Thursday, May 3, 2018

Teach, love, inspire: The passion with a purpose behind Stephanie Gaitley's Fordham program

Stephanie Gaitley capped off latest postseason run at Fordham with Maggie Dixon Coach of the Year honors from MBWA. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

BRONX, NY -- The sign sits on the edge of the desk, almost missed among an office -- populated by books, binders, plaques and the like -- your basic head basketball coach’s office. The sign, with its inscription, is quite adept at drawing the visitor in.

Teach. Love. Inspire.

The sign sits in Stephanie Gaitley’s office at Fordham. Interestingly, it almost perfectly sums up her three-plus decades as a head coach, a career that recently added MBWA Maggie Dixon Coach of the Year honors to an illustrious resume. This past season, Gaitley led the Rams to second-round WNIT appearance, furthering the winning culture she established upon her arrival in 2011.

“The award is an honor," Gaitley said. “But this is a collective award, as the coaching staff, players and support system make this all possible.” Gaitley was honored to have bestowed upon her an award named after Maggie Dixon, the former Army head coach who died tragically in 2006 and was a mentor and inspiration to all who knew her. Gaitley did not get to know Dixon personally, but did realize she was a young star on the rise, finding out a great deal more from Maggie’s brother, Jamie, the former University of Pittsburgh head coach now at his alma mater, TCU. Gaitley and Jamie Dixon were in a clinic together a few years back, the latter having spoke volumes regarding his sister’s legacy.

There is no offseason. That concept has gone the way of the Edsel. In this unseasonably warm first week of May, the Fordham basketball offices have assistants at their desk handling their various duties. The pace may not be regular-season hectic, yet there is work -- a fair share of which is recruiting-oriented -- that needs addressing. In this setting, Angelika Szumilo is seated, her iPhone in hand. She politely says there is a call coming she would have to take should the phone ring. During our discussion, it did not.

Szumilo played at LIU Brooklyn under Tony Bozzella, now the head coach at Seton Hall. After her playing career ended, she joined Gaitley’s staff at her alma mater following Bozzella's move to Iona. Szumilo feels blessed to have been involved with two outstanding coaches, two who had differences, but shared marked similarities.

“Tony was an offensive coach,” Szumilo said. “His strength was offense. Stephanie is defensive, detail-oriented. She emphasized defense from day one.” 

Two qualities shared by the two coaches are family and passion. 

“Tony is very passionate about the game,” Szumilo said. “Stephanie has that passion as well. Both are very family-oriented in what they do. That is common among both coaches.”

The family includes their immediate family and the team as family. 

“Stephanie is obviously a great coach, but a great person as well,” Szumilo said. “Whether you play 40 minutes or one minute, she will give you the same consideration and attention.”

Clare Berenato, the director of basketball administration and office mate of Szumilo, added of Gaitley: “She is about everyone, not just staff and players, but fellow coaches, maintenance workers, security. She treats everyone so well and respects what they do.”

Fordham went into the past season with a young relatively untested roster. The Rams finished 24-10. A 12-4 record in Atlantic 10 play landed the Rams in third place in the conference standings. They advanced to the conference tournament quarterfinals before dropping a tough game to Saint Joseph’s. A WNIT appearance saw victories over Harvard and Drexel before Virginia Tech ended their season. Coming into the campaign Gaitley maintained cautious optimism. She was not sure what to expect. A few unexpected personnel losses during the offseason compounded the situation. A summer tour of Italy and Spain afforded the young Rams much-needed work and the opportunity to develop a chemistry.

Fordham was aided by the development of redshirt freshman Bre Cavanaugh. The 5-foot-8 guard averaged a team-leading 17 points per game, capturing Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year accolades. Cavanaugh had her moments early, but was still trying to gain consistency. A 20-point performance in an early December double-overtime victory at St. John’s in early December was her coming-out party, per Gaitley. 

“After that game, Bre was confident and on her way,” she said. In effect, it was an outstanding job by Gaitley, as the Rams simply grew as a team during the season.

Gaitley credits several mentors for shaping her basketball philosophy. Her Ocean City (NJ) High School coach, Pat Dougherty, taught her to hate losing. Gaitley has instilled in her players the extent of despising to lose, even in practice drills. Harry Foster, Pat Summitt, Harry Perretta, and the late Dick Burnhardt of Monsignor Bonner, all have shaped her coaching. Ironically, the strong Philadelphia influence did not include Geno Auriemma. 

“Actually,’ Gaitley said, “when I was transferring after my freshman year at Delaware, Geno was a Saint Joseph’s assistant and was recruiting me, but I chose Villanova.”

Her present job at Fordham is the latest in several stops that have included rebuilding efforts. The one at Rose Hill arguably was the most challenging. Gaitley knew the Fordham program was strong in the 1980s and early 1990s, but had fallen on two-plus decades of hard times. She confided in then-men’s coach Tom Pecora about the job, and ultimately signed on when the administration proved they wanted to give a winning commitment. One of the first things Gaitley did after taking the job was talking to the departing seniors, asking why they chose Fordham. That information would help her recruiting approach. There was a recruiting class in place when she signed on. The transfer route was utilized to build the roster. Her first season, in 2011-12, yielded a 12-18 record.

“They played hard,” Gaitley fondly recalls of that first squad. “They just didn't know how to win. They were learning.” 

A turning point in year two came at Charlotte. The Rams defeated a 49er team -- on national television -- that had handled them by 25 a year earlier at Rose Hill. That game was a springboard, as the Rams advanced all the way to the A-10 championship game before suffering a narrow loss to Saint Joseph’s at Barclays Center. The 26-9 record included a Sweet 16 WNIT appearance, marking the program’s first postseason tournament victories since 1980. Since then, the Rams have not looked back and have a strong program in place.

Next year looks promising. The Rams do lose an outstanding inside player in G’mrice Davis, yet there are a number of returnees -- led by Cavanaugh -- who have a year of indoctrination to the system and are poised to hit the ground running. 

“I think we will have good chemistry,” Gaitley predicted. “We should have good ball movement on offense, but replacing what G’mrice gave us, especially in rebounding, is something we will have to work on.”

Her basketball beliefs are well-rounded in defense. If one wants minutes, she first and foremost must defend. The offensive approach is one suited to personnel, not forcing your players to fit into a rigid system, but rather employing one that puts them in the best place to be successful. Gaitley admits to changing over the years from her initial days as a head coach at Richmond back in 1985.

“I have become more open-minded,” she admits. “I am willing to listen more." She has become more selective in recruiting, taking a long look at a recruits' parents. 

“In today’s environment, parents can be part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution,” she says. Above all, she wants players who -- according to the oft-used phrase -- are all in. Gaitley tells her team, "if anyone is unhappy, I will sign your transfer papers the minute you want me to.”

Malcontents are not evident at Rose Hill. It goes beyond Gaitley’s 600-plus victories. Her door is always open. Discussions are not limited to what transpires on the court. She is there to listen and advise on other aspects as well.

Teach. Love. Inspire.

Simple and concise. A perfect description of the attributes of Stephanie Gaitley.

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