‘I just set out to win the next game.’ Barbara Stevens reflects on a Hall of Fame career
Before the first bricks in a Hall of Fame career were laid, Barbara Stevens had a decision to make.
It was 1986. She had just finished her third year as the women’s basketball coach at UMass. She didn’t have the kind of success she would have liked in Amherst. But she still saw unlimited possibilities for her future in coaching.
She had an interview lined up at a small school in Waltham, a Division 2 school. She had heard the name Bentley before. There already was a history of winning. But moving from a Division 1 school to Division 2 still felt like a step down.
On the drive from Western Mass., Stevens stopped in Southbridge to visit her parents. She was honest with them.
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Is this really what I want to do? I mean, I’ll go out and listen to them,’ ” Stevens said. “I almost had my mind made up that I wasn’t going to go.”
Her parents listened. They knew they could give her advice but that Stevens would make her own choice.
“Their whole thing was, ‘Just go and listen. Just go and talk to them,’ ” Stevens said.
The second she stepped on the Bentley campus, she realized how perfect the fit would be. Thirty-three years and 882 wins later, Stevens has become the matriarch of a Bentley women’s program that’s synonymous with winning.
From the euphoria of winning a national championship in 2014, to the hard-earned milestone of capturing her 1,000th overall win in January 2018, Stevens is cemented in women’s basketball history. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. She was among the finalists for this year’s Naismith Hall of Fame class but was not selected.
“I never set out to win 1,000, I just set out to win the next game,” Stevens said. “That’s all that was important. I realize so much how lucky I’ve been and how I’ve been fortunate to coach the type of student-athletes I’ve coached, to be surrounded by the kind of assistants I’ve been surrounded by, to have taken advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to us.”
Stevens’s peer group speaks for itself. She’s one of just five coaches in women’s college basketball history to reach 1,000 wins. She’s in rarefied air with women’s basketball royalty: Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Sylvia Hatchell, and Tara VanDerveer. Each turned a program into an institution. But Stevens pointed to another common thread. They all broke into coaching in the 1970s, when Title IX was in its infancy. Summitt broke through at Tennessee in 1974, two years after Title IX was passed. VanDerveer got her start at Idaho in 1978. Auriemma didn’t arrive at UConn until 1985, but his first coaching job was as an assistant at Saint Joseph’s in 1978. Hatchell was the junior varsity coach at Tennessee in 1974.
Stevens’s first opportunity came right after graduating from Bridgewater State, a part-time assistant coaching job at Clark University that turned into a full-time head coaching job.
“It was kind of a groundbreaking time,” Stevens said. “Increased emphasis on women’s sports. I don’t think at the time I realized we weren’t getting the same treatment of equipment, gym time, etc. But when I look back on it, absolutely. When I first started coaching at Clark, we had to practice oftentimes in what was called the women’s gym at Clark. It was a gym floor and there were baskets, but there were poles in the middle of the room. You have to be very careful. Teaches you to keep your head up, let me say that.
“What was one way to counteract that, I guess, was to make yourselves relevant and say, ‘OK, this team’s going to succeed, they should get a little bit more of our attention and our help.’ I think that’s what I set out to do when I was a young coach — to just coach my teams and work with our players and impact the young women as best I could, but to understand the point that we have to make ourselves known, we have to do something special in order for those powers that be to take notice. It’s not something I think about every day, but I think it’s important because I think as women what you do gets qualified, particularly in sports. ‘Oh, well, it’s a women’s game. The competition is so much different than the men’s game.’ Correct, we do play two different games. But it should not diminish what you’re doing in that context.”
Stevens is allergic to the spotlight. There was a time when she tried to pattern herself after the big-name coaches of her era, such as Bobby Knight. She realized that wasn’t who she was.
“You have to do what makes you comfortable in the sense that you feel like you’re relating to your players,” she said. “Just be yourself.”
In every way, the Bentley program is made in her image. Team first. Substance over flash. And, of course, the zip-tuck rule.
“T-shirts are tucked in, warm-ups are zipped,” Stevens said.
It’s an image that C White looked up to as a child and made her want to wear a Bentley jersey.
“When I grew up, there was no UConn or Tennessee at the time,” White said. “It was Bentley-Stonehill. That was the thing. Bentley-Stonehill was it.”
White started two years at point guard under Stevens before joining her staff in 2001. As a player and a coach, White can identify players who fit the program’s identity.
“You’ve got to find a Bentley kid,” she said. “People that really know our program and coaches that have worked in the region at our camps for years and years, they’ll be at events and they’ll be like, ‘There’s a Bentley kid on Court 5.’ I’ll go and see and I’ll know exactly what they’re talking about.
“It’s this kid that makes you watch her because she works so hard. If the ball goes out of bounds, she’s the first to go get it even though she’s dying to go give it to the ref. They stand out. It’s a very small niche to find that right kid and when you find them, it’s my job to go as hard as I can to make sure that they come here.”
The attraction was the same for Christiana Bakolas, the starting point guard on Bentley’s national championship team and now an assistant coach.
“When I saw it, I just wanted to be it,” Bakolas said. “It was a product that I was dying to be a part of. I wanted to have a piece of the women’s basketball legacy because it was so successful, it was so highly regarded.”
The collection of trimmed nets hanging from the bookshelves in Stevens’s office is impossible to miss. The team keeps a special set of gold scissors downstairs in the Dana Center.
Success has been a standard at Bentley, but the model has been unwavering consistency and relentless work ethic. Winning matters — it always will — but for every victory Stevens can remember being up in the middle of the night during a summer camp making sure the kids were all in their rooms, or the days at UMass when her coaching staff took it upon itself to buy carpet, cut it, and lay it down to give its office a touch-up.
“Stuff like that you do to just try to make something better, to build pride in your program,” Stevens said. “It’s all woven into the same fabric, the highs and the lows,” Stevens said. “What I like to say about this job is you might have a plan for the day and one phone call or one kid at the door sends you in the entire opposite direction. But I like that. That’s what makes this job what it is. It’s about fixing things, it’s about helping people. It’s about if somebody comes in with a problem or needs something, I’m going to do whatever I can to assist, to fix the problem, to send them to the right people to do what’s necessary. I like that.”
There are still more games to win. More nets to cut. But Stevens also can look back at what she was able to build.
“Now as I’m getting towards the latter part of my career, I do think about the things that we’ve been able to put in place that I feel really good about,” Stevens said. “The next coach that takes over, I hope it’s going to be a place where they can walk in and things will be kind of laid out for them. Certainly, put their own mark on the program, but at the same time you’ve got a pretty good foundation that I hope will be set.”