Team turnarounds are Carol Ross's coaching calling card

December 5, 2013 - 5:55pm
Head coach Carol Ross received a multi-year contract extension after guiding the Los Angeles Sparks back from the league's basement to the top of the pack in her first two seasons at the helm. The Sparks are just the latest in the series of team turnarounds for which the veteran coach has become renowned. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Head coach Carol Ross received a multi-year contract extension after guiding the Los Angeles Sparks back from the league's basement to the top of the pack in her first two seasons at the helm. The Sparks are just the latest in the series of team turnarounds for which the veteran coach has become renowned. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Sparks have signed head coach Carol Ross to a multi-year contract extension, the team's executive vice president and general manager Penny Toler announced Thursday. Pursuant to team policy, the terms of the deal were not made public.

Ross has made a career out of turning around stagnant and ailing teams and the Sparks have been no exception. In 2011, the year prior to Ross's arrival, Los Angeles, one of the league's keystone franchises since the WNBA was founded in 1997, had finished in the red, with a 15-19 record, second-last in the WNBA's Western Conference, and out of the playoffs for just the second time since 1999. In her first two seasons at the helm of the Sparks, Ross has led her team to back-to-back 24-10 regular-season records and second-place finishes in the West. In her first season as head coach, Ross not only guided the team back to the playoffs, but to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1999. The dramatic nine-win improvement, the second largest turnaround in franchise history and one of the biggest in leauge history, earned Ross 2012 WNBA Coach of the Year honors.  Last season's repeat trip to the playoffs set a WNBA record with the 13th playoff appearance for the franchise.

Still, both Ross and Toler have their eyes on a higher prize.

“Carol is a dynamic coach who has her sights and goals set on bringing Los Angeles a championship team,” said Toler.  “She is a proven leader who knows what this team needs to win; having her back as the Sparks head coach brings us one step closer to the ultimate win this season, the 2014 WNBA Championship.”

“I am thrilled to be returning to the Sparks as head coach,” said Ross.  “The roster Penny Toler built is extremely solid with its combined talent, depth and competitive drive to win. As a team, our goal has always been to win another WNBA Championship. I am excited to return and continue leading that drive to bring the WNBA trophy back to Los Angeles for the fans, organization and city.”

The plain-spoken Southerner is popular with players, fans and the press alike. Her coaching philosphy is built around heavy doses of the basics -- hard work, discpline and defense, defense, defense. “I would hope that any team that I have the opportunity to influence – and that will be the Sparks now – that they are going to play very hard, they’re going to play for each other, and they’re going to play with a lot of enthusiasm and passion," Ross told Full Court when she took over the reins in LA. "I can tell you that whoever is ... wearing the Sparks uniform, they will play hard, and they will play with great passion and they're going to compete very hard every night."

Apart from all the records and stats, one of Ross's greatest achievements in Los Angeles has been to install an up-tempo running game. A veritable revolving door of coaches had promised to do just that since the retirement of Sparks' great Lisa Leslie at the end of the 2009 season, only to watch the team fall into a stagnant half-court game, settling for jump shots more often than not. Only Ross has made demonstrable progress in picking up the pace and aggressiveness of this team.

"You know, I’ve never coached a player yet who didn’t want to run except maybe a 6-8 post player," Ross explained. "But even they don’t mind it because they usually start the break with a rebound. But you know, talk is cheap, action speaks. ... The willingness to run … it’s very difficult to be a running team. It’s much easier to walk it down and run it around a couple of times. It takes great commitment. It takes great energy. It takes a lot of hard work.

"Again it goes back to my ability to inspire players to do things they typically don’t want to do, which is to get their fannies down in an defensive stance, play it, play it hard, play it until you get possession of the ball and go quickly to the other end," Ross continued. "So it will still be right back in my lap to put them in a position to be successful. If that means running, then we have to play defense to do that. And again, I believe that I have the ability to inspire people to play defense, even in the WNBA when a lot of players don’t really enjoy it or want to do it. I still think I have the ability to make people do things that they don’t want to do because they ultimately want to win. They want to win and they want to have fun and they want to be the best that they can be. "

Ross has also shown that, together with Toler, she is capable of making the tough decisions required to build the kind of roster needed to return to the pinnacle the team reached when it took back-to-back WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002. When Ross came on board in 2012, both she and DeLisha Milton-Jones, who played under Ross as a Florida Gator, were delighted to be reunited. “I'm incredibly excited to play for her again," said Milton-Jones at the time. "She is the person who jump-started my career and intensified my passion for the game.” 

But just a year later, the aging veteran, who began her professional career with the Sparks in 1999 and spent much of her career as a starter for the team, returning to LA after a three-year break with the Washington Mystics as part of the ill-fated trade that had brought Chamique Holdsclaw to the Sparks, was sent packing. Milton-Jones's departure was needed to work 2012 Rookie of the Year Chiney Ogwumike into the starting rotation alongside 2013 MVP Candace Parker and a three-guard lineup that brought new speed to what had long been a post-dominated team. Milton-Jones landed first in San Antonio, but was waived in mid-August, then picked up by New York, where the former WNBA All Star spent the final weeks of the Liberty's dismal 2013 season coming off the bench for limited minutes in an 11-game string that saw 10 losses broken by just one win.

Still, while Ross can be tough when she needs to be, she sees herself as a "people person," who motivates her stable of elite, and at times tempermental athletes, primarily by appealing to their innate desire to win and to be the best that they can be.

"I'm a people person," she told Full Court.  "I love to teach. I love to inspire people. I love to watch people be better than they ever thought they could. I really believe I coach the heart, and the mind and the body will follow. I'm gonna to know these players, I'm gonna know what makes them tick. I'm gonna know what buttons to push. That's how I coach. Whether I was at Florida or Ole Miss or in Atlanta, or wherever, I've always approached it that way. I bring it every day. I'm high energy and I'm an old woman. So that's how I know that age has very little to do with energy. ...I coach very passionately. That's how I coach. I coach very passionately. I coach emotionally. I love to teach. I think that's why I think I've been fortunate enough to have people who respond to that."

Players and teams have indeed responded to Ross, and the Sparks are just the most recent beneficiaries of her motivational skills. The five-year WNBA coaching veteran spent her first three seasons in the league with Atlanta as an assistant coach, where she helped lead the Dream to the greatest and quickest success experienced by any of the league's expansion franchises. During her final two seasons with the team, she helped lead the Dream to consecutive 21-13 regular season records en route to two WNBA Finals appearances (2010, 2011).

“Carol [was] an integral part of our success in Atlanta, helping the Dream to three consecutive playoff appearances and two conference championships,” said Marynell Meadors, the Dream's head coach and general manager during Ross's tenure with the team. “She has a history of winning and will be a great fit in Los Angeles.”

Ross-Lehning Atlanta Sidelines Ross gives instructions t guard Shalee Lehning during a 2009 game in Atlanta where she spent three years as a coaching assistant. Many give her substantial credit for the Dream's near-instant success on the court. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Prior to joining the coaching ranks of the  WNBA, Ross amassed a 324-161 (.668) record in 16 seasons as an NCAA Division I head coach in the highly-competitive Southeastern Conference, guiding her teams to 12 NCAA Tournaments and two WNIT appearances.  Twelve of those seasons (1990-02) were spent at Florida, where Ross averaged over 20 victories per season and still stands as the winningest coach in school history with a 247-121 record. While atthe helm of the Gators, Ross picked up the first of her two SEC Coach of the Year awards (1997), and was twice a finalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year (2001, 2002). The Lady Gators – who had never received a bid to the NCAA Tournament before Ross arrived in Gainesville – appeared in nine NCAA Tournaments over her last 10 years as head of the program.

Arguably the Lady Gators’ finest season was 1996-97, when they reached the Elite Eight of the Big Dance and star forward Milton-Jones won the Wade Trophy as the best player in the country.  Florida achieved its first-ever top-10 national ranking that season, and finished among the nation’s top-25 in seven of Ross’ final nine seasons.

"Witty, warm, feisty and focused; colorful, caring, driven and distinctly southern, Ross has turned the Florida women's basketball program from one without spark into one with spunk by instilling in it personality -- her own," is how the GatorZone athletics website described Ross as she began what would be her final season at Florida.

Amanda Butler was a freshman at Florida during Ross's first year with the Gators, later served as an assistant coach under Ross for two seasons, and has since risen to succeed Ross as head coach at Florida, building upon the legacy of success Ross established there.

"Any time you hold the distinction of being the winningest coach in a program's history, that gives you an indication that you've done a lot of things right," Butler told Full Court. "When you look at the tradition that we have here at the University of Florida today, the players who have gone on to do great things as professionals and the success of the program, most of that is attributed to Carol Ross."

Three of the top-16 picks in the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft came from Ross's Gator program. A year later, Florida's Murriel Page was the No. 3 overall pick, and Milton-Jones joined the Sparks in 1999 as the No. 4 overall selection. Other notables coached by Ross at Florida include Merlakia Jones – a two-time All-Star and 2001 All-WNBA First Team performer, former Phoenix Mercury player and assistant coach Bridget Pettis and former Liberty and Sparks guard Sophia Witherspoon (2002-03). In total, 26 of Ross' former players and recruits continued their basketball careers at the professional level.

"The impact that Carol has had on those of us who played for her and had a chance to work for her as a coach is much more personal," said Butler. "She created an environment in Florida women's basketball that was much more than the record books. There were different ways of doing things, pride that had not existed before and a sense of togetherness that she brought and I believe that's why so many of us are still in contact with each other today. ... You see the success and all the quality people and great players who came through the program. Carol set a very high bar for my staff and me to reach what she did and hopefully exceed it."

From Florida, Ross, whose coaching résumé also includes two stints with USA Basketball where she served an assistant coach with the 2005 Under-19 World Championship team that won the gold medal as well as head coach of the 1998 USA Women’s Select Team that went 7-1,  moved on to a four-year run at her alma mater Ole Miss (2003-07). There she compiled a 77-50 (.606) coaching record and guided the Lady Rebels to two NCAA Tournaments and a pair of WNIT appearances.  In Ross’ first season, 2003-04, she led Mississippi back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1995-96 and earned SEC Co-Coach of the Year honors. Under Ross, Ole Miss reached the 20-win plateau in 2006-07 for the first time in more than a decade and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Guard Arminite Price played four years under Ross with the Lady Rebels, earning AP All-American honors as a senior en route to being selected third overall in the 2007 WNBA Draft by Chicago.  Price went on to claim WNBA Rookie of the Year accolades that season, and was reunited with Ross during the latter's three years in Atlanta.

Ross Player  Ole Miss Ross set records that still stand as a "pesky and tenacious guard" at Ole Miss from 1978-81. (Photo courtesy Ole Miss Media Relations)

Ross, a native of Oakland, Miss., set numerous records as a four-year starter for the Ole Miss Lady Rebels from 1978-81, where the "pesky [and] tenacious guard" evidently refined her passion for defense. Named to the inaugural SEC All-Tournament team in 1980, Ross still ranks ninth on the SEC's all-time steals list and still holds the Ole Miss school record for steals in a career (333), season (135 in 1980) and game (11 vs. Southeastern Louisiana in 1980). She is No. 4 for career assists (531), her season total of 208 assists is the second-highest and her single-game total of 13 dishes is tied for fifth in Lady Rebel history. Ross is one of only two players to record 1,000 points, 500 assists and 250 steals in a career. She  became only the fourth women’s basketball player ever to be inducted into the University of Mississippi Athletic Hall of Fame when she was honored on Sept. 1, 2001.

Renee Ladner played alongside Ross at Ole Miss and later succeeded her as head coach of the Rebels. “Being Carol’s former teammate and former assistant coach, naturally I'm extremely proud of her," Ladner told Full Court.  "She has been successful on every level. Carol is a fierce competitor and loves a challenge. She is a winner and will build a winning program in LA.”

After earning her degree in education, Ross served as a volunteer assistant at Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., for one year before returning to the SEC as an assistant at Auburn from 1983-90. During that time she advanced from graduate assistant to top assistant and chief recruiter. She played a key role in the school's development and maturation into what was at the time a perennial NCAA Tourney team.

Ross attributes her success in developing teams and players to her contagious enthusiasm for the game. "It doesn’t matter if it’s Angel McCoughtry or Candace Parker or Armintie Price or DeLisha Milton – it doesn’t matter who it is – it’s my job to bring that enthusiasm back into going to work every day and trying to help these players be the best that they can be," Ross stated. "I think when they bring that mentality then you can see it on the court. You see it on the defensive end and the defensive end is more about emotion. That’s where you see the real personality and identity of a team. The offensive end is more cerebral, it’s where you see the beauty of teamwork, being unselfish and setting screens for somebody else to get a great shot."

Away from the sidelines, Ross has served as a board member for both the American Cancer Society and the Coaches vs. Cancer organization, which honored her as its 2000 Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award winner.