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Ute women's basketball program shooting for national relevance

SALT LAKE CITY — Lynne Roberts doesn’t consider her hiring as the dawn of a new era for the University of Utah women’s basketball team. Roberts, the first head coach to come from outside the program since 1975, is just looking forward to the challenge of getting the Utes back to where she says they belong.

“I want to be nationally relevant,” Roberts said. “If there’s a sentence that would be it.”

After four years at the helm of Chico State and nine at Pacific, Roberts now heads a Utah program that has fallen on hard times. The Utes, who have an all-time record of 837-364, are a paltry 23-49 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011-12.

“It’s not like it’s a ship at the bottom of the sea. I think it’s a ship that maybe needs to change direction a little bit — but it definitely is floating,” Roberts said. “It’s definitely above water. We have really good kids.”

Roberts credits the previous staff — headed by Anthony Levrets who was relieved of his duties after five seasons and an 85-80 record — with doing a nice job of recruiting quality people.

“Change is hard when you’re a student-athlete. It’s hard when you get a new coaching staff. That’s tough,” Roberts said. “I think sometimes we lose sight of that, that they’ve got to adjust. They didn’t sign here knowing they would play for me.

“But they’ve been great. They’ve bought in and they’re doing what we ask them to do. They’re working really hard this summer,” she added.

Roberts said she doesn’t know how much time it’ll take to get the program back on track. However, she expressed confidence that it’s not going to be long.

“This place is amazing and the people here in the community have been awesome,” Roberts said. “So it’s just been really fun.”

What the program is selling, she explained, is the Pac-12 and a chance to do something great.

“I like that in a coach because she’s not afraid of high expectations,” said Utah athletics director Dr. Chris Hill. “Now it’s going to take her a little time, but I like the fact that she knows that we want to be good and she’s excited about that and is going to get after it.”

Roberts noted that the support from the players, alumni and athletic department has been tremendous.

“They want to help me get this program where they all know it should go,” Roberts said.

Those who’ve reached out include Elaine Elliott, who won 582 games as Utah’s head coach from 1983-2010. The two coaches exchanged texts, which led to a breakfast meeting.

“We’ve been in touch and it’s been great,” said Roberts, who is well aware of the program’s history of success — noting that Elliott, and her predecessor Fern Gardner, had remarkable tenures as head coach. “I’m just honored to be here and to carry on that tradition.”

Hill said Roberts stood out in the hiring process because she’s very competitive, very smart and understands the big picture in terms of how important it is to do everything well. Every call Utah made to others about the coach came back positive. Hill consistently heard that it would be a good fit for Roberts and a great opportunity for the Utes.

“You kind of add those these together and it makes for what we think is an excellent coach for this point and time in our program,” Hill said.

Bringing someone in from the outside, he insists, wasn’t intentional.

“It just worked out that way. I think with our new positioning, where we are in terms of being in a Power 5 conference, we had a really good pool (of candidates). Better than ever,” Hill said. “It wasn’t conscious but we knew we needed to go make sure we scoured as far as we could to find the very best person. Because we have a great women's basketball tradition and we need to get back there.”

It’s a scenario Roberts appreciates.

“They want women’s basketball to be great here and so as a basketball coach that’s what you want,” she said. “You want the people to care and to want us to be good. Now that comes with expectation but that’s what I want. I want people to expect us to get better.”

Utah is coming off a 9-21 season and a 3-15 mark in the Pac-12. Turning things around, Roberts said, will involve more than just what happens on the court.

“There is not a single example — men or women — in college basketball where there’s sustained success if you don’t have a home atmosphere,” she explained. “That makes a difference. So that’s part of the vision, to create an atmosphere.”

Roberts noted that good crowds don’t need to be 10,000 per game. A consistent base of 3,000-4,000 would be beneficial. She added that the bottom line is getting people in Salt Lake City to care about women’s basketball.

“How do you do that? You make it to the NCAA Tournament and you win more games than you lose, you put a product on the floor, and you’re fun to watch,” said Roberts, whose vision includes athletes who compete their hearts out and a team that has fun, plays hard and represents the school well.

Roberts, who is determined to make the program more accessible in the community and target families, acknowledged it’s an exciting time to be at Utah. She said the soon-to-be completed basketball complex is a shining beacon and that the refurbished Huntsman Center is the best arena in the league. There’s a “wow factor” to it all.

“It’s insane,” Roberts said. “They set out for it to be the best facility in the country, basketball-wise, and without question it is.”

And it doesn’t hurt to have a successful neighbor in the men’s program — bringing national attention to the university. Under head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s stewardship the Runnin’ Utes have gone from a 6-25 record to the NCAA tourney’s Sweet 16 over a span of four seasons.

“I think it’s awesome. We’re going to ride those coattails as much as we can,” Roberts said. “The men’s staff has been fantastic. Larry and his staff has been great with ours. They’ve been very welcoming and willing to help us in any way they can, which is fantastic.”

Roberts added that it speaks to the culture at Utah and is one of the reasons she considers it a great job. The athletic department takes a collaborative approach to things.

“I want the men to be the best and I’ll do whatever I can to help them,” Roberts said. “Because the better they are that’s going to help us.”

The coach joked that it’s kind of like trickle-down economics.

However, there’s much more to it overall. Roberts noted the historical success of the Utah women’s program and credits Gardner and Elliott for laying a great foundation.

Even so, Roberts knows the program hasn’t taken a huge step forward in the Pac-12. It’s something she’s eager to change.

“As I move forward I feel very prepared. I’m confident,” Roberts said. “I’m sure I’ll learn along the way from mistakes and successes. But I feel very ready for this.”

Roberts has a history of making the most of opportunities. Her 13-year career as a collegiate head coach began when she was 25 years old. That led to the Pacific job just four years later.

“That’s young but I was able to kind of jump in the deep end and learn to swim,” Roberts said. “So I feel very prepared for this.”

The dawn of a new era, though, isn’t what she’s about.

“I tell the players all the time it’s your program. It’s not mine. I’m just fortunate enough to coach it,” said Roberts, who emphasized the importance of the past, present and future. “I want that transition to be very fluid and the alumni to know that it’s still their program.”


Utah women’s basketball coaches

Coach Years Record

John Hull 1974-75 12-2

Fern Gardner 1975-83 174-62

Elaine Elliott 1983-2010 582-234

Anthony Levrets 2010-15 85-80


Twitter: @DirkFacer