Summit…Discipline…Disciple…Littlejohn

by Aaron Kirscht

As their new coach walked through the door and into the locker room in the basement of the Sports Pavilion, a month of anticipation boiled over into a frenzy of excitement. Finally, members of the Gophers women’s basketball team could put two dismal seasons behind them, under the guidance of … .
“Who’s she?”
Cheryl Littlejohn’s introduction as coach, which occurred a year ago Saturday, was hardly earth-shattering. Her new team didn’t even know who she was at first; Littlejohn didn’t have the national name recognition of some of the other rumored candidates for the job.
But they soon learned about her ties to top-flight programs: Tennessee, North Carolina State and Alabama. She won a national championship with Tennessee as a player in 1987.
Littlejohn had been rising fast, thanks to her prowess as a recruiter. But her hiring still raised some questions. Could she carry Minnesota along with her? Could she keep the state’s top recruits at home, something her predecessor couldn’t? And perhaps even more importantly, could she gain the interest of fans, who long ago walked away after a series of poor seasons?
As the anniversary of Littlejohn’s hiring approaches, the temptation for many has been to call her first year — not just with this particular program, but her first ever as a head coach — a failed experiment.
The same players who didn’t know Littlejohn learned about her in a hurry. Many didn’t care for the lesson.
The evolution of a program at its lowest point, where the Gophers sat a year ago, into one that draws the highest praise, where the program hopes to climb, has yet to occur. But determining if Littlejohn’s first shot was her best could take years.
Growing pains
At this point, whether the Gophers have improved at all from their lowly status under seven-year coach Linda Hill-MacDonald is still in question.
Minnesota was 4-24 the year before Littlejohn took over, and finished this year 4-23. The Gophers employed a tougher brand of defense than in years past and managed to keep more games close, but still lost more than a few by embarrassing deficits.
The coach has a long way to go until she reaches the heights of her mentor, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who lords over a program on the verge of a dynasty.
Littlejohn has instituted a program philosophy based on discipline and commitment, both hallmarks of the Tennessee program. She’s clearly modeled her motivational style after Summitt, who is known for her iron-fisted approach to coaching.
The rookie coach’s tactics, however, have been roundly criticized. Four scholarship athletes — sophomores Kiauna Burns and Andrea Seago and juniors Lynda Hass and Sarah Klun — left the team in the past month. Each cited different reasons for leaving, but more often than not, their criticisms were of Littlejohn.
The coach has been described as excessively negative, and as someone with whom it could often be difficult to get along. Players and parents hit Littlejohn with allegations ranging from threats to pull players’ scholarships to withholding post-game meals after a particularly bad loss.
“The returning players were more used to Coach MacDonald’s style and how she dealt with things,” said senior Angie Iverson, whose eligibility ran out at season’s end. “When Coach Littlejohn came in, it was like night and day the way things were handled.”
When a group of seven players — Burns, Hass, Iverson, Klun and three freshmen; Theresa LeCuyer, Brandy Pickens and Ayesha Whitfield — were caught drinking Feb. 22, they received a one-game suspension and missed the Big Ten tournament opener.
Following the incident, the seven players were asked to sign “good behavior pacts” that, depending on the player, required an 11 p.m., seven-days-a-week curfew or moving into a specially assigned dorm room. Only the freshmen signed the pact. The rest are no longer on the team.
“She’s really intense, she asks a lot of her players and she wants a very big commitment,” Iverson said. “A lot of us weren’t used to that. Some of us, I think, didn’t feel that they could make the commitment that Coach Littlejohn expected out of everyone.”
Littlejohn and women’s athletics director Chris Voelz maintain that player departures are a common result of coaching changes. A new system of rules and regulations often won’t appeal to players who were recruited and played under different systems.
“When her team is made up of her recruits,” Voelz said, “who have been told exactly how the system will operate and what the demands are, and people are still transferring, that’s when there’s a problem.”
Littlejohn said she doesn’t plan to alter her coaching style at all, regardless of the criticisms. She wished the departed players well, but said her focus is now on the remaining players and those on the way.
“Life doesn’t stop,” Littlejohn said. “Am I going to stop and dwell on this? Not at all.”
The Summitt Factor
At Tennessee, Summitt preaches a boot-camp style of basketball, centered around a handful of major themes: discipline, commitment, loyalty and respect.
But if a player won’t play by the rules Summitt lays down (and follows herself), that player won’t last long in Knoxville. Summitt’s job is not just to win games and championships — although she’s won six since 1987. She must also turn out women who are ready to face the challenges of the world away from basketball.
Summitt encouraged Littlejohn to take the Minnesota job, calling the state “a gold mine” of talent. But she knows — along with Littlejohn and Voelz — that building a program takes years, not months.
“It’s more of an adjustment period right now,” Summitt said. “Cheryl’s in a situation where she has to instill her philosophy in a group of women who were recruited and performed under another system.
“If you’ve always driven a particular car, then all of a sudden you’re driving another, you’re not going to be comfortable for a while. You just have to grip the wheel, shift the gears and work through it.”
Littlejohn spent much of her Tennessee career on the bench. Her best year, in 1986, was unimpressive statistically; she averaged only 3.1 points and 1.8 rebounds.
But Summitt said Littlejohn’s strongest asset, her work ethic, never wavered. It’s those intangible abilities — not her on-court prowess — that will determine her success as a coach at Minnesota.
“(Littlejohn is) a product of her environment,” Summitt said. “She played at Tennessee and she knows right from wrong. It’s going to take a high-energy person to get results there. You can’t have someone who’s laid back and unmotivated and still do what you want to do there.”
What Littlejohn has said she wants to do is build a team that’s greatest strength lies between the ears: mental toughness. Perhaps she saw a lack of that quality in the team she inherited, and reverted to her days at Tennessee, when Summitt was nothing if not a hardcore disciplinarian.
But by Minnesota standards, where “nice” is the state’s unofficial surname, Littlejohn’s in-your-face attitude often proved irritating. Suicide sprints and punishment practices may work in Tennessee, but can they work here?
Summitt said she “can’t relate” to a situation in which players quit because they felt they were overly disciplined. And she called the players’ post-departure comments “unfortunate.”
“You discipline yourself so no one else has to,” Summitt said. “If you make the decision to leave the program because you were disciplined (by the coach), then what’s at question here — you or the program?
“Why fault anyone who’s trying to give some discipline to young people? You should applaud that. So many times we give the microphone to kids, and the adults are not in a position to talk.”
Summitt contends that Littlejohn has the answers to the questions that have plagued Minnesota women’s basketball for so many years.
“I think Cheryl’s going about it the right way,” Summitt said. “Will her way win out? I think so. She can build a program there — or somewhere — if given the opportunity and the support.”
Down the road
Littlejohn took over the Gophers at a point in the year when it was too late to make a play for any top recruits, and the player defections this season seem to have put her in the same situation.
In addition to the four players who left for personal reasons, junior Sarah Schieber quit the team to go to dental school, and walk-on Rachel Young is seeking a scholarship in California. But the sudden glut of scholarships might actually help the Gophers, by allowing Littlejohn to fill the bench with players who want to be there.
“My enthusiasm, my excitement for the game, my philosophy, my expectations and demands, my work ethic will not change,” Littlejohn said. “That’s what Coach Littlejohn is all about, and I think that’s what I will always be about. The players I’m recruiting know that.”