This local Div. II women’s basketball coach has 1,000 victories to her name

Barbara Stevens
Bentley College women's basketball coach Barbara Stevens. –Bentley College

PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. — The problem was with the entry pass, with the positioning in the paint, with the team’s inability to get the ball to the biggest player in a spot where she could make the most advantageous use of her size and strength.

All of this was painfully apparent to coach Barbara Stevens on the Bentley University bench as Victoria Lux, her 6-foot-1-inch center, struggled in the first half with a swarming Pace University defense. Her team seemed vulnerable to an upset.

Stevens — the matriarch of Bentley, a longtime Division II power and 2014 national champion — was already plotting her midgame modifications.

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“They fronted her and brought a tremendous amount of help,” she said in reflecting on the game, which took place late last month. “I thought we didn’t have the correct angles, talked about it at halftime, made a few adjustments.”

Sure enough, on Bentley’s first second-half possession, Lux planted herself closer to the basket and the ball moved swiftly to the wing and then was lobbed to her over a smaller Pace defender. Improved angle, better result. Two points for Lux on her way to a dominant second half and a 72-66 road victory, the 1,002nd of Stevens’ 41-year career, a run of sustained excellence that, on a level of national celebrity, has been a storied secret.

Which is not necessarily a problem for her.

“I came to a point where I believed that I’m better suited, perhaps, out of the limelight,” Stevens said.

From her first head-coaching days in 1977 at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, through a trying three years at the University of Massachusetts before settling in for an ongoing 32-year run at Bentley in Waltham, a suburb of Boston, Stevens’ life has often been one of strategic adjustments, as it was that night against Pace.

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It is an approach that has allowed her to identify the preferred position, the perfect place, and it has not been at the top of the coaching ladder.

Decades before Stevens became the fifth women’s college coach to win 1,000 career games, she was a star on the rise, in the middle of the budding movement to raise the profile of the game, to promote gender equity in sports.

“She has always been one of the great ambassadors for the women’s game and a great leader for women in general,” Muffet McGraw, a head-coaching fixture at Notre Dame since 1987, said in a telephone interview.

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Stevens has had professional relationships and friendships with those coaches who have name recognition in women’s basketball, people like McGraw as well as the four others who are members of the 1,000-victory club: University of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt; Sylvia Hatchell of the University of North Carolina; Tara VanDerveer of Stanford University; and most notably, Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, with whom Stevens coached at USA Basketball camps in the early 1990s.

All are Division I lifers, except for Stevens, who is also the only Division II coach to have been president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (in 1984-85).

She coached against McGraw while she was at Massachusetts and McGraw was at Lehigh University. Her 1985-86 Massachusetts team surrendered a second-half lead to a Connecticut squad playing its seventh game of Auriemma’s debut season.

“I don’t remember much other than we both didn’t have very good teams,” Stevens said. “Who knew that he was going to go on to make that program into what he did?”

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Who knew that Stevens, upon leaving Massachusetts and relocating to Bentley — a private university with a combined undergraduate/graduate enrollment of about 5,500 students and a highly respected business and finance curriculum — would establish a program that has, on occasion, been called the UConn of Division II?

That would be in terms of consistency, longevity and fundamental quality, because Stevens has claimed only that one national title (with an unbeaten team) to Auriemma’s 11. But over more than three decades at Bentley, she has a winning percentage over 80 percent, has been to 29 NCAA tournaments, has won 14 regional titles, has played in 10 semifinals and has had a dozen 30-win seasons.

She was elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, entering in the same class — coincidently, but happily — as Auriemma.

“One of my favorite people in the profession,” Auriemma wrote in an email. “The way she runs her program is impressive, but the most impressive aspect of her program is how consistently they compete for and win championships. Regardless of what division we are talking about, she is one of the best coaches in the country.”

Which, in a coaching culture of ambitious careerists, raises an obvious question: After so much success, why has Stevens remained at Bentley?

She has been asked about this enough times, of course, though mostly from those who don’t know her, or are late to her story, or outside her circle.

It wasn’t the Massachusetts years and her 34-49 record there that gave bigger schools pause, even after Stevens had moved on to Bentley and begun piling up victories.

“I was approached by a number of D-1 schools through the years,” she said. “I had to decide whether it was the opportunity to move again or the quality of life that I wanted, the niche I really found when I came here, a wonderful balance.”

Could she have had that at Big Budget U, where inherent pressures are greater and where the elite recruits increasingly mimic the men, convinced that they are, as players, the essence of their promotional highlight videos?

“Unfortunately, in some ways I see the high-level women’s game traveling the same road the men have traveled,” Stevens said.

She is quick to point out that not every Division I program is Connecticut, or Notre Dame, where the gender-resources gap has been narrowed to little or nothing. At Connecticut, Chris Dailey, Auriemma’s longtime associate head coach, has often cited that unfortunate reality as one of her motivations for not pursuing a program of her own.

So Stevens stayed at Bentley because, as McGraw said of her friend, “You don’t always have to have more when you already have everything you want.”

At Bentley, she hasn’t been alone in that regard. The men’s basketball coach, Jay Lawson, is in his 27th year. Bob DeFelice, the baseball coach, has been coaching there for half a century. Dick Lipe, the sports information director, is in year 41.

“We attract really good student-athletes here,” Stevens said. “They’re smart, motivated and that’s why I’m still coaching.”

Stevens’ associate head coach, C White, played for her at the turn of the century. Christiana Bakolas, an assistant coach, was the point guard and captain of the 2014 title team.

“We made it to the Final Four my sophomore year, Elite 8 my freshman year,” Bakolas said. “We wanted it so much for her.”

McGraw, meanwhile, recalled a conversation with Stevens soon after the 2014 title, which was achieved with a rally against West Texas A&M University with less than six minutes to play. Stevens, said McGraw, insisted that the victory was something for every Bentley player she had ever coached to savor.

Her reputation has become a recipe for success, her program a destination for quality high school players who may never have heard of Stevens before someone — a basketball-coaching uncle in Bakolas’ case — mentioned this slender Massachusetts native with an easy smile and calm demeanor who has carved a place in women’s basketball history right at home, out of the limelight.

“We understand who we are, where we are, in the Boston area, not a lot of attention,” Stevens said. “We don’t even get our Bentley community to pay attention sometimes. But I’m an extremely passionate, competitive person, consumed by what I do. Our resources are different from D-1. Our staffs are smaller. But we recruit really hard.”

As a Division II program, Bentley can offer scholarships, and it has not been uncommon for players to choose the leafy campus with quick access to Boston over Division I programs, given Bentley’s academic offerings along with Stevens’ record of steering teams deep into March.

Becca Musgrove played three years at Brown University before missing her senior season with an injury and applying to Bentley’s graduate school and for a coaching internship. With one season of eligibility left, she has wound up a vital cog in Stevens’ rotation, a 5-foot-9-inch blur of aggression who scored 20 points in the win over Pace, No. 1,002.

“I never set out to win 1,000 games,” Stevens said. “I only set out to win the next game.”

The milestone night arrived on Jan. 17, at home against Adelphi University, a Northeast-10 Conference rival, with the Bentley community out in full. In the final seconds of a 78-66 victory, the fans chanted Stevens’ name, her players dumped a barrel of confetti on her and she soon stepped to a microphone to talk about sacrifice, about the gatherings with relatives she had to miss over the years to attend to her family of student-athletes.

“I apologized to them for that,” she said, without promising to never be absent again.

A single woman of 63, Stevens looked around and saw her aging mother, out on a frosty New England night, in her wheelchair. She saw reporters from various Massachusetts media outlets there to finally pay attention. She saw her players, current and former, moved to tears, even a few who went back to her days at Clark and who were no younger than her.

The countdown to 1,000, after all, had started when Stevens was barely out of college. It was a long road to the limelight, her deserved position and place.

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