Former SU star Felisha Legette-Jack builds contender at Buffalo

first_img Published on January 14, 2020 at 11:12 pm Contact Andrew: [email protected] | @CraneAndrew Roshan Fernandez | Asst. Digital EditorIn Legette-Jack’s go-to parable, Buffalo’s the ant to the elephants of Oregon, Connecticut and Stanford. Against Ryerson, though, the Bulls are the elephant. Cordoba said the two animals have never taken the same path twice in her nine years of hearing Legette-Jack use the story, but in the end the ants always win.In a way, that mirrors Legette-Jack’s program at Buffalo. The players she recruits aren’t the elephants of their class, and that’s on purpose. Each ant — the unoffered forward from Australia, the transfer from UMass who ponders quitting — brings an element that combines to unseat the giant. It happened in nonconference play, then the MAC tournament and the NCAAs.“Coach Jack can give a speech, and you’ll be ready to give up your kidney for her,” Dillard said. “She could be preaching about peanut butter and jelly, she could make that speech where you’re like, ‘Woah, wait a minute. I’m gonna run through a brick wall for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.’”Other schools have inquired, but Legette-Jack’s remained committed to what she built. Last April, she signed a five-year extension and then brought in Fair, the guard currently ranked fourth in the nation in points per game. From a sideline chair, Legette-Jack reflected on everything that’s happened since she left Indiana and arrived at UB. She smiled when Onwuka, the girl she called out earlier for dropping a pass, drove past an assistant for a layup one-on-one.“You may not like me every day,” Legette-Jack said. “You may not like me all the time. But it’s okay because I’m not here to be a 17-year-old friend. I have enough friends.”Her voice trailed off, and she stood up. A ball came bouncing from Onwuka. Instead of passing it back, she laughed and started to dribble. Onwuka crouched in her defensive stance and waited for Legette-Jack to drive. Comments BUFFALO — Felisha Legette-Jack shook her head and lifted her elbow off the scorer’s table. The University at Buffalo head coach motioned for freshman guard Dyaisha Fair to step aside. Her pass wasn’t crisp enough. And because of that, Theresa Onwuka’s shot from the elbow during a Dec. 19 practice inside Alumni Arena was contested.Clad in a gray shirt, black sweatpants and Nike sneakers, Legette-Jack picked up the ball and dribbled, running through the play again and firing a pass to Onwuka to demonstrate. The senior guard bobbled it.“Don’t get your ass beat by a coach,” Legette-Jack said. She repeated the sequence, and this time Onwuka caught the pass and swished a shot.There were less than 24 hours and one seemingly pointless scrimmage against Ryerson University separating UB’s 16 players from the holiday break. The injuries had added up. The long days had become taxing. If her players wanted to check out early, Legette-Jack didn’t let them.So they ran. Fair led the pack as the Bulls sprinted up and down the court. Mid-American Conference play was on the horizon, a league the Bulls had won two of the last four years. One of the seasons they didn’t win it, UB received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament anyway. Before Legette-Jack arrived in 2012, Buffalo had never made an NCAA tournament.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“Once you buy in, then there’s the chemistry and everyone’s in the fox hole,” former forward Brittany Morrison said. “It works.”Roshan Fernandez | Asst. Digital EditorLegette-Jack’s path to UB started when she graduated from Syracuse in 1989 as the all-time leader for points and rebounds. That turned into assistant- and head-coaching jobs with highs at Hofstra and a rock-bottom when she was fired from Indiana in 2012. Just when a second chance seemed nonexistent, she inherited a nine-win Buffalo team without an identity or a MAC championship. She vowed to be her “authentic self,” something that escaped her at IU.“I’d call it pretty major league, and you might call it high mid-major, except they’re pretty special,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie, Legette-Jack’s head coach at Michigan State, said. “What she’s done there is amazing.”The players from Legette-Jack’s inaugural season — the ones that maybe didn’t buy into her coaching style right away, former UB associate head coach Cherie Cordoba said — have long graduated. Most of the players from the 2016, 2018 and 2019 teams that lifted the program to postseason-tournament expectations are gone, too. But this season is already trending toward what has become normalcy with the Bulls, preserved through Legette-Jack’s unique culture of new beginnings.When UB missed free throws during a wind-sprint breather, Legette-Jack once again grew impatient. Ball after ball bounced off the rim’s side, and her voice echoed across the arena.“You guys don’t care about free throws. You just want to throw them up in the air and hope.”Almost immediately, those misses turned to makes.***Right before UB’s final pregame meal before the 2018 NCAA tournament in Tallahassee, the two players who turned around the program history fell behind the rest of their teammates. Stephanie Reid and Cierra Dillard, the on- and off-court leaders of Buffalo’s tournament teams, convened with Legette-Jack in a Red Lobster parking lot.Buffalo was the only program Reid wanted to leave her native Australia for, Legette-Jack said, but that opportunity was delayed. At one point, it wasn’t even an option because UB initially offered its last opening to a commit from Croatia. When she backed out, Legette-Jack offered Reid the vacant spot, and she lifted the Bulls to their first tournament appearance in 2016 with a buzzer-beating floater in the MAC Championship.“When you got a point guard like her that no one believed in either, and she wanted to prove herself, and here I am, a coach wanting to prove myself again, it was a wonderful match,” Legette-Jack said.Courtesy of Paul HokansonDillard wasn’t supposed to play at UB, either. Legette-Jack had recruited her out of Gates Chili (New York) High School, but Dillard chose the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Two years later, she transferred with a dissolved passion, and quitting was a likely option — until Legette-Jack reeled her back in.Dillard’s became somewhat of a “mini Coach Jack,” which started when she sat out her first year at UB due to transfer rules and became Legette-Jack’s unofficial assistant. It was the same role that got Legette-Jack into coaching when a senior-year knee injury at Syracuse allowed Barb Jacobs, head coach of the Orange at the time, to direct coaching tidbits toward Legette-Jack on the sideline.Dillard’s white Buick Encore with gray under-bottom was the smaller version of Legette-Jack’s white Buick Enclave with gray under-bottom. They had the same hair. They were both raised by a single mother. Dillard’s teammates gawked when she strolled onto the court, joking to behave when mini-coach was around.“We both went through a traumatic career experience: In Indiana, she wanted to quit, after UMass I wanted to quit,” Dillard recalled. “She said, ‘Just give me a chance, Cierra.’”After all, that’s what Legette-Jack wanted, too. Her six years in Bloomington featured three 18-win seasons that included a record-tying 21 in 2008-09. That followed a stint with Hofstra where she turned the Pride’s dreadful past into winning seasons.At the end of the 2011-12 year with the Hoosiers, though, she was fired. Cordoba, an assistant under Legette-Jack at Hofstra and Indiana, said it “hurt her soul.”She’s seen the big stage that every mid-major program strives for at Boston College, Syracuse and Michigan State. Each assistant job along the way prepped her strategically, but also exposed her to the inner workings of a program. When she got to Buffalo, Legette-Jack started with little things. She gave her players books to read — spanning from “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon to Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go” — and invited the team over to her house for backyard volleyball.That quickly expanded into more. Legette-Jack positioned assistants outside classrooms for random class checks, not only to make sure the Bulls went, but also so they arrived on time. During their freshman year in 2015, Ayoleka Sodade and Gabi Bade showed up five minutes late to English and ran into their coaches. The next morning before practice, Bade and Sodade ran 50 down-and-backs — 10 for each minute they were late.“No matter who you are, your status on the team, however many points you score, however many you make, you have to buy into her program, her expectations, her rules,” Sodade said.Legette-Jack regularly woke the team up on the nighttime bus rides 15 minutes before arriving to clean up and prepare, but did so by grabbing the microphone and screaming the national anthem or Rihanna’s “Shine Bright Like a Diamond.”After an intense offseason workout or when she felt a player was slipping away, Legette-Jack would slip notes inside a locker. Sometimes, they were simple quotes. Other times, they were hand-crafted messages. Dillard once received one that read, “Cierra, you made me love basketball again. You made me love coaching again.” Which was ironic, Dillard recalled, because Legette-Jack rekindled her passion, too.***With nearly all the balls racked and the scoreboard turned off, Buffalo’s players started to trickle off the court when that late-December practice ended. They’d gather the next morning at IHOP for a team breakfast, and Legette-Jack’s speech from practice — about good teams not playing down to the level of lower-tier opponents — would likely take another form in the locker room before scrimmaging Ryerson.center_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *