The 2019-20 Navy Women’s Basketball team suffered through a very tough year. They won only seven games and went 2-16 in conference play. Almost immediately after the season ended, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk announced that Coach Stefanie Pemper would not be returning.
I have to admit that this news caught me off guard. Coach Pemper had just completed her 12th year at Annapolis, and she had the most wins of any other coach in the program. After a six week search that involved looking at about 80 candidates, Gladchuk extended an offer to Tim Taylor, an assistant coach with the University of North Carolina women’s team. Personally, I think it’s a terrific hire. In fact, it’s the type of hire I’ve come to expect from Gladchuk since he came to Navy from Boston College as the Athletic Director. But before we get into why Coach Taylor looks to be such a great fit, it’s worth exploring how we got to this point in the first place. So, here we go.
The Pemper Era
Navy Women’s Basketball was not in a good place when Coach Pemper came to the Naval Academy in 2008. They posted only one winning season in the nine years prior to her arrival. The program was in serious need of a course correction, and she didn’t waste any time getting it back on the right track.
In just her third year, Coach Pemper led the Mids to the Patriot League Tournament Championship. It earned the team the first of three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. They also qualified for the WNIT in 2014, 2017, and 2018. Coach Pemper reached a significant milestone on Nov. 30th, 2017 when she won her 179th game at Navy. It moved into first place for the most wins in the program. The following year she notched her 200th win.
Unfortunately, things went off the rails quickly in her 11th season. The Mids were 10-19 after winning 25 games the year before. It got even worse this past year when the team finished with a 7-23 record. I wasn’t exactly sure how things could have gone sideways that quickly, so I decided to take a closer look based on what I’ve seen happen in the past. And when I did, I came up with one possible theory.
History Repeating Itself?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Navy Men’s Basketball team went 101-44 over under Coach Don DeVoe. During a five year period from 1996-2001, they won two Patriot League Tournaments earning them a ticket to the Big Dance. Then in 2002, the program just fell off a cliff. The Mids only managed to win 23 games in the next three years combined before a coaching change was made. It was pretty stunning slide backwards. So I called a classmate who also followed the team to see if he knew what had happened.
It turns out that, the Navy Mens team had some assistant coaches who were excellent recruiters. And they accepted coaching positions at other schools starting in 1998. As result, the Mids started taking some hits on the recruiting trail because their replacements just didn’t have the same relationships in key recruiting territories. And as the Mids’ talent pool got really thin, the losses began to pile up.
So when I saw how suddenly the women’s program had gone into a tailspin, I took a look to see if there had been any recent changes in Coach Pemper’s staff. And there was one in particular that jumped out at me.
Coach Tillett’s Impact
In 2014, Rebecca Tillett joined the Navy coaching staff as an assistant. She came to Annapolis with a rich family coaching history and had a strong reputation for player development. Coach Pemper made her the recruiting coordinator in 2017 and promoted her to associate head coach the following year. It was pretty clear that Coach Tillett was going places.
While at Navy, Coach Tillett also assumed duties as the Mids’ defensive coordinator. Under her direction, the Mids held opponents to less than 55 points per game and finished first in the conference in scoring defense twice. This got the attention of several colleges looking to turn around their own women’s programs. And after the 2018 season, Tillett took the head coaching job at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.
Longwood’s gain was Navy’s loss. Coach Tillett’s influence on defense was missed almost immediately. In 2019, the Mids allowed 57.8 points per game. This past season, that statistic jumped to almost 60 points. Even more telling was that their point differential went from +14.7 in Coach Tillett’s last year as the defensive coordinator to -7.2 in 2020. That represented a significant drop off. It may not be the only reason for the Mids’ decline, but it’s just too big a factor to ignore.
It’s more difficult to assess Coach Tillett’s impact with respect to recruiting. For that, we would need to know specifically which players she brought to Navy. But what we do know is that Coach Pemper promoted Tillett to recruiting coordinator about two years after she was hired. So it’s reasonable to assume that she convinced some pretty talented athletes to come play at Annapolis. The bottom line is that Coach Tillett had a big impact and her departure created a huge hole in the program.
A Tough Reality
Unfortunately, the thin talent in 2020 was too much for Coach Pemper to overcome. There may have been other unknown factors in play that resulted in Gladchuk going in a different direction. After all, Coach Pemper averaged nearly 18 wins a season. She also she had a winning record against Army (including a win this year) to go along with those trips to the NCAA and NIT tournaments.
Still, the suddenness with which the program had come apart was alarming. It looked very similar to what happened with the men’s team almost 20 years earlier. Gladchuk may have felt he waited too long in that situation, and didn’t want things to go that far this time. The Navy Women had gone from a 25-8 record and a WNIT appearance in 2018 to winning a total of 17 games in the next two seasons combined. That’s pretty telling. But it still couldn’t have been an easy decision for Gladchuk to make. Once he did, it was all about finding a candidate who could return the program to where it was once again competing for championships. And with Coach Tim Taylor’s hiring, it looks like the Navy AD may have found his man.
A Different Kind of Coaching Search
I’ll bet that when Chet Gladchuk took the AD job at Navy, he never thought he’d have to hire a coach in the middle of a pandemic. Now he can add that to his list of accomplishments. The process came with it’s own unique set of challenges. Number one on the list had to be the inability to talk the coaching candidates in person. I get the fact that we have Zoom, Google Hangouts and a host of other video conferencing platforms. Those are fine when you know the person. But whether I was interviewing for a job or interviewing someone else for a position, I always preferred to meet in person. There is no substitute for that live interaction. But Gladchuk mentioned that despite having to conduct a virtual interview, he made a very strong connection with Coach Taylor.
When the coaching search was under way, Mitchell Northam from the Against All Enemies sports blog put forward three candidates for the Navy Women’s Basketball job. That listed included Rebecca Tillett, who had just finished her second season coaching at Longwood. I’ve got to believe that Gladchuk gave her consideration. Assuming he did, Tillett had a pretty good thing going in Farmville. The Lancers program was clearly on the rise. And given her strengths in the recruiting and player development, there is no telling where Coach Tillett could take the program after getting through a couple more seasons, And it was that sense of unfinished business that I think would have kept her at Longwood.
Northam’s list included a couple other worthy candidates, but ultimately, Gladchuk went with Taylor. His strengths lined up exactly with what had been missing from the Navy women’s program the past two seasons.
Getting the Recruiting Edge Back
The Mids had experienced a significant talent gap towards the end of Stefanie Pemper’s tenure. It’s difficult to explain how that happened given their recent success. But it was clear that things were much more competitive on the recruiting trail. So the first priority had to be correcting that situation as quickly as possible.
Throughout his career, Coach Taylor ‘s ability to connect with players had made him a top notch recruiter. While he was at Furman, he brought in a top 40 recruiting class within his first two years with the program. He later moved on to become an assistant at the University of Virginia. And during his time there, his efforts resulted in back to back top 15 recruiting classes. The Cavaliers also made five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
So there’s no doubt that Coach Taylor has what it takes to recruit players with the talent necessary to make the Mids going competitive again. It’s true that he’s been focused on athletes who can play in the ACC. Clearly, the Naval Academy can’t realistically swim in that pool. But the most important thing is that Taylor knows how to spot talent at any level. And it’s his other strong skill that I believe is going to make him very successful as the Navy Women’s Basketball coach.
Recruit and Develop
Coaching legend Debbie Ryan was the only head coach of the University of Virginia Women’s Basketball team had ever known until her retirement in 2011. She had this high praise for Coach Taylor in a press release following his hiring. “The Naval Academy hit this one out of the park with the selection of Tim Taylor to lead their women’s basketball program. Tim is an exceptional coach who excels as a tactician, fundamental teacher of the game and develops players well beyond what seems possible for each individual.”
The bold emphasis is mine in the quote. I pointed out that specific phrase because I think it’s what will be the difference maker with Coach Taylor. I’ve used the metaphor of the undervalued stock before. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Taylor can not only identify talent, he can also see the potential a player has to perform beyond what was thought to be possible. That’s a formula for success at any program, but it’s especially important at the Naval Academy, where odds of recruiting a five star player are next to impossible. There is always that possibility that they can be developed into a player far better than the one that arrived though.
Coach Taylor has shown he can get a significant return on his investment when it comes to the players he recruits. And in an interview with Brianna Sorensen, I learned a couple more things that told me he was the right coach for the job.
The Big Picture
Chet Gladchuk faces a number of challenges during a coaching search. One of the biggest ones is finding the individual who understands that coaching at the Naval Academy is just going to be a different experience. The Mids aren’t just athletes. And to call them student athletes isn’t entirely accurate either. They are student athletes training for military service. And coaches at the Academy have to understand that delicate balance. Those who understand that coming in (or figure it out early) have a chance to be very successful. Those that struggle with it usually wind up having a tough time.
In the Breanna Sorensen interview, she asked Coach Taylor what interested him the most about the Navy Women’s Basketball job when it was posted. He replied that it had to be about more than just the sport, saying, ” . . . I have to be at an institution that provides value beyond basketball.” And even more to the point, he needed a good answer to the question, ” . . . When the basketball is over, what are you selling?”
As soon as I heard those words, I said to myself, “This coach gets it.” Taylor understands Naval Academy coaches owe more to their players than just developing them as athletes. So he is already ahead of the curve when it comes to his transition.
Some Final Thoughts
Based on what I’ve learned, Navy fans have good reason to be excited about the upcoming women’s basketball season. Coach Taylor’s interview is just under 11 minutes long, but it’s definitely worth watching. The first half will give you a really good sense of what he is all about. Another comment that got my attention was when he was asked about his biggest takeaways from other successful programs. He said that it’s important to understand that decisions should not be based solely on winning. They need to be based on what’s in the best interests of the program. He’s right. Ultimately, that’s what provides the stability needed for any program to be successful.
And finally, Coach Taylor shared one other aspect about being a good coach. It has to do with having a servant leadership mentality from the top down. That means taking the time to build relationships throughout the entire program and doing all the little things; right down to picking up the trash if necessary. That convinced me even more that the Navy Women’s basketball program is in very good hands. I can’t wait for next season to start.
Until next time . . .