How Lynne Roberts turned Utah women’s basketball team into one of the best in the country
After advancing to the second round in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Roberts has guided the Utes to a No. 7 national ranking this season.
It was a couple of years ago that Lynne Roberts, the coach of the Utah women’s basketball team, threw down the gauntlet. “It’s time for us to pivot to being great,” she said at the outset of the 2021-22 season, right there in the team’s media guide for all to see. It was a curious thing to say at the time — the Utes were coming off a five-win “COVID season,” one the coach herself calls “horrid.” Why would she pick then, of all times, to say such a thing? Why not shoot for a .500 season and go from there?
“We were always competitive and winning games and going to the NIT. You can stay employed doing that, but I wanted more. What I envisioned when I took the job was not that.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts
“I’m a competitor; a realist, maybe not,” she says.
Well, as it turns out it was realistic after all. The Utes pivoted toward greatness last season and they have reached greatness this season. They sport a gaudy 18-2 record, having dispatched USC and No. 8 UCLA last week. They cracked the top 10 early this year — something the school had never accomplished even during the great Elaine Elliott era — and are currently ranked No. 7 in the AP Top 25 poll.
The big pivot includes wins over three nationally ranked teams — No. 16 Oklahoma (by a lopsided score of 124-78), No. 14 Arizona and No. 8 UCLA — besides wins over name schools Alabama, Ole Miss, BYU, Colorado, Washington and Washington State. The Utes are averaging a scoring margin of 22.2 points per game. With a big target on their backs, the Utes will undertake road games this week against Oregon State and Oregon.
Builder of programs
Building up programs has been Roberts’ M.O. since she became a head coach 21 years ago. She has flown under the radar not for lack of success but for lack of a bigger forum until she came to Utah and the Pac-12.
She spent four years building up Chico State into a Division II Final Four team before moving on to the University of Pacific, where she transformed a program that won just eight games her first season into a program that produced a 27-8 record and a Big West Conference championship seven years later. Now in her eighth season at Utah she has built the team into a DI power-in-the-making.
Following that “horrid” 2020-21 season, the coach looked over her 91-87 record, three NIT appearances and three seasons with 18 or more wins and decided it wasn’t enough.
“We were always competitive and winning games and going to the NIT,” she says. “You can stay employed doing that, but I wanted more. What I envisioned when I took the job was not that.”
She adds, “It was an intentional approach: how do we take the next step? The best way to explain it is, if we’re recruiting against Stanford and they’re signing five-star recruits and we’re getting four-star recruits, we’re not going to win the race. How can we change that? With the players we have, how can we still be elite?”
As always, she consulted her mentor, Gordy Presnell, the Boise State coach who coached her first as a player and then convinced her to try the coaching profession. She calls him regularly to bounce ideas off of him. She also began studying how Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s football coach, built his team into a national powerhouse.
“I began taking notes about how they (the football team) operate and how they do things,” she says. “I was impressed. They figured out how to recruit here and what works here.”
She has had seemingly casual conversations with Whittingham in which she says, “I’m not writing down notes, but even when I’m just chatting with him that’s what I’m doing — learning. I might go write things down later.”
Roberts’ team was 21-12 last season and the Utes earned their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade, advancing to the second round. “Success has a snowball effect,” says the coach. The success and exposure were a boon for recruiting and a springboard for a big core group of returning players.
“I knew in October we had a chance to be something special,” says Roberts. “It comes down to players and the culture. We had the right kinds of kids who fit in here and with our style of play. There are no egos you have to deal with. They work hard. Our team GPA was 3.65 last semester. For every team that has a chance to win a championship, it’s not just one person. Our team works as a group. There’s always somebody who gets the ink, but what I love about our team is the diversity in talent and roles.”
In this case, the player who gets the ink is Alissa Pili, a 6-foot-2, 198-pound athletic forward who scores from anywhere on the floor, averaging 20 points per game. Growing up in a family of nine kids in Anchorage, Alaska, she played six years of Little League football with the boys through eighth grade, which prepared her to mix it up inside on the basketball court (she averages 11.6 rebounds per game). She became Alaska’s all-time prep scoring leader with 2,614 points and was the three-time state player of the year.
Pili played for USC for three seasons, averaging 12.6 points and earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors. But a year ago she decided she wanted to move on.
“She entered the transfer portal and we jumped on it,” says Roberts. The coach says she called Pili when the latter was in high school, but never received a call back; this time she was able to talk to Pili, as well as USC coaches.
“Her success is one of the great stories of our season,” says Roberts. “At USC she wasn’t as committed and didn’t take care of herself. She needed a clean slate. The way she has bought into our program to get in shape and to be as fit as she can be has been unbelievable. She realized she was not living up to her potential. She struggled academically too (at USC). She made the honor roll here. She’s done an about-face.”
“I began taking notes about how they (the football team) operate and how they do things. I was impressed. They figured out how to recruit here and what works here.” — Lynne Roberts
“The situations and environments I was in in the past just kind of — just made me lose love for the game, and just the joy for it of actually getting up and trying to get better and get back to my game,” Pili told KSL.com.
Pili has blended with the team’s returning players. Gianna Kneepkens, Jenna Johnson and Kennady McQueen are also scoring in double digits, and the Utes are the fifth highest scoring team in the nation at 84.6 points per game. Their average scoring margin is a whopping 22 points per game. They’re sinking 8.25 3-pointers per game, which is costing Roberts money. She volunteered to donate $100 to the Utes’ community outreach program, “Beyond the Paint” for every 3-point shot the team makes in conference home games. So far she has paid $2,200.
For her part, the 47-year-old Roberts grew up in Redding, California. Her father was a strawberry farmer and her mother a school teacher. Roberts grew up as the only girl on their street, which was located in the middle of a pasture. This included her two older brothers. “I did sports all day, every day,” she says. “I was the token little sister. In football, I was all-time center. All I did was hike the ball, but at least I was in there.” She earned 12 letters in high school, participating in soccer, tennis, softball, volleyball, track and basketball.
“I don’t sit still,” she says. “And I still haven’t been able to give up basketball. If I had to have a real job, I’d starve.”
She went on to become a star basketball player at Seattle Pacific University (she set school records for 3-pointers in a season and a game). Off the court, she didn’t know what she wanted. She continually changed her major. She tried pre-med, but that didn’t last long.
“I had a 2.1 GPA and my adviser said, ‘Sweetheart, it’s not in your future,’” she says. She tried English, but discovered she didn’t enjoy it. Then she turned to theater because she could move around, but she found that the productions conflicted with basketball. She tried student teaching “but I don’t like being in school, so why would I do that?”
At the outset of her senior year she scanned the class catalog and she decided she could complete a history major in one year. At the same time, Presnell urged her to pursue a coaching career. After graduating with her degree in history, she pursued her master’s degree in athletic administration while serving as a graduate assistant coach under Presnell for $1,500 and working at a Safeway grocery store to support herself. Presnell eventually hired her as an assistant coach.
Roberts is now hitting her stride as a coach, and no one can accuse her of being content with the status quo or not setting a high bar. Shortly after the school rewarded her with a contract extension last spring, she announced she was ready “to continue to build a women’s basketball powerhouse … here at the University of Utah.”