SPORTS

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January 22, 2010

Roussell backed into head coaching spot, and has looked forward ever since

As the women’s basketball team lines up to shake hands after defeating Brandeis, head coach Aaron Roussell hears his name over the loudspeaker, announcing that the win was his 100th at Chicago. He gives a little shrug—maybe less a shrug than an eyebrow raise.

For Roussell, the significance of the win is that the Maroons (10–4)now sit at 2–1 in the conference, having swept their first home series with wins over NYU on Friday and Brandeis on Sunday to keep the conference championship in their sights.

“We were desperate for two wins this weekend,” he said. “[Number 100] was the last thing anybody was thinking about.”

Still, 100 wins is an impressive milestone for a coach who thought he was gone two weeks into the job.

Roussell arrived in Hyde Park in 2004 fresh off a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Minnesota State University—Mankato and ready to take a seat as an assistant coach on the Maroons’ bench. Then, two weeks before the start of the season, head coach Jennifer Kroll sat him down in his office. Kroll was stepping down as coach.

“I kind of thought it was a joke,” Roussell said. “It was just a really, really odd situation…. I thought I was going to have to find another job.”

Instead, he would be promoted. Kroll, who had coached four seasons at Chicago, and athletics director Tom Weingartner put the reins in Roussell’s hands, giving him two weeks to get ready for his first head coaching job.

Thus the season started with a young roster and a young coach trying to right a program that had gone 30–44 in the previous three seasons, finishing sixth in the conference each of those years.

Expectations were low and the team stumbled out to a 3–4 record to start the year. Then, they beat Wash U in the UAA opener, and things started to change. The team would go on to finish 16–9, its best record since 1994–95, starting a string of five straight winning seasons under Roussell.

“That group of kids played extremely hard,” Roussell said. “They played their tails off and won some big games that year. We won a lot of games, and nobody really expected us to do anything.”

Since taking over the job, Roussell has gone 100–42. His .704 winning percentage is the highest of any coach in program history, and his teams have set season records in points, rebounds, free-throw and field-goal percentage, field goals made, field goals attempted, three-pointers made, and three-point shooting percentage.

The most obvious change on the court since Roussell’s arrival in 2004 has been a shift away from the team’s run-and-gun style and towards the defensive intensity that has defined the team in recent seasons. Focusing on keeping opponents out of the lane and crashing the defensive glass, the Maroons haven’t finished outside the top 25 in field-goal percentage defense or the top 15 in rebounding margin in any of the past three seasons.

Never finishing lower than fifth in the conference, Roussell’s squads set their sights high from opening day.

“He’s a really honest coach,” fourth-year guard Jamie Stinson said. “He’s up front about what he wants; he’s really ambitious. That’s a great quality about him. We’ve never settled for anything.”

After missing the NCAA tournament for 12 straight years, the Maroons reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2007–08, pushing Chicago firmly into the upper tier of Division–III women’s basketball.

“That was one of the things that drew me here. I don’t know what the program was like when I got here, but it was not what it is now,” Stinson said. “He made it clear he wanted to be competitive at the national level, and I think he’s done that.”

Such is Roussell’s competitive nature that the 100th win just meant an opportunity to think about the ones that got away.

“You reflect back and think back and think about all the games you should have won, all the losses you should have won,” Roussell said.

Standing 15 wins shy of Susan Brower’s record for coaching wins, set in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Roussell is quick to shift the attention away from the bench and onto the court.

“Every coach will tell you it’s the players that are winning the games,” he said.

The Maroons will try to make it 101 and 102 this weekend—and more importantly for Roussell and this year’s team, 11 and 12 on the season—as they head to Carnegie and Case for their first road series in conference. If the Maroons are looking to get more than an eyebrow shrug out of their coach, a couple of road wins should do the trick.