The Making of Champions

Women's Basketball Coach Joan Bonvicini on a winning run

Written by Caitlin King
Photography by John Lok, Eric Badeau and Chris Joseph Taylor
September 6, 2013

Video created by SU student, Haley Weit.

On the day of a press conference introducing Joan Bonvicini as the new head coach of women’s basketball, the coach—who is known by players as “Coach B”—announced that she was a championship coach at a championship university and that she was at Seattle University to build a championship program. That last point is one that Coach B is proving since taking over the program in 2009.

When a team achieves success, some people lean back, but Bonvicini is always working to get better. Entering her fifth season as head coach of women’s basketball, she’s led the Redhawks through their first full season of NCAA Division I in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and back-to-back second straight 20-win seasons. Her coaching style earned her accolades including the 2013 WAC Coach of the Year honor and a Naismith nomination for National Coach of the Year.

Building champions takes talent, perseverance, focus, time and travel. Lots of travel. Last year alone, Coach B spent 220 days on the road with scouting, recruiting and games. For the veteran coach, it’s all part of the building process and achieving sustainable success.

The task of rebuilding a program is not new to Bonvicini, who has been coaching since the late 1970s. It is a job that she seemed destined to do.

The second oldest of five, Bonvicini grew up in a boisterous household in blue-collar Bridgeport, Conn. Interested in sports from a young age, her parents, both immigrants from Europe—her father from Italy and her mother Ireland—were supportive from the start. She began to take softball and basketball seriously in elementary school. Memorable mentors along the way, including her 12th grade softball coach Ralph Raymond, who later became an Olympic softball coach, and her father, who was also a talented athlete, both led Bonvicini to pursue sports seriously. Toward the end of high school, she knew her true talent and passion belonged in basketball. She attended college at a time women’s sports received little recognition and scholarships for women’s basketball were nonexistent. Undeterred, Bonvicini chose a school with a proven basketball team, Southern Connecticut State University.

Like many other female athletes, Title IX, the law that requires gender equity in education, majorly impacted high school and collegiate athletics and changed the course for Bonvicini. Title IX was signed into federal law during Bonvicini’s freshman year when she was a guard on Southern Connecticut’s team. Her work on the court led the team to its first national AIAW tournament for women. The AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) was the central body that governed women’s intercollegiate sports predating the NCAA acceptance of women in 1981. She was also named Region I-A MVP and an honorable mention All-American. She also became an Olympic finalist for the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1976. Bonvicini was one of 25 people participating in final tryouts in Colorado Springs.

Although the Olympics were not in her future, her career in basketball was hot. Bonvicini was offered the chance to play in a women’s summer league in Southern California and she jumped at the opportunity to move west.

Shortly after, in the summer of 1975, she landed her first coaching job as assistant coach at Cal Poly Pomona. While coaching was not originally in her plans, the transition from player to coach came easy. Just barely making $1,000 in salary, she also kept a full-time job as a computer programmer for a Fortune 500 company.

In 1977, she began to take coaching seriously when Long Beach State University recruited her for an assistant coaching position. Two years later, at age 25, she became head coach and signed the number one player in the country. The team earned 10 conference championships and 10 straight berths in the AIAW Tournament and two Final Four appearances. Her determination and dedication to the program at Long Beach State caught the eye of the University of Arizona, who wanted her for the head coaching position. She welcomed the opportunity to turn a program around, much as she did at Long Beach State. Bonvicini, who took the job at Arizona in 1991, did just that: she led the Wildcats to nine postseason appearances, including seven NCAA tournament berths. In 1996, the team took the WNIT (Women's National Invitation Tournament) Championship and in 2004 won the PAC-10 Conference Title.

The Wildcats wins attracted talent and Bonvicini hit a career high in 2000 when she signed Shawntinice Polk, nicknamed “Polkey,” the number one center in the country. At 6 ft 5, Polk was a powerhouse and an incredible athlete. Irrevocably the most popular athlete at the university during that time, not to mention a force on the court, Polk and Bonvicini shared a special bond; Bonvicini was her coach, mentor and friend. In 2005, a heartbreaking tragedy forever changed the course of Bonvicini’s life. While preparing for her senior season, 22-year-old Polk died in the training room from a blood clot in her lungs.

“The program plummeted. It’s still hard for me to understand. She had her family and she saw them occasionally, but we were her family,” she says. “The school gave us great support, but it affected the players, the staff and me.”

Stricken with grief and sadness, the program could not recover. Unable to get the team back on track, Bonvicini was let go. At first, she thought was going to get another coaching job immediately, but that wasn’t the case. She stayed involved in the game and became a broadcaster for FOX Sports until she was recruited for a head coaching position at Seattle University.

Attracted to the changing athletic culture of SU, following Athletic Director Bill Hogan’s call, one of the first things she did was read SU’s mission statement. “It read: empowering leaders for a just and humane world,” she says. “I could identify with that. I’m very much into the community and mentoring not just my players, but my staff.”

When taking on a head coaching job, you’re hired typically in one of two scenarios. Either you’re replacing someone who’s successful or you’re taking over for someone who’s been fired. The SU job presented its own unique set of challenges. “I leaned heavily on my experience. I could anticipate issues and see them, because I had already experienced them,” she says.

Not only was the team she inherited transitioning from Division II to Division I, and yet to join a conference, the NCAA ruled three of her best players ineligible due to academic violations. Initially, they thought they’d be out for a few games, but the NCAA ruled them out for the entire season. The women’s team finished out the 2009–2010 season with six wins.

Bonvicini knew she needed talented players. Because of established relationships, she was able to go into California and scout student athletes that could fit into SU’s academic and athletic culture. The changes moved the win column in the next season modestly, finishing 2010–11 with eight Ws.

While the scoreboard kept the pressure on it didn’t come close to the pressure the coach put on herself. “I thrive under pressure, I enjoy it,” she says. That same year, the Redhawks were voted into the WAC conference.

Playing in the WAC conference paid off. The next season, the team’s turnaround was more pronounced as the team racked up 20 wins in Division I and made its first post-season appearance in the division.

Bonvicini believes that if you want change as a leader, it starts with you. She knows that if she aims for success, her players will too. With expectations, comes responsibility. And as coach, she sets a vision, not to be competitive, but to build champions in everything. Not just on the court, but in the classroom too. Her experiences shape the kind of coach she is today.

“I understand my strengths and weaknesses; and I have a great staff. I have people around me that compliment me,” she says.

Her coaching philosophy resulted in the Redhawks second straight 20-win season in 2012–13, earning the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title, a postseason appearance in the WAC Championship game in Vegas and their first-ever WNIT berth.

Bonvicini’s methodical approach to building the program extends beyond the court. To the players, Coach B expects excellence. “I get people to feel uncomfortable,” she says. “Practices are intense, a level of hard work most incoming players aren’t accustomed to.”

“I love how Coach B wants things fast-paced,” says Kacie Sowell, a forward and WAC Player of the Year. “Everything we do in practice she wants done quickly and accurately, which helps prepare the team for game time.”

She also has time for a few laughs. “My favorite memory with Coach B is when she was showing me how to place my feet while defending my opponent,” says guard and WAC Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Shephard. “She tried to move my foot but kicked me so hard everybody heard it and just started laughing. It hurt but it was pretty funny.”

Bonvicini does her best to balance work and life. Her family, who still resides in Tucson, trade off visiting one another. With a number of half-marathons and 10ks under her belt, she takes on an intensive workout to stay in shape. A lover of the outdoors, Bonvicini is a Dive Master (assistant instructor) of scuba diving. Her favorite memory is on a live aboard in the Great Barrier Reef. She’s even taken on Dos Ojos, Spanish for Two Eyes, a flooded cave system located north of Tulum, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. And although she’s completed close to 200 dives all over the world, she has no desire to dive in Puget Sound. “That’s a little chilly for me,” she says.

Her focus remains on building SU’s women’s basketball program into a championship program.

“I have high aspirations for me personally and for this program,” she says. How does Coach B instill this winning mentality in her players? Ask her and she’ll give you the bottom line. “Because I expect it.”
Coach Joan Coach B, as Joan Bonvicini is known by players, talks to the team before the start of the 2013-14 season.
The coach spends time mentoring and advising students off the court.