State of the Program: No quick-fix, Coach Yo is in for the long-haul
Published 1:32 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2019
There’s nothing worse in sports than not having a plan.
Being bad is one thing. But being bad without a plan? There’s no worse place to be.
Before there were NCAA sanctions levied against the Ole Miss football program, the women’s basketball program was hit with recruiting restrictions and scholarship reductions in October 2016 for infractions involving a former assistant women’s basketball coach.
The NCAA concerns revolved around the end of the Matt Insell era, where he was let go after a 12-19 year in which Ole Miss won only one SEC game.
Enter Yolette McPhee-McCuin – or as her players, coaches, friends and even her boss calls her, ‘Coach Yo.’
“We had heard about her early in our process. Everywhere we turned, when we asked who the hot and upcoming names, people asked if we had heard of Coach Yo,” said Ross Bjork, the Vice Chancellor of Intercollegiate Athletics at Ole Miss. “As we were talking to basketball people, she had developed an unbelievable reputation.
McPhee-McCuin knew when she took the Ole Miss job that it wasn’t exactly a desirable situation, yet it was one she was relatively familiar with.
At just 31-years-old, Coach Yo got her first head coaching job at Jacksonville University. Inheriting a team that went 11-19 the year prior, the Dolphins made the NCAA Tournament in her third year.
Coach Yo had offers to leave after that third year, but decided to stay put for two more seasons in Jacksonville. For her, coming to Ole Miss was a combination of the correct time in her personal and family life, combined with a program with the dedication and recourses to build a winning and sustainable program.
Now in Oxford, the turnaround is something she’s been through. However, the process is quite different.
“To be honest, in Jacksonville, I didn’t have a well thought out plan like I do now. I just wanted to get better every year,” McPhee-McCuin said. “That’s why I knew I could do this job. When I went in there, I didn’t have this fancy plan. But now I have the blueprint.”
She’s methodical and well planned. Her vision board of recruits goes all the way out to 2023 (girls currin the eighth grade). Ross Bjork never set out a year-by-year plan with expectations laid out for Coach Yo, but she certainly has one for herself.
“For me, coming here, (Ross Bjork) understood where the program was. That’s what made me feel comfortable,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Because if he expected us to win a national championship by year five, you’re sadly mistaken.”
With full buy-in from administration, Coach Yo is able to take her time. She said that while there can be quick fixes to building a team, there’s no quick fix for building a program. Her plan for turning around the Ole Miss program looks a little bit like this:
Year 1: Assessment
Year 2: Foundation
Year 3: Proof of Concept
Year 4: Stabilization
Year one may not have been pretty, but there’s an argument to be made that the nine wins, and three SEC wins exceeded the expectations that no one laid out to her.
When Insell was let go and Coach Yo took the job, Ole Miss lost more than a handful of players to transfers. Bjork described the situation as a ‘ground-zero type rebuild.’ McPhee-McCuin essentially had to rebuild a roster on the fly, leading to a team that hardly knew each other or had played together before August.
Of the top-six leading scorers on the Ole Miss team this past year, just one – Shandricka Sessom – played for the Rebels before. And just two – freshman Mimi Reid and Gabby Crawford – will return. It truly was a roster full of fresh faces.
“Last year, we needed nonconference to just learn each other’s names. There’s no way we should’ve gone in with any expectations except to go in and compete. We were lost. We didn’t know anything about anything,” McPhee-McCuin said. “There were moments where I was like ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ It was just something we had to go through. It’s why I chose the word ‘grit’ for our team. It was going to be rough and we knew that.”
It was rough at times, but there were also flashes of the play and culture that Coach Yo says it may take five years to build. The Lady Rebels went into Rupp Arena and beat No. 16 Kentucky back in January. Despite losing twice to Mississippi State, the game plan was fantastic and noteworthy.
Coach Yo stressed that if they had an offseason together, she truly believed the same team that lost 11 of their last 12 games would have been capable of winning more than three SEC games.
“May?” she joked multiple times during the hour we met in the Ole Miss conference room with a table designed like the court at The Pavilion. There was no May for the Ole Miss women last year, and for me to tell you that excites Coach Yo would be a monuments understatement. However, that’s also just who she is.
Coach Yo’s positivity and energy is captivating, borderline addicting. You want to be around her, to spend time with her. Bjork says it was her energy on a Twitter or Periscope video that made him really know he needed to meet with her for the job. Now, it’s that personality that’s helping her in living rooms.
“What we needed was strong connection with our players, someone they could identify with,” Bjork said. “It was a different dynamic because of where the program was. We needed somebody that the young women could really bond with and connect with.”
That connection goes beyond a level of personality and excitement about a program. At 36, Coach Yo can still relate to the players at their level. She’s incredibly active on Twitter, something she says started just because of who she is and has now developed into a critical tool for her career.
Building a program from the ground up always starts with recruiting. Both McPhee-McCuin and Bjork said that’s the most important thing at this point in the program. That relatability is critically important. And while recruiting to a program with three wins in the conference may seem difficult, it can also be an asset.
“The pitch is to come play. Come play right away. We just lost three seniors, so we have playing time,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Then we’re pitching them on being part the rebuild, the new era.”
That new era is approaching year two – the foundation year. A team that will look completely different than it did a year ago will hopefully begin to stabilize into a team we’ll see for a few years to come – not one-and-done blips. While three-SEC wins is not ideal – it may seem futile to expect more than that this upcoming year.
There were times in the 2018-19 season that The Pavilion was relatively empty during their games, where you could hear conversation between players on the free-throw line from press row at the top of the 100-level section. There’s no maniacal plan to draw fans next year – it’s simply something Coach Yo is realistic about.
“Win. They’re not coming if we’re not winning. I’m not going to sit here and make something up – they want us to win,” said McPhee-McCuin. “We have to put out a product on the floor that people want to come and support. And we will.”
It may not be in year two, or even year three for that matter, but Coach Yo truly believes she can win at Ole Miss. The Rebels are the only program in the SEC West that has not been to a women’s Final Four. Yet, with the resources in place, Yolette McPhee-McCuin has her eyes set even higher.
“Long term, I think we can win a national championship here. I think Ole Miss has enough,”
McPhee-McCuin said. “Now when? I gave myself a personal goal two years ago. I said, ‘in 15 years, I’ll be in the Final Four.’ I’m hoping I can speed that up a little, because I thought I’d have to make one more jump before I got to a power-five school. But I’m telling you, we can get to the final four here.”