USC women's basketball icon Cynthia Cooper huddles with the Women of Troy. Her first season as the team's head coach tips off Friday on the road at UC Davis. (Photo by Pierson Clair/USC Sports Information)
USC women's basketball icon Cynthia Cooper huddles with the Women of Troy. Her first season as the team's head coach tips off Friday on the road at UC Davis. (Photo by Pierson Clair/USC Sports Information)

Toughness, finishing, are keys to Cynthia Cooper's campaign to bring glory days back to USC

November 7, 2013 - 2:53am

LOS ANGELES -- The USC women's basketball team is scattered around the court, players waiting at their assigned stations. "Basketball is about angles," first-year head coach Cynthia Cooper tells them.

Then she turns to the player in front of her -- sophomore guard Jordan Adams.

Adams is in the triple-threat position, standing off to the right of the key with the ball, but facing almost entirely away from the hoop. Cooper tells her to turn more toward the basket, and Adams quickly makes the adjustment. As she does, Cooper takes up the position of a defender in front of her.

"Yeah!" says Cooper, nodding. "Now I'm scared of you. Not when you're turned the other way."

The coach may be new in her job, but her players are inclined to listen carefully to the Women's Basketball Hall of Famer, whose images hang prominently in the lobby of Galen Center. Many consider her among the best women ever to play the game.

The basketball great, who returned to her alma mater in April to take  the reins of the Trojan program, had begun practice by announcing that the team was in "finishing school" that day.

"Who's a finisher?" she asked emphatically. "What you got, guards and posts?"

Later, as Cooper's voice pushed them through a timed three-weave drill, she punctuated missed baskets with "You've got to finish!" and "You've got to believe!"

Cooper's emphasis on fundamentals, her detailed instruction -- peppered with dimes of knowledge throughout practices -- and her ability to motivate have been a hit so far with the success-starved USC team, who have underperformed in recent years. The Women of Troy last appeared in the NCAA tournament in 2006, though they made it to the championship game of the WNIT in 2011. After the 2013 USC squad went 11-20 overall, finished seventh in the Pac-12 with a 7-11 record, fourth-year head coach Michael Cooper (no relation) was sent packing.

"Everybody's really excited to come to practice," junior guard Kiki Alofaituli said. "That's what we need is the details, and we already learned so much after just a few practices."

Their coach was also pleased with what she has seen.

"Every player wants to get better, and these players are very eager to get better," Cooper said. "They've been like sponges, absorbing all of the information and the tutelage that the coaching staff is giving them."

"I have a lot of talent and we have a lot of good kids. This is a situation where everyone wants this team to succeed, and wants this program to be successful. These kids -- and I call them all my kids -- they are fantastic, and they've done everything we've asked them to do."

Cooper's warm embrace by athletes, USC fans and alumni has been no surprise, considering her long and successful basketball resume. She is a throwback to the golden era of Trojan women's basketball -- a pinnacle to which the University would like to return.

As a player, Cooper, now 50, helped USC win back-to-back national titles in 1983 and 1984, and was part of USA Basketball's gold medal-winning 1988 Olympic team in Seoul, Korea. She played professionally in Europe, and then won four consecutive WNBA championships with the Houston Comets.

After retiring, Cooper served a brief stint as the coach of the Phoenix Mercury's coach, then spent the last eight years coaching mid-major college basketball, first at Prairie View A&M, then at North Carolina-Wilmington, and most recently, at Texas Southern University. In each case, Cooper succeeded in resuscitating an ailing program. Prairie View had never had a winning season before Cooper took over. In her five-year tenure there (2006-10), she recorded an 86-72 record, three Southwestern Athletic Conference conference titles and four post-season appearances despite the burden of two years of scholarship reductions and probation, NCAA sanctions arising out of violations that occurred in her first year with the program. The NCAA found those violations were the result of the school's failure to educate the rookie coach about NCAA rules.

Moving on to UNC-Wilmington in 2011, Cooper took over a team had gone 12-19 the prior season (6-12 in league play), and turned it around. Her 2011 Seahawks went 24-9 overall, finishing second in the Colonial Athletic Association at 14-4, winning 11 consecutive home games, and setting a school record for victories. They reached the semifinals of the CAA Tournament, and in the school's first-ever post-season appearance, advanced to the second round of the WNIT. Cooper was honored as the 2011 CAA Coach of the Year. In 2012, her team posted its second consecutive 20-win season (20-13), again made it to the CAA tourney semis after going 11-7 in league play, and notched another WNIT invitation.

Cooper once again worked her magic at Texas Southern. Taking over at program that had gone 5-26 the previous year, Cooper guided the 2013 Lady Tigers to a 20-12 overall finish and their first-ever regular-season SWAC championship with a 16-2 record in conference play, representing 14 more league wins than in 2012. TSU advanced to the SWAC Tournament's semifinals and earned its first-ever WNIT berth, setting school records for season victories (20) and consecutive wins (15) along the way.

Cooper said she was content at TSU, but after Michael Cooper resigned, her alma mater came calling. It was an offer Cooper simply could not refuse.

USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinl headed the search committee for a new women's basketball coach. "I wanted someone who resonated, connected and understood the Southern California community," Heinl said. "I wanted someone who had a history of turning around programs, who had an edge, and who understood Los Angeles."

Cooper's personality rounded out the rest of the bill.

"The other thing I needed was toughness," Heinl said. "We need toughness in our team and their ability to finish. I don't know any tougher competitor than Cynthia."

That fortitude is reflected in Cooper's coaching style, which is both demanding and affirming. She said she is big on motivation because it ultimately leads to success.

"I want to motivate them to do what they're supposed to do in the classroom as well as what they're supposed to do on this basketball court, and really allow them -- teach them -- to get to a place I don't even think they believe they can get to," Cooper said.

"And that's all about feeling confident and me infusing them with the passion that I have for this wonderful, wonderful awesome game of women's basketball."

Toughness was required of Cooper early on, growing up in South Los Angeles. Her talents got her to USC, but she left the program briefly to take a job and support her family. Coach Linda Sharp went to her work place and convinced her to come back.

Cooper was 34 years old when the WNBA was launched. But beginning in the league's first season, she lead the Comets to four consecutive WNBA titles and was named named Finals MVP each time. She was also the league's leading scorer for three consecutive years before retiring after the 2000 season.

Kelley Gibson, who played for Houston from 2000-2004, said that even as a player, Cooper was also a coach.

"She was constantly coaching on the floor, during practices and games," Gibson said. "She has a great understanding of the game, is a natural teacher, and wanted to help us all out. She took many of us under her wing, including myself. She showed me the way."

Gibson, now an assistant coach at Syracuse, called "dynamic," and an impeccable example to others.

"Your best players have to be your hardest workers, and she was always in the facility two hours before practice started, shooting or working on other things," Gibson said.

Cooper's other teammates are similarly unsurprised at her coaching success. Rhonda Windham, who played with her at USC, said that Cooper was a competitor who played every chance she got.

"She grew up playing on courts with boys, commenting as she went about what she was going to do to you and how she was going to do it," Windham said. "She is a true basketball junkie."

WNBA veteran Tina Thompson, a fellow USC alumni who played with Cooper in Houston, called her former teammate a great ambassador of the game.

"I can't think of anyone better to take over the program at USC," Thompson said.

Cooper is aware of the angst that has surrounded the Trojan program the last few years, by alumni and fans who feel the team has underachieved. But she has taken a systematic approach to her new position.

"My number one step was to put their minds at ease that I'm not coming in here trying to prove anything," she said. "That I want to help, I want to get people better, I want to teach and I want to motivate. I'm not here to judge, I'm not here to judge the previous staff, I'm not here to judge the players. I'm here to help and mentor and teach."

Watching Cooper lead a practice is a lesson in motivation. She pushes hard, but is just as quick to offer praise when earned.

"I love motivating people - I love it," she said. "It's one of the things we've lost in this society is caring about yourself. I don't care about me as much as I care about getting these young women to where they want to be in life and in basketball. Your legacy is the next person that carries that torch."

"I'm really big on motivation. I grew up in the inner city and went to a private university and went on to accomplish some things in my career. I want the same things for my players."

Her approach is one day at a time.

"My goals are to get better," Cooper said. "We want to just get better every game, and we want to take one game at a time. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. I don't have a goal to win a title - we just want to get better every single day, one game at a time."

Players have responded well to the approach.

"She's a really good 'back to the basics' coach," senior forward Cassie Harberts said. "She's really energetic and it's obvious she loves being here. She bleeds cardinal and gold."

Cooper is aware that the distractions young people now have make her job more challenging.

"I don't think the most kids today had to make the same sacrifices that I did when I was younger," she said. "We didn't have the X-Box, the iPad or anything like that. We had to get out and work."

Cooper's three assistant coaches, who all reflect her enthusiasm and motivational ability, bring a wealth of experience to help with her mission. Evan Unrau, a holdover from the Michael Cooper era, is popular with Trojan athletes. Jualeah Woods, a longtime assistant and associate head coach at San Diego State University, is also a USC alumni. Brandy Manning was an assistant and associate head coach at Arizona before joining Cooper at USC.

All four coaches participate in practice drills, and their personalities seem to compliment each other. Cooper and Manning are very verbal, while Unrau and Woods are highly technical and more on the quiet side.

"Each coach has their own thing that they bring to the table. They are a great fit for each other," Harberts said. "They also listen to each other."

The result seems to be a team culture of respect.

"All the coaches have the same role and meaning to us," Alofaituli said. "Our whole team likes each one of them. Their personalities balance out, and don't contradict."

The Trojans worked on strength and conditioning, team building and fundamentals all summer long. They popped up at a couple of Los Angeles Sparks games over the summer to promote themselves. Now, with the season just two days away, a buzz is building.

Heinl said she is very confident in Cooper's ability to lead the program. But she said if a Trojan legacy is to be rebuilt, it will be in a new form.

"These girls have been pushed to uphold a legacy, but this generation is about owning their own program," Heinl said. "It's all about history here, but you can't always look behind - you have to look forward. It's about their program and where they're going to take it."