Littlejohn looks for new beginning

Aaron Kirscht

She’s been on the job for nearly two months, but new Gophers women’s basketball coach Cheryl Littlejohn is still trying to catch her breath.
The early part of her tenure has been spent shuttling back and forth between Alabama, where she lived and coached for the last three years, and her hometown of Gastonia, N.C. She’s still not completely settled in.
Actually, Littlejohn has spent the last decade on the move. After graduating from Tennessee in 1987, Littlejohn went to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Three years later, she returned to basketball, and with top assistant stints at North Carolina and Alabama, Littlejohn built a reputation as a top-flight recruiter.
Those skills should help her in Minnesota. Littlejohn will take over a team that is coming off the worst stretch in the 24-year history of the program, and signed only one of the state’s 24 Division I players. But she doesn’t seem overly concerned with the past. In fact, she makes every attempt to shift any attention away from it.
“My commitment is to not look back,” Littlejohn said. “Because when you do that you’re not going to make any progress. I told (the players) that the first day I met with them, and I’m going to keep telling them.”
And so the Littlejohn era promises to be one with a surplus of enthusiasm, carefully controlled by a strong sense of discipline. Throw in heart and character, Littlejohn said, and you’ve got a winning combination.

Daily: When (women’s athletics director) Chris Voelz called and offered you the job, what went through your mind?
Littlejohn: I told her I’d have to get back to her. I was excited at the time, but I wanted to talk to my mother (Delores). She told me to pray about it, and to not worry about the distance. She said, “If planes are flying, I’m going to be there.” My whole family will be around a lot.
D: What drew you to Minnesota?
L: The opportunity. I’ve always known a lot about the program, the administration and Minnesota’s commitment to women’s athletics. It’s a separate department [one of only six such schools in the country, including Tennessee] and we’re the number one priority.
And the (Sports Pavilion) is just awesome. It’s breathtaking. I had no idea what the facilities were like, but once I got here, it was like, “This is just for the women?” Out of the schools that have separate facilities for women, I’d say we’re number one. Everything’s first class.
D: What’s the transition been like for you?
L: It’s very encouraging. I haven’t had any resistance at all from anyone. Usually when there’s a coaching change, you expect some of that, either from the players or your colleagues. But I haven’t felt that at all.
D: How have the players reacted to the change?
L: You would not believe the excitement I’ve seen from the players. At my press conference I looked toward the back of the room and every one of (the players) had big smiles on their faces. That just made me feel so comfortable and relaxed.
Everyone, from the walk-ons to the scholarship athletes, has been dropping by my office every day. People have been overwhelmingly generous and very kind to me since I’ve been here. I feel very welcome.
D: How do you feel about the team you’re taking over? Is this a team you can work with?
L: This is the kind of team that any coach across the country would want to inherit, because they have heart and character and they work hard. I don’t care what type of talent you see on even some of the best teams in the country; they might be good, but they might not have that character.
I’ve watched a lot of film — I think I have a good idea of what we’re capable of — but they’re the ones that are going to determine the lineup, not me. I’m the most unbiased person on my staff, you can ask anyone. The players will be well-coached and cared for, but it’s up to them to get the job done on the court.
D: What sort of coach are you?
L: I consider myself a player’s coach. I’m never going to lose contact with my players, and I think that’s the most important thing.
Even as a first-time head coach, it can be easy to lose sight of the players. I know I have to go out and do a lot of speaking engagements and be involved in the community, but the people in corporate America aren’t going to score any points for me. They’re not going to chase down any rebounds. My main focus is the girls on this team. They’re my priority.
D: Does Clem Haskins’ success with the men’s program reflect on you and the women’s program? Is there more pressure to win?
L: When I saw what his team did last season, the only thing I thought was, “It can be done.” It was really encouraging to see what he’s done for the program. The expectations when he came here were so low, but through hard work and dedication he showed it could be done.
I see our program the same way. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but I’m trying to bring a new attitude. I think the players have picked up on that.