she'd be great. She just has a really good sense of self and a presence when she comes into the room."
Kelsey also brings a no-nonsense approach to her style that has earned her respect from her peers as both a player and as a coach.
"She comes from a very close family and a strict family," VanDerveer explains. "Her mom is in education, and her parents instilled a real discipline in her. I think that she believes in discipline and hard work. Through discipline and hard work, she has really had some great accomplishments."
"I have a good rapport with the kids. I'm a disciplinarian at heart, but I understand what that means," Kelsey says. "You do it in love, and the kids don't take it personally and don't bite back. Kids these days are a little bit different than when I was coming along. You used to just 'yes ma'am' it and move along, and now they want to know why. That's okay to a point, and you explain that to them. This is what we need to do, but trust me and I'll help you to where you need to go."
"I was on those Stanford teams where we did trust the coaches to get us ready," comments the former Cardinal co-captain. "You can ask any person who was on those teams if they ever felt like they weren't prepared for a game, and they will tell you emphatically, 'No.' We always felt like we were going to win. Now, we didn't always win, but we felt we were prepared to win. That's coaching. That's what coaches are supposed to do - give you the confidence and get you ready. Then you have to go out there and do it."
The timing of Kelsey's hire is unfortunate only in that it comes a couple weeks after Stanford concluded its individual workouts this spring. NCAA rules prohibit a coach from working with players during the summer, which means the new Cardinal assistant will have to wait until September to get her hands on Candice Wiggins, Jillian Harmon and the rest of the team.
VanDerveer nonetheless has a clear idea of how her new staff, rounded out this week by the hire of former Stanford point guard Kate Paye (1991-95), will coach the players. Associate head coach Amy Tucker will continue her specialty of working with the post players, while Paye will be charged with the point guards.
"One direction I wanted to take our staff is having someone who really has been a point guard," VanDerveer offers. "For our team's development, I really wanted that to happen."
VanDerveer and Kelsey will be "floaters," coaching all position groups in practices.
"She wants to be a head coach and in helping her to be a head coach, she'll work with our posts and work with our wings. Or if we break into two groups, we'll switch ends," VanDerveer explains. "I want Kate to really help develop our point guards, and then Bobbie and I will be the people who will work with our posts, our wings and our guards. I think that this is a great move for Bobbie. She wants to be a head coach, and I want to do a great job mentoring her to be a head coach. I think that she has all the skills, and it's just a matter of experience - studying tape and doing all the little things it takes to help her go to the next level."
"I think the players who I can help the most are the ones who want it the most," Kelsey adds. "I think coaches sometimes are a confident bunch, and we feel like we can put it in them. But that's not going to happen. You have to recruit kids who want to work, and who maybe have been on AAU championship teams or on state champion or runner-up teams. You just cannot coach the lazy bone out of some kids. It's just not going to work. So I think a big part of recruiting is identifying those kids who have the work ethic."
"We learned what a real work ethic was when we got here," says the former Stanford player. "In high school, you think you're working hard. Uh-uh. The people who were here showed us what it meant to work hard at Stanford. We carried that on to the next group, and I think that's why it lasted as long as it did. The Jennifer Azzis and the Sonja Hennings, they taught the Val Whitings and the Molly Goodenbours. Then they taught us. Then we got the Kate Starbirds and the Charmin Smiths. You understand what it means to come in here and work, and what it's going to take to get that championship."
Kelsey also understands what it takes to coach college basketball at a high level, with extensive experience coaching in power conferences (e.g. ACC, SEC). Stanford is not hiring a project to the staff to learn on the job, but rather a seasoned assistant who is regarded in the coaching community as one of the top rising talents around.
"People are calling me to say, 'Wow, that's a great hire.' She's very respected and very well known," says VanDerveer. "For me it's great because she has great experience. I don't have to start from scratch. I don't have time to train someone at this level, so her experience is critical. Her Stanford experience is critical because she can relate to Stanford athletes. She's been there and done it."
"I think our team is truly going to enjoy getting to know Bobbie and working with her. And I'm excited getting to know her as a coach," she adds. "You can not find someone who will say a bad thing about Bobbie."
The first judges of that statement are a crop of recruits who Stanford is recruiting to sign in November for the Class of 2008. The Cardinal have four scholarships to give and have no verbal commitments to date. Most, if not all, of Stanford's hard targets have been identified by now, and the recruiting relationships are already deep into their formative stages. Is arriving late to the party uncomfortable for someone in Kelsey's shoes?
"No, because I've done this for 10 years," she answers. "If I was a young pup, it would be overwhelming. They would have to train me. But I'm jumping right in there. Give me the phone numbers. Give me the emails. I already know what to say; I've done it. It's not a big stretch for me, and I think that's what Tara likes about myself and Kate Paye, who is coming. Having coaches who are former players is important to her."
Kelsey has also crossed paths with several of the blue chip recruits high on Stanford's radar, particularly those from the East Coast.
"If they're a good kid who can play, then we've probably all seen them. That's easy," Kelsey comments. "Geographically, it might be a little different, but they're all at AAU tournaments. Some of them you salivate over and know good and well that you don't have a chance in you-know-what. You look at them and pay attention to the ones you can get, and that's different for every school. Stanford is not that school, other than the question of whether they can get in."
An important part of Kelsey's personal experience also plays into her recruiting message. Though her high school playing days came before the advent of Scout.com and the intense media coverage, ratings and rankings for recruits on the Internet today, Kelsey was a high school All-American by Street & Smith, Converse and others. She would have been state player of the year in Georgia if injury had not derailed her senior season.
Kelsey was in precisely the same shoes 17 years ago as the four- and five-star prospects she is now recruiting for Stanford. Moreover, she is living proof that basketball dreams can be derailed for reasons beyond one's control. Having twice torn her ACL and countless times broken her heart, Kelsey was thankful to be at Stanford and not on a campus chosen with basketball blinders.
"I tell kids all the time that you have to go somewhere you will love it if you could not play basketball," Kelsey says. "That was my situation because basketball was not always great for me between the injuries and not playing as much as you feel you should. I still loved being a student at Stanford, and I tell kids that all the time. I refer back to my injuries because that's my experience, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's a great experience to be here on a team like we had and to still be able to get a first-class, world-renowned education. It's that simple. If you want that, come here."
Helping her to close the deal with recruits is a handful of rings earned at Stanford: an NCAA Championship ring and three Pac-10 Championship rings. The Cardinal actually won the conference four times during Kelsey's career, but one of them (1992-93) did not yield a ring.
"My take on it was that we didn't get to the Final Four that year. Forget the Pac-10 - we didn't get to the Final Four," Kelsey opines.
"I want my ring!" she laughs. "I always tease Tara about that.""
VanDerveer during this summer also has her eyes turned toward the Class of 2009 and 2010 recruits, and she is expecting that Kelsey can help keep the Cardinal out in front of the recruiting curve when watching youngsters both camping at Stanford and in July elsewhere across the nation at camps and AAU tournaments.
"I'm hoping that she's a great evaluator, so that she can spot young talent," VanDerveer offers. "The ability to evaluate talent, Amy is great at, and Bobbie can learn from the best in the game. Amy can watch a player as an eighth grader and say, 'This kid is going to play for Stanford.' I think that helps Bobbie to watch with Amy and learn. I'm not good at it. That's not my strength. I can tell you what offense they're running and what plays they just ran, but I don't know that I can evaluate as well as Amy. I think she's probably the best in the game."
"I'm counting on Bobbie and Kate to really come in and not sit back but to be aggressive in recruiting and ready to go. I think it's going to be challenging, but I think it's good for me and good for our program," adds the Cardinal head coach. "I'm a things-happen-for-a-reason person. I don't think it's ideal that we have two [hires] at the same time, but it's been good for me because it forces me to evaluate everything we're doing. I now go back through and find some really fresh new ideas."
The idea of bringing Kelsey back to Stanford is not a new one, however. VanDerveer talked with her in May 2004, the last time there was a vacancy on the Cardinal staff. The timing was just a little off, however. Kelsey had just agreed to go with Beth Dunkenberger to Virginia Tech, after working with her at both Western Carolina and Florida.
"I'm a loyal person," says Kelsey. If I give you my word that I'm going to do something, then I'm going to do it."
"I had to tell her no, and that was very hard for me because I love Stanford," she adds. "But everything happens for a reason. It came around again. Now, my mom told me this time, 'It's not going to come around a third time. You need to take this!' [laughs] The timing was perfect, so it's all good."
Three years later, Kelsey is finally reunited on The Farm with VanDerveer and Tucker and could not be more excited.
"Stanford, it's a no-brainer," she says. "If I had to choose, why wouldn't I come here? I had a great experience, and the same coaches are here. A Hall of Fame coach there and a Final Four coach over there. These people know what they're doing, and they're up for suggestions and new ways of doing things. If you want to be the best, you have to learn from the best. She has coached in every forum and fashion there is. No-brainer."
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!