Women’s basketball coach Tricia Cullop and the University of Toledo were both searching for something the other could offer in April, 2008.
Cullop, in answering to four athletic directors and two university presidents during eight seasons at Evansville, sought stability from administration. Toledo wanted a coach whose leadership could guide the program back to success and rekindle community interest.
On the eve of the start to Cullop’s sixth season, the marriage remains strong. The three-time Mid-American Conference coach of the year boasts a 125-44 record and has more than doubled home attendance since her arrival.
The Blade obtained documents on the 2008 coaching search through the open records act and learned the input of two former Rockets elevated Cullop to the top of a list of 73 applicants.
Varsity T Hall of Fame members Kelly Savage and Jane Roman were members of a five-person search committee headed by senior associate athletic director Kelly Andrews. They brought in six candidates for interviews: Assistant coaches Kelley Meury (Ohio State), Katie Abrahamson-Henderson (Washington), and Keila Whittington (Marist), and head coaches Sal Buscaglia (Robert Morris), Stephanie Gaitley (Long Island), and Cullop.
The talent pool was deep. Abrahamson-Henderson, now in her fourth season as head coach at Albany, guided teams to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Gaitley, currently at Fordham, has tallied 502 wins in 27 seasons as a head coach. Buscaglia is 126-88 entering his 11th season at Robert Morris.
Notables who applied but did not interview included two basketball luminaries from the area: Former Rockets standout Steve Mix, who is now head coach at Trine University, and Scott graduate Melvin Newbern, who played briefly in the NBA in 1992-93 with the Detroit Pistons.
Also expressing interest were two coaches who accepted head jobs that offseason in the Mid-American Conference — Kelly Packard (Ball State) and Semeka Randall (Ohio). Both have since left. Karl Smesko, who is 288-56 in 11 seasons at Florida Gulf Coast, also applied, as did current Eastern Michigan coach Tory Verdi.
Cullop, whose Evansville team was bounced from the Women’s National Invitation Tournament three weeks earlier, flew to Toledo on Sunday, April 13, for an interview the following day. She stayed at the Hilton hotel where she met Andrews for breakfast at 8 a.m., marking the first of five meetings Cullop had with athletic department members before noon. Meetings took place in the press tower of the Glass Bowl because of the renovation to Savage Arena.
“It was a good time to make a change,” Cullop said this week, adding that she interviewed at Memphis earlier that offseason. “When I was an assistant at Xavier we played Toledo, and I remember an amazing crowd and it being so impressive. I was taken aback when I saw how pretty campus was.”
Among the first questions Cullop asked Andrews was, “How long are you going to stay?” Andrews, in her 11th year, and athletic director Mike O’Brien, in his 12th, have become the higher-up stability Cullop coveted in changing jobs.
Details are fuzzy, but it is believed Cullop interviewed last or second-to-last among the six finalists.
“I liked that she was a head coach,” Andrews said. “That wasn’t absolutely required, but we thought that was a really critical component in terms of making decisions and being the ultimate decision-maker. She had been competitively successful and increased attendance at Evansville. She had progressively been the bottom-line person responsible.”
Roman, who played and coached at Toledo from 1989 to 1997, admired Cullop’s work habits at offseason recruiting events and thus gave special attention to her resume.
“We’d be at camps and AAU tournaments together, and you can tell in any profession people who are dedicated,” said Roman, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. “She was the first into the gym and the last out of the gym.”
Search committee members were responsible for asking candidates predetermined questions. Roman asked about Cullop’s emphasis on academics. Savage, a 1997 Hall of Fame inductee, inquired about Cullop’s course of action for engaging the local community, as well as her vision for the program in three years.
“Her vision was to make sure she wasn’t looking past the kids that were there,” Savage said. “She wanted to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the current kids and recruit to fill the voids. She knew she was going to need a point guard, and she wanted to get the best local talent.”
Shortly after she was hired, Cullop visited Savage at her home with a video of a point guard from Israel. Naama Shafir ended up being a four-time All-MAC selection and arguably the most popular player in program history.
Cullop’s first team finished 18-13, ending a five-year run of losing records under former coach Mark Ehlen. The Rockets in the four seasons since are among 14 Division I teams to post at least 24 wins.
“Tricia was my No. 1 pick,” said Savage, who also liked Gaitley, the Long Island head coach. “They wanted us to come up with two or three. I said I can give a recommendation for two, but I also have a No. 1. I wasn’t afraid to express that.”
On April 17, three days after Cullop interviewed, Andrews sent an email to Samuel Hancock, assistant to the president for institutional diversity, asking permission to offer the job to Cullop at a starting salary of $180,000. Toledo announced its new coach 11 days later.
Cullop’s sixth season begins at home this weekend with the Glass City Tournament. The Rockets play defending WNIT champion Drexel on Saturday and either Villanova or Mississippi Valley State the following day.
Cullop resents talk that her team is rebuilding, suggesting instead they are reloading because “I don’t feel like we’re at the bottom.” The Rockets, who captured at least a share of the past four West division titles, are picked third after graduating the winningest class in program history.
Cullop won’t say where she voted her team — only that it wasn’t first or second — but that she believes the potential exists to squash expectations.
Of Toledo’s elusive quest to make the NCAA tournament, Cullop said, “I’m hoping sometime in the near future we can take care of that.”
Her teams are 0-4 in the semifinal round of the MAC tournament and 0-1 in finals appearances.
“She’ll get it done,” Savage said. “When that is, I’m not that smart. I’m not in the world of coaching. But I’ll bet on her every day.”