By Charles Hallman
If Bobbie Kelsey has her way, her Final Four consecutive appearance streak will stay intact. Her last four seasons she has sat on the Stanford bench as an assistant coach as the Cardinal women’s team twice played for a national title (2009 and 2010) and twice reached the semifinals (2008 and 2011).
However, it’s a long shot that her new team will make it five in a row for Kelsey, who’s in her first season as Wisconsin head women’s basketball coach.
She was named the school’s sixth-ever head coach last April, as well as U-W’s first Black female in this position. “Minnesota has a very talented group,” Kelsey told the MSR after her Badgers defeated the host Gophers on January 26. “That freshman [guard Rachel Banham] — we are going to see her three more years, and she made some incredible shots out there.” Kelsey paid her dues with 14 years as an assistant coach — four at Stanford, 2007-11; three at Virginia Tech, 2004-07; two at Western Carolina, 2002-04; two at Evansville, 2000-02; two at Florida, 1998-2000; and a season at Boise State, 1996-97.
Kelsey helped the Cardinal to three Final Four appearances as a player, including the 1992 NCAA championship, and later as an assistant coach when the school advanced to the Final Four each year of her stint, tied for the second-longest streak in NCAA history. Nonetheless, as hard as it might have been for her to leave her alma mater, a chance to head her own program was a no-brainer.
“Having the opportunity to come to the Big Ten, a very good conference, and the opportunity to build something to win the conference…to come to a school where you have the resources,” was too good to pass up, explained Kelsey. “The administration is very generous in giving us what we need to be successful, and it is a great place to draw kids. [Madison] is near Chicago, and [Wisconsin] is on the border of a lot of different states, so kids don’t have to go far from home. There are a lot of good players in the Midwest.” As is the case at Stanford, the Wisconsin fans are equally loyal. “Whoever is a Badger fan is a hard-core Badger fan — you don’t have any ‘on-the-fence’ Badger fans,” she pointed out.
“When you bring recruits and they see the atmosphere, and they see what’s going on, [and] then you’ve got the Kohl Center, which is a beautiful facility, and we have a practice facility — we just have everything there that it takes to be successful.” Kelsey joins the three other Black female coaches in the Big Ten. “[AD Barry Alvarez] took a chance on me being an assistant, and then not having a Black coach [here] before, it’s an opportunity to do some great things there,” said the first-year head coach. The Badgers this season are currently in the bottom half of the conference standings, but Kelsey believes that won’t always be the case. Last fall she signed her first recruiting class — three guards and a power forward — during the fall signing period for next season.
“When we get the better players, we will be able to do a better job. But I’m proud of this group. A lot of people wrote them off because 51 percent of the scoring from last year [graduated]. This is a talented group, but I got to get them to work together.”
Kelsey said she is seeing some encouraging signs. “It won’t happen overnight,” she observed on installing her playing style preference. “The last coach was very different than I am, so you have to break and build, break the habits that you don’t want them to do and put in my philosophy of what I want them to do. It takes time, but I think we are getting better every game.” Like choosing Madison as her next place of employment, choosing a coaching career also was a no-brainer for Kelsey, who has earned a communications degree from Stanford and a master’s degree in sports leadership from Duquesne University. “I always knew I wanted to coach,” she recalled.
“I didn’t want to be in an office with dress clothes on. I like to dress up for the games, but every day I get to wear sweats, travel, and do all these fun things in the gym. “It’s a joy to coach. Hopefully I am getting better every day.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.