Final Say: Jennifer Rizzotti

 

Jennifer Rizzotti, 37, is a former UConn Lady Husky and professional basketball star who is now the winningest coach ever at the University of Hartford. She resides in Glastonbury with her husband and two sons.
 

You versus Geno [Auriemma] in a one-on-one basketball game—who wins?
Oh, definitely me. [laughs] He’s not very good at basketball, first of all. And then second, he’s 25 years older than me, so . . . I still got game.

How has coaching been compared to playing?
It’s been great. I definitely believe it’s what I was meant to do. As much as I love playing, I really believe that coaching is my thing. It’s very rewarding because you’re really trying to make 15 people happy instead of just yourself. At the same time, it’s very challenging, and I always love a challenge.

Does your competitive nature trickle over to your home life?
Sure. My husband and I are both pretty competitive and we have two boys now, so we’re always playing sports or playing games, and it’s really hard to dial it back, so sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing.

What do you consider your biggest coaching victory to date?
When we beat then No. 5 Duke a few years ago. It was the highest-ranked team we had ever beaten, obviously the biggest-name team. It wasn’t my favorite win, but it was definitely the biggest.

What’s your favorite win?
I’d have to go with the first time we won a game in the NCAA tournament when we beat Temple back in 2006. They were ranked, they were the sixth seed, we were the eleventh, and I feel like it was when we finally arrived on the scene in Hartford.

As a player, you’ve won championships on every level, high school through pros—what do you consider your biggest victory?
The national championship game in 1995, for sure. Just because college was my favorite four-year period of playing basketball. That was a big part of it. And the people I won it with are still really special to me. So that one ranks well above any of the other championships I’ve won as a player.

It seems as though your coaching record improved once you retired from playing in the WNBA in 2003—a coincidence?
Yes and no. It’s not a coincidence, but I think it also coincided with me having all my own players in the program because I did it four years, so in my fifth year, I had all my own kids, and that was the last time we didn’t have a winning season. That was my fifth year, so we’ve had 17 wins or more ever since then. I think it had more to do with the fact that I had all my own kids in the program than the retiring from playing.

What’s more challenging: chasing down an opponent on the court or chasing after two young boys?
It depends on the day. [laughs] Certainly being a mom is challenging and finding the time to balance my professional life and my personal life is hard. Having kids is what gives me great perspective in coaching, and it makes my job easier because as challenging as it is, I always know that there’s something out there that’s more important.

How do you apply the lessons you’ve learned on the court to parenting?
I think so. I’m pretty disciplined with my players and I have a certain level of accountability that I expect. I care more about how they’re doing things sometimes than what they’re doing, so I certainly think I carry that over to being a parent because I care about how my kids act, and how they treat people and to be accountable even though they’re young, like being responsible and understanding how they need to act.

Your teams have been successful on the court and in the classroom—the Hawks are among the highest-ranked teams in the nation on an academic basis. How have you achieved that?
We just make it a priority. I recruit good student-athletes, not just good athletes. We send the message that it’s important to us that they do well academically. We put it first as a coaching staff, you know, ‘Classes trump practice,’ all the time. We just send the message that it’s important to us and we need to make sure they’re taking initiative and being responsible as a student.

You’ve found success on every level you’ve played and coached—to what do you attribute that?
I think my work ethic . . . my competitiveness . . . I feel like I have a good knack for the game. I have a good basketball IQ. My intelligence. I think that everybody has strengths and weaknesses and I try to play to my strengths as much as I can.

You’re very confident about yourself and your ability—is that something you try to project on to your players?
Yeah, I want them to play with confidence. I want them to believe in what they’re doing. I’m not sure that after 17 or 18 years of being one way that you’re going to change a kid in the four years that you have them, but I certainly want them to grow up and become a woman by the time they graduate. I mean, that’s what I did in college. I was very different when I arrived and when I left. My experiences helped mature me into who I was going to become. I try really hard to make sure that my mentoring and my being a role model goes beyond just what I do with them in practice.

What types of goals do you set for yourself?
I don’t know. A lot of them are tied to what I do at work. I think that my goal is to have every senior class graduate here feeling great about their experience. Sometimes that means they live with a championship and an NCAA tournament appearance, and even in the years when they don’t, I still want them to reflect back on their experience and not regret one second of coming to Hartford. So I set that goal for myself every year and make sure that those kids who are leaving are getting everything they can out of the program.

Toughest shot for you to make on the court?
Toughest shot to make on the court . . . probably the corner three. It’s a different angle—I like shooting them from the top or the wing where you can have some backboard behind you.

What’s your “go-to” shot in a game of H-O-R-S-E?
I can shoot the lefty free throw pretty good. That’s worked.

Did you have a favorite player growing up?
Well, I watched a lot of men’s basketball because there was no women’s basketball on TV back in the day. I just remember growing up watching John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. You know, point guards from that era. I don’t know if I had a favorite player, but those are definitely some of the point guards I enjoyed watching the most.

The UConn teams you were a member of played a key role in helping to increase the popularity of women’s basketball—how do you assess your role in all that?
I certainly take a lot of pride in having a role in the growth of the game. I think our team back in ’95 definitely played a part, maybe just a small part, in bringing recognition to women’s basketball on a national level. I know I was part of that and I’m proud of it, but I also think it’s my responsibility now as a veteran coach who’s very involved in women’s basketball to make sure that I’m helping us to grow the game and get visibility, and to do what I can to do things the right way—coach with integrity, and to make that it’s just not like ‘Oh, I was a player who brought attention to women’s basketball.’ Hopefully, I can continue to do the same thing as a coach.

Do you think it sounds a little odd to refer to yourself as ‘a veteran coach’?
A little bit, but I’m in my thirteenth season, so at some point you kind of figure that you’ve been doing it a lot longer than a lot of people. I stay pretty involved—I’m on the coach’s association board and have been  involved with U.S.A. Basketball, so there are a lot of different ways that I hope I’m making an impact in a positive way.

What’s the toughest thing for you to get your players to do or understand?
Uh . . . honestly, I think it’s just teaching them to have a really good feel for the game. So many kids come out of high school, and they may know how to shoot or dribble, or maybe they’re athletic and they can defend, but they don’t really know how to play. You know, the timing of cuts, where the ball is supposed to be, how to read defenses. I challenge them to watch basketball as much as they can. I watch a lot of film with them because I just think it’s hard for kids to have a good feel for when to deliver a pass and when to make an attacking play, and how to be good at all the nuances of the game.

Four other players plus yourself to fill out your dream women’s basketball team?
The first player I would draft would be Jamelle Elliott, definitely. And then I’d probably have to go with ... I don’t know, it’d be tough. I’d have to say maybe Tina Charles. Then it’d be good to have Diana [Taurasi] on my team so I could get a lot of assists. After that, who’s going to be my other guy? I don’t know. I’ve had some great teammates. I’d have to throw Rebecca [Lobo] in the mix there—this is back when she used to know how to play, she doesn’t play any more. I’ve always liked the way that Tamika Catchings plays and her intensity, but it’d be tough to take a Tennessee player—if she wore any orange, she’d be in trouble. I’ve always loved Maya [Moore]—in this era, she’s probably my favorite player, and maybe of all-time at UConn since I’ve left because of who she is and what she stands for. It’d be hard for me not to draft her.

Do you watch much basketball outside of breaking down film for games?
No, that’s all I do. I watch basketball all I can. I just think if you’re in the business and you’re not watching just to learn and see how people are doing things or to learn from people’s mistakes, you’re crazy. So I watch it. I know there are a couple of games on tonight and I’ll watch both those games, and then they usually have a weekly Monday night game on ESPN, and I have satellite at work so I can watch games that are on around the country. I watch men’s basketball, I watch NBA . . . I’m a junkie. My husband and I have it on all the time. It never really ends—in the summertime, it gets a little slower because the WNBA games aren’t on as much, but we watch it all the time.

What’s your take on the NBA lockout?
I think it’s a shame. I haven’t really been following it too closely so I don’t really know the details. I just remember playing in the WNBA and making $30,000 and thinking that it was a lot, like, ‘I get paid to play basketball for four months?’ It’s not even a fraction of what these guys are arguing over, so I think it’s a shame. And it’s not helped by the fact that we’re all willing to go out and pay hundreds of dollars for professional sports tickets for baseball, football and basketball. That’s why these athletes get paid so much. I’m disappointed mostly because my son is 6 and he really started to get into the Celtics last year and he was really excited about following them and going up to a game this season. If they have a permanent lockout, that’ll be the thing that really disappoints me, that I won’t get a chance to take him to a game.

Do your kids play?
For their age, yeah. They’re pretty young. I have a little hoop for them at work that I bought so that they can come and shoot hoops when we have practice.

What are your expectations for the upcoming season?
We have same the expectation every year: We want to win our league and we want to get to the NCAA tournament. Our program is now at the point where just making the NCAA tournament isn't enough for us any more. Preparing ourselves early to make the NCAA tournament, and then win in it. So I don’t have [a goal like] I need to be 25-4, but I want to use my non-conference schedule, which is very difficult, to prepare, to get better, to win our conference and be ready to get a good seed and win in the NCAA tournament. It’d be crazy if there was a day where I said, ‘I hope we finish second or third.’ I’ll never say that.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
I don’t if I know the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten. Playing point guard, you obviously have to be a good leader, and the advice that I got in college from Geno—he talked to me a lot about getting to know my teammates and having a relationship with them to where that not only do they trust me but I have the ability to say whatever I need to say to them and they’ll respond. It obviously helped me in college as a starting freshman point guard going up through my whole career, but I think it’s helped me even more in coaching that I understand that the relationships I build, starting from that recruiting process up until when they leave here, is what makes these kids really want to play hard for me. And that’s what leadership is about—finding a way to motivate, and I think that piece of advice has taken me pretty far in my career.
 

Final Say: Jennifer Rizzotti

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