On the Court with Bobbie Kelsey
At first glance, Bobbie Kelsey is a laid-back Southern girl who reels people in with her down-home charm. But spend a chunk of time with the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball coach and you’ll discover a ferocious intensity that knows no bounds.
You don’t need to look further than Kelsey’s Stanford basketball career to discern where lessons in perseverance came from. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee before her senior season at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Georgia, but the setback didn’t deter Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer from recruiting the talented defensive player. Stanford won the 1992 NCAA Tournament championship during Kelsey’s freshman season, and despite being sidelined after undergoing surgery, the rookie was named most inspirational player by teammates.
The injury bug bit a second time when Kelsey tore her right ACL midway through her senior season, but again, she earned the most inspirational accolade from her fellow players.
“I didn’t change when my personal situation wasn’t going great,” Kelsey says. “I got hurt coming in and going out. What can you do about that? You can show up, be around, be positive and help people. If things don’t go your way, you still can be a vital, important piece to the big puzzle.”
Now, as a Big Ten head coach, Kelsey brings those same make-no-excuses attributes to her own program, one she was chosen to whip into shape. But as much as her job is to push, push, push her players, her philosophy is that she has to bond with them, too. Interpersonal connections were easy to overlook in a whirlwind first season, so building them has become a top priority for her second season, which starts mid-month.
“I want to try to get to know them more as people,” Kelsey says. “Because when you have to get on them and tell them what they don’t always want to hear, it is taken more personally when they feel they don’t know you. It is tough.
“You can’t pacify people, sugarcoat everything and put a bow on it. Sometimes kids want that, but that’s not going to help them or help Wisconsin.”
White House photographs adorn the walls of Kelsey’s Kohl Center office, a reminder that she reached the pinnacle of success when Stanford received a presidential invitation to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 1992 NCAA Tournament title.
Kelsey made assistant coach stops at five schools, including Florida and Virginia Tech, before returning to her alma mater in 2007 to help lead Stanford to four straight Final Four appearances.
Stanford reached the Final Four in seven of Kelsey’s nine seasons as player and assistant, and replicating that success at Wisconsin isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal. But ratcheting up the competitive level is an achievable objective, according to athletic director Barry Alvarez.
Passion is one personality trait Alvarez admires in Kelsey, and he’s impressed with her exposure to championship basketball. Alvarez and Kelsey had similar career trajectories in the coaching ranks as assistants with highly successful programs—Alvarez with Iowa football and Kelsey at Stanford.
“We both are driven and both have a very distinct plan in how we’re going to succeed,” Alvarez says. “I really am impressed with her passion in recruiting, and the way she approaches the game and recruiting.”
While Alvarez wouldn’t elaborate on specific expectations, he is a firm believer that once Kelsey has recruits in place, the Badgers will flourish executing her upbeat style.
“I’ve always felt with our facilities and wherewithal that we provide the coaches, that (teams) be very competitive and compete at a very high level,” Alvarez says.
“I never talk to coaches about how many championships I expect them to win, or win Big Ten (championships) or Final Fours or anything like that. But I do expect them to compete at a high level and expect our student-athletes to have a great experience while they’re here.”
When practice starts, the mission is to improve on the 2011–12 campaign in which the team finished 9–20 overall and 5–11 in the Big Ten, tied for ninth place in the conference standings. Realistically, the Badgers need to inch closer toward the middle of the Big Ten pack and possibly gain a Women’s National Invitation Tournament berth.
Taylor Wurtz and Morgan Paige are the only returning starters, and Kelsey is excited to see what contributions freshmen Dakota Whyte, Makailah Dyer and Nicole Bauman bring to the lineup. Whyte is a true point guard, Bauman is the state’s reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and Dyer is a Madison East High School grad. Wurtz was the team leader last season in scoring and rebounding (16.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game), while Paige averaged double-digit scoring with ten points per game.
Kelsey is cognizant that changing the culture within a program that’s received only three NCAA Tournament bids in the past twelve seasons is a gradual process. According to former assistant coach Kyle Rechlicz, since Kelsey’s arrival in April 2011, she’s caught players’ attention by advocating a diligent work ethic in practice and off-court conditioning.
“The whole point of (last) season was implementing the idea of how hard you have to work in order to be successful and it was something the girls hadn’t experienced,” says Rechlicz, an ex-Wisconsin player who left Kelsey’s staff to become head coach of the UW–Milwaukee women’s basketball team.
VanDerveer, who has led the Cardinal to two NCAA championships and eleven NCAA Final Fours in twenty-seven seasons, has little doubt Kelsey will build a successful program in Madison as long as top athlete recruitment is a priority along with player development. When a winning tradition is established in a major conference, fan support will follow.
Kelsey is extremely competitive and likely won’t tolerate players who are “lazy and selfish,” says VanDerveer, a thirty-four-year veteran coach who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year. “Bobbie works very hard, and she enjoys game coaching,” she says. “Making adjustments will be one of her strengths.”
“Winning is fun,” VanDerveer adds. “Bobbie wasn’t hired to be the ‘Kumbaya’ coach. She’s hired to do what Barry Alvarez did in taking the football team to the Rose Bowl. She’s hired to go to the Final Four, that’s the expectation. It’s not going to happen without rubbing some people the wrong way.
“It’s a great opportunity and I know she’ll maximize it. It always will take a little time. I just hope that people are patient.”
Time is one commodity that’s been in short supply over the past eighteen months. Kelsey, who married real estate broker Kwame Grayson in August 2011, has developed an affinity for Madison, but other than basketball obligations and a steady stream of charitable events and volunteer efforts, she hasn’t explored the city as much as she would like. She touts the Kohl Center, Camp Randall and Bascom Hill as her favorite spots on campus, and participates in a culinary undertaking with her coaching staff in finding Madison’s best burger.
“Improve” is the operative word Kelsey uses to describe intentions for her second season. The dynamic and direct Kelsey, who turns forty in December, also is not daunted by challenges, though she readily admits to feeling the burden of expectations, explicit or not.
“The pressure is there in a lot of different areas, but I don’t let it define what I’m doing because I’m doing it the right way,” says Kelsey, who earned a $300,000 base salary last year and received a contract extension in spring that is slated to expire in May 2017.
“I love it here. They’ve given me the resources, the contract extension and all the things you need to do a good job. If in eight, nine or ten years I’m not getting it done, guess what? I should be gone. You can’t sit around and just be happy to have the job. We want to build the program, build it right with the right people and players, but that does take time.”
Tamira Madsen is an award-winning sportswriter who has written for the Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, CBSSports.com and The Sporting News. She covered the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball beat for six seasons at The Capital Times.