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Lynne Roberts has built something special at Utah. Here’s someone who saw it coming

Boise State women’s coach Gordy Presnell coached Roberts at Seattle Pacific, and later encouraged her to enter the coaching ranks herself

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Utah head coach Lynne Roberts looks on during game against Washington State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women’s tournament Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Las Vegas.

David Becker, Associated Press

There’s at least one man who isn’t surprised by the success that the University of Utah women’s basketball team has had under coach Lynne Roberts.

“She had X-O ability. She commands respect. She has presence when she walks in a room. She is also compassionate and willing to do things others wouldn’t.” — Boise State women’s coach Gordy Presnell on Lynne Roberts

Gordy Presnell is the coach’s long-time mentor and formerly her basketball coach at Seattle Pacific University. When Roberts couldn’t decide what she wanted to do with her life, Presnell pointed the way.

“He thought I should try coaching,” says Roberts.

Presnell, who has coached the Boise State women’s team the past 18 seasons and collected 334 victories, recalls the day. As he tells it, “I remember she was sitting in our office and I said, ‘You should be a coach. You have all the makings of a really good coach.’”

Now in her eighth season at Utah, Roberts has turned the Utes into a top-10 team, something they had never been before, even under the great Elaine Elliott. The Utes now find themselves in an enviable position heading into postseason play.

Not only have they been awarded a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, but they are a No. 2 seed. It gets better. They will open tournament play on their home court and open against No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb, which is playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2011.

“I’m pleased that we got a (No. 2) seed,” Roberts said. “I think we earned that over the course of the season.”

It would be hard to argue otherwise. The Utes are 25-4 and ranked No. 8 in the latest polls. They are the Pac-12 co-champions (with Stanford) and rank fourth in the nation in scoring. They have claimed wins over No. 16 Oklahoma, Alabama, Ole Miss, No. 14 Arizona, current No. 23 Washington State, current No. 21 Colorado, USC, No. 8 UCLA, current No. 5 Stanford and Oregon. Their only big flub was losing to Washington State — which finished seventh in the Pac-12 — in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 tournament last week.

During her 21 years as a head coach at Chico State, Pacific and Utah, she has continued to seek advice from Presnell — not just about basketball, she says, but about her life, as well. “He’s a great coach and an even better human being,” Roberts says. “He’s a good dude.”

She might not have always thought so during her days as a star player under Presnell at Seattle Pacific, where they butted heads a few times (says Presnell in not so many words). She was a 5-foot-11 perimeter player and a record-setting 3-point shooter.

“She was stubborn and passionate and tough and had a real competitive streak, as well as a sense of humor,” recalls Presnell. “We went through some tough times.”

According to Presnell, he ordered her to serve as a team manager (as well as a player) for a semester. Here’s why.

“We were in fall workouts. She had sprained her ankle. She told me she couldn’t make it to an individual workout, and then I heard she played that night in an indoor soccer game (we had an intramural soccer team). I call her in. She gives me this big line that she played goalie because they didn’t have enough players. I went to the intramural office and found out she scored three goals. ... She did a lot of floor sweeping after that.”

It wasn’t the only time they butted heads. As he tells it, “We were playing in Montana and we decided that if we won the tip we were going to run a screen called ‘doubles away.’ Well, she got the tip and shot it. I took her out eight seconds into the game, and I didn’t put her back in. She never has forgiven me for that.”

All this aside, the coach says, “We could see her potential. She just hadn’t bought in to what we were doing yet.”

He says Roberts called her parents to complain about Presnell; they took his side. Says Presnell, “Her dad said, ‘He’s the coach; you gotta do what he says.’ That doesn’t always happen these days. … Her parents let her be coached. We were able to get into her a little and make her better.”

Roberts developed into a superb guard. She was an especially good shooter and was physical and tough. “She wasn’t the best athlete, but the game never was too fast for her,” says Presnell. “She became a leader of our program her junior year.”

Off the court, she was still struggling to find direction. She bounced from major to major in school. She tried pre-med, English, theater, student teaching and finally, at the outset of her senior year, history. It was about then that Presnell first urged her to pursue a coaching career.

“She had X-O ability,” says Presnell. “She commands respect. She has presence when she walks in a room. She is also compassionate and willing to do things others wouldn’t.”

After completing her undergrad and her athletic eligibility, she pursued a master’s degree in athletic administration while serving as a graduate assistant coach under Presnell for $1,500, supporting herself by working at a Safeway grocery store. Presnell eventually hired her as a full-time assistant coach.

“She was very influential with the kids,” says Presnell. “She had an ability to recruit and to connect.”

After five years as an assistant at Seattle Pacific, she earned her first head coaching job, at Chico State, then Pacific and Utah, and she took each school to new heights on the court. She continued to seek advice from Presnell, calling him for his input on player discipline, offensive schemes, creating a culture, etc.

“We don’t talk as much now, but we did a lot in those days (Chico, Pacific),” says Presnell. “She learned a lot at Pacific and got things moving forward. Utah was not going great. It took her a few years to get it going and it’s paying dividends.”

He likes where she is now. “There are not a lot of head women’s coaching jobs out there — only 12 Power Five jobs in the whole West. She’s in a good situation. She’s in a good place.” Asked if he’s surprised by Roberts’ success, he says simply, “No, I’m not.”

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Boise State women’s coach Gordy Presnell checks the scoreboard during game against Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, March 23, 2019. Oregon State won 80-75. Presnell is a mentor to Utah Utes women’s coach Lynne Roberts.

Amanda Loman, Associated Press