Friday, January 26, 2018

600 wins later, basketball for Stephanie Gaitley remains a family affair

(Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

BRONX, NY -- It was an inauspicious way to start, to say the least.

Six games into her coaching career, Stephanie Gaitley was 0-6. She vividly recalled those days in her first coaching job at Richmond. Gaitley was 25, barely older than some of the young ladies she was mentoring. During that start, Richmond had a date with a Division II school. Gaitley had family on hand to view her first win. Unfortunately, it did not transpire.

Stephanie and husband Frank were in Philadelphia not long after. They ran into 76ers coach Jim Lynam, who, on hearing about Gaitley’s rough start, lightheartedly said, "Hey, win five games and they will think you are the second coming of John Wooden."

“Steph had nearly been in tears over that start,” Frank recalled. “What Jim Lynam said actually got her to smile and cheer up a bit.”

Win number one came against Siena, a memory of three decades ago not erased. 

“It took time to get that first win,” she recalled. That first group finished 7-21, but with a positive memory. 

“All season,” Gaitley said, “those kids played hard."

Many an opposing coach has remarked how preparing for Fordham is difficult because of the multiple offensive sets Gaitley employs. Make no mistake, though, her signature emphasis is defense. So it was, then, that after Atlantic 10 opponent St. Bonaventure had been dispatched, 72-48, for her historic 600th win, friends and assistants celebrated in the basketball offices with pizza and a commemorative cake. Gaitley spoke about how she told her team at halftime she was upset at them missing a few defensive assignments. No mention of the magic number, just the focus on defense. The ability to adapt through these years is another trait that has served her well.

“When I interviewed at Richmond, they said, 'You're 25. Why should we hire someone so young?',” she recalled. “My reply was, 'Bobby Knight was hired at age 24, so age should not matter.'” More than three decades later, Gaitley can look back in amusement at that scenario. 

“I have mellowed over the years,” she admitted. The best evidence in that mellowing is her player-coach relationships.

“I was never a yeller, but I am in much more control now,” she said. “There have been so many generational changes in my career that you must be a player’s coach. Back when I started, you demanded a player do something and there was no argument. It had to be done. Now you do not have to concede, but you have to open up and meet players halfway.”

G’mrice Davis, Fordham’s outstanding senior forward, spoke on how much Gaitley has meant to her, and not just on the confines of the court. 

“When I got to Fordham, she held my hand,” Davis said. “I am sure there were days of me driving her nuts, but she was always there to guide me. She always stood by me and her door is always open to discuss things, not just basketball-related.”

Gaitley has made a few stops and experienced a great deal of success in her 33-year journey. This most recent one at Fordham is arguably her best body of work. Three seasons removed from an 0-29 debacle, Gaitley decided to come to Rose Hill. 

“I thought the pieces were in place here,” she said. “They want to win here. It was just a case of moving the pieces around.”

Year one saw a 12-18 record in 2011-12. The second year saw a 26-8 mark and a WNIT bid. In 2014, Fordham won the A-10 conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. The only blip on the radar was a 14-17 record two years ago. In seven years, Gaitley has gone 136-81, with four postseason trips. Presently, the Rams, with a very young squad, are 7-1 and in contention for conference honors. Beyond the numbers is the respect. Fordham, the opposition knows, is a program to be reckoned with. The days of opponents circling the calendar to play Fordham are long gone, thanks largely to Gaitley.

Gaitley played for Harry Perretta at Villanova. You can say she incorporated family values in her program taking Perretta’s example. The truth is, it has always been about family for Gaitley. On Thursday night, when she celebrated win number 600; as well as her birthday, there were a number of family members on hand. They watched the game and later convened to the Fordham basketball offices for pizza and a cake. The immediate family was joined by assistant coaches and friends comprising Gaitley’s extended basketball family. 

“Sharing this all with family was the best,” Gaitley said in a moment of satisfying reflection.

Truth is, her family has been there and supportive from day one, a source of inspiration and at times comfort, during three-plus decades on the sidelines. Family was there back years ago when the zero preceded the six. They were there and genuinely shared the joy as the numbers reversed, with the six leading a few zeros.

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