Critics unleash on Littlejohn before she’s had a decent chance

It’s fairly common to see a columnist ripping a coach to shreds. Take Vikings coach Dennis Green. Columnists in the Twin Cities should send Vikings owner Red McCombs a fruit basket every week for not firing Green years ago.
The rule is simple: If you’re writing a column, it’s always easy to criticize a coach. Which brings us to one of the most criticized women’s coaches in Minnesota, Cheryl Littlejohn.
Littlejohn has guided the Gophers women’s basketball team for three seasons and, in almost all of those, she has taken some heat. But maybe this is one instance where critics are jumping the gun.
Her women’s basketball team won 10 games last season, including three in the Big Ten. Contrast that to her first year, when the Gophers won four games, one of which was a freak Big Ten contest.
If any of Littlejohn’s detractors had actually been to games over the past few years — and judging from attendance, they haven’t — they’d see an improvement in the team.
Littlejohn’s squad managed to win 10 games this season without a true point guard. Starter Tweet Blevins went down early in the year and her backup Natea Motley (a Nike All-American) left school to be with her baby daughter.
That’s a tough hit for any team to take. Littlejohn even sounds a little surprised her team managed to hit double digits in the win column.
“Ten wins — that’s a feat for us, looking at all the problems,” Littlejohn said. “After all our injuries, that was honestly a goal. Ten wins is kind of major.”
Make no mistake — the sloppy, slow pace Minnesota has played at over the past two years isn’t something she wants to improve a little on. Since she started, Littlejohn has stripped away the old system and slowly brought in her style of play.
“I want an up-tempo pace, definitely,” Littlejohn said. “The game is more exciting; you can have a lot more options on offense, even in the half-court.”
There’s no way her team has gotten to that up-tempo pace yet. And Littlejohn isn’t trying to fool anybody; she knows her team is still mediocre at best.
Next year, she hopes to win 16 or 17 games at the most. But when a program has been as bad as Minnesota’s, 16 or 17 wins is an accomplishment. (Note to the men’s basketball program:Improvement comes in small steps, nobody.) To get those 16 or 17 wins, Littlejohn is counting on a very strong (by Gophers standards) recruiting class.
Littlejohn managed to keep three all-staters in Minnesota this year, a stat that would have her predecessor drooling. Oh, and there’s All-American Tanisha Gilbert who’s coming to play next year.
“Tanisha is a 6-footer who can handle the ball. She’s the most athletic player (of the recruits),” Littlejohn said. “It says a lot about the direction we’re going in when Tanisha Gilbert, a Nike All-American, turned down top basketball schools … to come to Minnesota.”
Littlejohn practically gushes when she talks about recruiting, a facet of coaching she’s pretty good at. She was an ace recruiter for North Carolina State and Alabama in the mid ’90s. But things were a little different when Littlejohn started at Minnesota.
“When we were first recruiting, there was slim pickings,” she said. “We’re trying to establish relationships with coaches in the state, and they’re coming around.”
There’s no question high school coaches are coming around. Now it’s the media’s turn to come around.
Don’t be fooled by a byline and a picture of a columnist — writers are often way off base.
In 1997, one of the longest-standing reporters in the Twin Cities wrote the Minnesota men’s basketball team wouldn’t be successful with its nine-man rotation. They were constantly taking players in and out of the lineup, and they’d never be good enough to win much of anything, the reporter reasoned.
A couple of months later, the reporter was on a local television station making fun of himself for being so wrong.
It comes down to patience. Does Littlejohn have the program headed in the right direction? It seems like it. One thing is certain: She’s done nothing but improve the team, so she doesn’t deserve to be hammered by critics.
But four-win seasons won’t be tolerated again either.
Jim Schortemeyer is the sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]