Commentary

Washington era off to good start at Penn State

Updated: December 12, 2007, 12:51 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Born in Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 30, 1989, Penn State freshman Julia Trogele entered the world in the city still partitioned east from west by the infamous wall separating ideologies and splintering families. Nine months later, it was gone. All of which is a roundabout way of suggesting every epoch ends and every wall eventually crumbles under either the weight of time or circumstances.

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/John BealeHired in April, Coquese Washington wasn't able to work with her new team on the court until this fall. But already Penn State has scored a win over a top-10 team (Duke on Dec. 2).

So for at least the second time in her life, Trogele found herself an unwitting statistical spectator to regime change when she and the rest of the Lady Lions opened fall practice under the watchful eye of first-year coach Coquese Washington.

A longtime WNBA veteran and assistant coach on Muffet McGraw's staff at Notre Dame, Washington was charged with rebuilding Penn State's competitive profile on the court and its tarnished image off the court after Rene Portland resigned in March with a legacy that included both 606 wins at the school and persistent allegations of discriminatory behavior.

So far, so good in a new era for State College.

For the first time in several seasons, the narrative of Penn State women's basketball is actually focused on basketball. But if early indications, including an 86-84 statement win against Duke on Dec. 2, are any indication, there will still be plenty to talk about locally and nationally with Washington on the sideline -- even if it's still a work in progress.

"I really enjoy our team; they're a very enthusiastic bunch," Washington said. "We're still learning each other. They're learning me, I'm learning them, how they respond to prosperity, how they respond to adversity."

Amidst all the learning, Washington is also learning how to run a program for the first time, although she credits McGraw's willingness to delegate to her assistants at Notre Dame, as well as tips from peers like Northern Illinois' Carol Owens, Oregon State's LaVonda Wagner and Oklahoma's Sherri Coale, for softening the learning curve.

There are more demands on the new coach's time from players, fans and media, a reality that takes some getting used to for someone who describes herself as the task-oriented type who likes to head to the office and start checking things off her to-do list. But the basketball side of the equation remains distinctly familiar. After all, it's difficult to come up with unfamiliar on-court scenarios for the only person ever to hold college and WNBA championships simultaneously, as she did as a point guard for the Houston Comets in 2000 and an assistant at Notre Dame in 2001. And while Washington might not have prior experience as a head coach, she is at the forefront of a generation of female coaches, like Dawn Staley at Temple, whose unparalleled on-court experience at the professional level gives them a perspective that some of their more established peers don't possess.

"I think it's helped me because I had a tremendous experience and learning experience with Muffet McGraw as a coach, but I also had the privilege of playing for Nell Fortner and Van Chancellor and Richie Adubato, who coached in the NBA for a lot of years," Washington said. "And from having that experience as a player, being able to understand what works and doesn't work as a player, I'm not that far removed from receiving information as a player and having to take it in and go out there and play."

At practice the day before the Duke game, Washington grew tired of watching her players fall back on their heels while looking for passing lanes from the perimeter. Even as she barked rebukes, she grabbed a ball and mimicked their quasi-limbo backward movements before snapping her elbows up and stepping aggressively toward the target to clear the passing lane. It's do as she says and as she does.

[+] EnlargeCoquese Washington
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMICoach Coquese Washington and Penn State upset then-No. 10 Duke last season. But the league needs more marquee wins to restore its reputation in 2008-09.

"Many of our players, they've seen me play," Washington said. "So I think that adds just a little bit more of a touch of credibility when I can say, 'Look, do it this way; it works. I'm telling you it works.' And they kind of listen.

And even though I don't practice with them all the time, I'm still kind of young enough and in shape enough to actually get out there and show them live -- this is how you attack the zone or this is how you come off the screen. And again, I think that kind of gives them, in their eyes, 'OK, she really knows what she's talking about; it's not just some textbook stuff that doesn't work.'"

Not that Washington is above utilizing some tried-and-true, old-school coaching techniques to get her message across when kids act like kids -- methods that involve her blowing a whistle instead of blowing by someone off the dribble.

"I think you have to lay the hammer down," Washington said. "I'd love to say that they are these new-age kids, but nah, you have to blow the whistle, get 'em on the line and run 'em until they want to puke … and I have absolutely no problem doing that."

Hired away from her alma mater in late April, Washington didn't have an opportunity to work with her new team on the court until this fall.

"We watched the film as a staff," Washington said of her summer preparations. "We watched all the games from last year, but I didn't want to prejudice them or myself, good or bad. I didn't want to say, 'OK, well this is a person who didn't play at all last year, she must not be very good.' Or somebody who played a lot of minutes, they must be great at X, Y and Z. I didn't want to put them in a box. I wanted to give them an opportunity to invent themselves for me and show me what they can do, what they are good at."

What she found when she did get the team on the court was a cupboard that was far from bare, despite last season's 15-16 record that included just two wins away from home. Tyra Grant, last season's leading scorer, is an agile slasher with the range to keep defenders honest and a maturing offensive game. She shot 37 percent from the floor last season as a freshman, but she was at 49.5 percent from the field through the team's first 10 games this season. Sophomore Brianne O'Rourke, who finished with 23 points, eight assists and one turnover against Duke, is potentially the next in a succession of four-year starters at point guard for Penn State and is the linchpin in one part of Washington's philosophy.

"We want to score in transition," Washington said. "We want to be a team that's going to put the pressure on you to get back and stop us in transition. And we've got to become a better rebounding team. I really believe that rebounding is, if not the biggest key, certainly one of probably the two biggest keys to how successful you'll be on the court."

There is still work to be done. Four days after the big win against Duke at home, Penn State lost by 19 points at Syracuse, a result which dropped the Lady Lions to 1-3 on the road this season (7-3 overall). But with Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue all in some state of flux, the Big Ten race appears to be wide open, meaning the Lady Lions have time to find their groove.

"I think the team in the Big Ten that gets on a run and finds … its rhythm and finds its flow and confidence might be the team that comes out of the Big Ten conference on top," Washington said. "And it could be one of -- you look at our conference -- one of six or seven teams, which is good for us because there is no pressure to be perfect."

Perfection isn't something Penn State approached in any sense of the word in recent years, but it's a program that wrote a lot of positive history before so much of the bad bubbled to the surface. And Washington, who diplomatically praised her predecessor for both that success and Portland's role in promoting gender equity, wants to restore those laudable parts of the program's legacy. The rest might never be forgotten, but it will eventually fade away into history, like the rubble of a wall reclaimed by the world around it.

"I want us to be one of the nation's elite programs," Washington said. "And we certainly were there at one time and I think we can get back there. … And I want us to be a program that is proud of having overcome the adversity, the controversy that we experienced the last couple of years. There's no shame in that.

"There's no shame in having to deal with issues and coming out of that. And that's what we talk to our players about, that life is not about how easy it is; life is about how you respond to challenges, how you respond when things don't go your way, how you respond when things are tough."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.