Whenever Felisha Legette-Jack runs into Danny White she thanks him for giving her the opportunity to coach the University at Buffalo’s women’s basketball team.
The Bulls’ athletic director smiles gently and says she doesn’t have to keep doing that but Legette-Jack, relentless by nature, wants to show her appreciation. Mere months before White hired her to replace Linda Hill-MacDonald in June 2012, Legette-Jack was fired from her post at Indiana University after finishing 6-24 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten.
“It’s something I need to do because nobody comes and picks people up from nothing,” she said. “He took a chance and every day I’m grateful.”
White is seeing a return on his good will. UB overcame a 2-11 non-conference season by going 8-8 in the Mid-American Conference and advancing to the quarterfinals of the league tournament last season. The eight MAC victories were tied for third most since joining the league and Legette-Jack helped coach two players onto the All-MAC team.
“You look at where the program was, it hadn’t had a lot of success certainly in recent years,” White said. “When we hire new coaches our focus is to surround them with support and really encourage them to build for the long haul. I’m not interested in a flash in the pan, one great season, and then go back to mediocrity.”
Now Buffalo is in pursuit of MAC elite – Akron, Central Michigan and Bowling Green – with the thought of nosing ahead sooner than later. For a program that hasn’t experienced a winning season since 2002-03, Legette-Jack’s presence has been refreshing.
“I inherited a program that was really ready to change,” Legette-Jack said. “Sometimes when change occurs the people you want to change are ready. It was a perfect storm. They were ready and I was ready to change, too.”
Legette-Jack’s first three teams at Indiana went 58-40 and qualified for the WNIT each season. Things unraveled in a hurry and her final three seasons with the Hoosiers resulted in a 29-60 mark, including a disheartening 11-39 record in the Big Ten. She was fired by Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass in March 2012.
Fired coaches, especially in college basketball, tend to point fingers but Legette-Jack looked in the mirror.
Several of the state of Indiana’s top recruits weren’t considering IU, which some said was the result of Legette-Jack not having strong enough ties with the high school coaches. Her final roster at IU had just three Indiana players.
“Everything couldn’t have been everyone else’s fault. I had to have some responsibility for the lack of success,” she said. “I didn’t win and that’s the nature of this business. I had a four-month window where I had some time to resolve and to think, and I think I was ready for a change as well.”
She lived on the East Coast her entire life and grew tired of the Midwest.
“I think I’m an East Coast chick,” she said. “People who come from the East Coast get my personality. My personality is all over you and sometimes that’s too much.
“It was time for me to come back home and the AD was ready for me to leave. I ain’t mad at him. … I’m a faithful follower and I believe your steps are ordered.”
She starting running and reading the Bible, something that became secondary during her time at IU.
“Sometimes you lose a piece of you and while I never lost my faith I lost my ‘read,’ ” Legette-Jack said. “I got back to reading and watching the word and believing that I have to always have time for God. When you lose everything, what stands for you is your faith.”
When she was still coaching at IU, Legette-Jack ran into close friend Anucha Browne Sanders in an airport on their way to a trip to the Virgin Islands. The former UB athletic administrator noticed that Legette-Jack was walking by herself, away from her team.
“It just felt weird,” Browne Sanders told her as they exchanged phone numbers.
When the UB job came open last season, Legette-Jack was thankful to be added to the search list. She decided to return to her native Syracuse and become a life coach and motivational speaker.
“With a 6-21 record, I certainly wasn’t on anyone’s short list to be hired,” she said. “Anucha said she was going to throw my name in there to see if there was a possibility. My energy returned and when I met Danny White it was a match.”
White considered several factors when hiring Legette-Jack, like the fact she had success at the mid-major level at Hofstra from 2002-08 and the lack of success IU women’s basketball has had historically.
“It’s a really difficult job and she won more games than anyone else had won there in a season,” White said. “Most importantly, her analysis of what went wrong was impressive. It was very self-analytical and she critiqued the situation really well and gave me a good understanding of what went wrong and how she learned from it. It was extremely retrospective and it kind of blew me away.”
The best thing Legette-Jack has done is bring harmony to a program that had become passive. Some of the program’s best players – Kourtney Brown, Brittany Hedderson and Heather Turner – played under Hill-MacDonald but she could never recruit a strong supporting cast to maximize the talents of her stars. UB has depth – quality depth – and enough talent to make things interesting come March.
“The next progression is to get over the hump and win some games,” she said. “We’ve got a little groove going.”