About 200 people turned out Monday for University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach Dawn Plitzuweit’s introductory press conference in the Gophers’ practice facility, but all eyes fell on a certain few.
Seven Gophers players in matching black sweats took seats in a row to the right of the riser, awaiting the first public remarks from the woman who replaced their beloved former head coach, Lindsay Whalen.
It’s been an unnerving couple of weeks for the players, especially the four standout freshmen – Mara Braun, Amaya Battle, Mallory Heyer and Nia Holloway – who made up Whalen’s best recruiting class. In the days that followed Whalen’s forced departure, all but Battle declared on social media their intention to stay. As Plitzuweit high-fived Goldy Gopher, stepped to the podium and began her remarks, eyes shifted from Plitzuweit to the players and back for any signs of acceptance or dissonance. (Sophomores Maggie Czinano, Aminata Zie and Sophie Hart, the latter a transfer from North Carolina State, joined the freshmen.)
The 50-year-old Plitzuweit knew it too. Declaring the seven “the most important people in this room,” Plitzuweit delivered her prepared remarks as if talking directly to them, with the confidence and professionalism of someone who knows what she’s doing. Plitzuweit has taken nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, most recently West Virginia in her only season there after leaving South Dakota. She offered greater detail about style and expectations than Whalen did at her introductory press conference five years ago, understandable from someone with 16 seasons of head coaching experience at four schools.
But the most important thing Plitzuweit said Monday had nothing to do with Xs and Os, her upbringing on a livestock farm in West Bend, Wisconsin or her pointed sense of humor (more on that later). Plitzuweit knew her new players were hurting. She appealed to their broken hearts by praising Whalen at length, first in a private meeting Saturday, then again at Monday’s press conference carried on the Big Ten Network.
“Thank you to Coach Whalen and her staff for what they’ve done for Gopher women’s basketball,” Plitzuweit said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Lindsay as a player, as a coach, and most importantly as a person. Lindsay is one of our own, and I look forward to honoring her and all of our alumni and coaches who have gone before and laid the foundation on which we want to build.”
No, “We have to create a culture.” No claims of starting from scratch. No demonizing the previous staff to build yourself up.
The best stagecraft rises from a foundation of truth. Whalen never took the Gophs to the NCAA Tournament, but her current players adore her and genuinely care about each other. That’s why they’re still here instead of dispersing like mercenaries, giving Plitzuweit a base from which to start. Dinkytown sources say Whalen put her personal feelings aside to convince the freshmen and others to stay, a selfless act Plitzuweit (pronounced PLITTS-zoo-white) would be wise to acknowledge at some point as well. So far sophomore forward Rose Micheaux is the only Gopher in transfer portal, though Plitzuweit said one incoming recruit intends to explore other options.
Funny thing: The players seemed happy and engaged when Plitzuweit spoke, and not so much when Athletics Director Mark Coyle – the one who decided to replace Whalen – took the stage. Afterwards, all the freshman praised Plitzuweit to reporters.
“She just radiates energy,” Braun said. “That’s really special for us. Coach Whay, we’re in here because of her. I love how Dawn kind of talks about that. She respects Coach Whay a ton, and obviously we do too. That energy she kind of carries as well as Coach Whay did will really fit well for us.”
Added Heyer: “I’m extremely excited. I think it’s a great hire. She’s a winner, and that’s super important. Very knowledgeable and has great energy … She’s a competitor. You could just kind of tell when she walked in. She just had that fiery energy about her.”
It’s no secret Coyle sought an experienced coach with a proven track record who could recruit Minnesota. With Paige Bueckers starring at UConn, St. Michael-Albertville’s standout Tessa Johnson committed to national champion South Carolina and dozens of other players thriving in Division I, Minnesota’s reputation as a national destination for women’s basketball recruiting continues to rise.
Whalen and her staff re-established local high school and AAU connections that withered under former Coach Marlene Stallings, who showed scant interest in Minnesota kids (or coaching defense, for that matter) before leaving for Texas Tech.
Plitzuweit recruited Minnesota hard in her six seasons at South Dakota, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament the past four and reaching the Sweet Sixteen last year. The latter squad included five Minnesotas headed by 6-2 center Hannah Sjerven of Rogers, a three-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year who played briefly for the Lynx last summer.
“The fact she has such strong connections back here is a huge positive for our program going forward,” Coyle said.
Plitzuweit pledged defense and rebounding would be hallmarks of her Gopher teams, along with three building blocks: toughness, togetherness and finding a way to win when things aren’t going your way.
“It’s important we get better on the defensive end,” Plitzuweit said, addressing one of the Gophers’ biggest deficiencies last season (turnovers being the other). “We need to make sure that we’re really good on the defensive end, and then we’ll fill in on offense after that.”
She said she left West Virginia after one season to be closer to her aging parents, who still live in Wisconsin and did not attend the press conference. The move also brings Plitzuweit and her husband Jay closer to their two basketball-playing children, both college point guards – son A.J. at South Dakota and daughter Lexi at Grand Valley State in Michigan. “So nobody’s ever wrong in our house,” she said, smiling. (That’s the humor we’re talking about. So is this: Asked if either kid might transfer to the U, Plitzuweit said, “I don’t think they want to be that close to their mom.”)
While the Mountaineers improved from 15-15 to 19-12 in Plitzuweit’s only season there, she inherited a successful program from retired Coach Mike Carey that reached the NCAA Tournament two years earlier. Still, her 356-141 career record at four schools speaks for itself, along with a 2006 Division II national championship at Grand Valley State. Her teams only missed the postseason once in 16 seasons as a head coach, and never finished lower than fifth in conference play.
The Big Ten isn’t the Summit League, certainly. And even if the freshmen improve, the Gophs will need help from the transfer portal to make a serious jump in the standings. But maybe Plitzuweit is the person to finally bring the success and energized crowds missing since Whalen’s playing days back to The Barn.
“We have teams that are competing at a high, high level, and there’s no reason our women’s basketball team can’t do that,” Coyle said. “We feel really, really confident that we got the right coach and we’ve got the right young ladies here, that our program can start to see some significant success on that side … We think we have great, great days in front of this program.”