JSU banks on new coach turning around women's hoops team
by Al Muskewitz
Jun 24, 2013 | 4131 views |  0 comments | 96 96 recommendations | email to a friend | print
New Jacksonville State coach Rick Pietri posted a 220-167 record in 13 seasons at South Alabama. (Photo courtesy of the University of South Alabama)
New Jacksonville State coach Rick Pietri posted a 220-167 record in 13 seasons at South Alabama. (Photo courtesy of the University of South Alabama)
JACKSONVILLE — Rick Pietri knows a thing or two about taking a downtrodden Division I program and turning it into a consistent winner. He did it at South Alabama, and Jacksonville State officials are banking on him being able to do it for them, too.

Pietri was hired Monday as the Gamecocks’ new women’s basketball coach. It will be his charge to change the culture of a program that has endured five straight 20-loss seasons, eight straight losing seasons and won more than 15 games in any season only once in the last 20 years.

It’s nothing new to him. He took over a Lady Jaguars’ program in the midst of 10 straight losing seasons at the time he arrived. He produced 10 winning seasons in 13 years and a 220-167 record. He had three 20-win seasons and two conference titles and got USA in the Women’s NIT.

“I had an opportunity to take over a program that had struggled for a long time and was fortunate enough to win a couple titles and consistently produce a competitive program,” Pietri said from his home in Mobile. “It’s an incredible challenge and the journey — and it’s going to be a journey, it’s not going to be a short walk — is something I’m looking forward to.

“This is going to be a process, not a quick fix. It will take a while, but hopefully the community will understand I have done it before and done it well ... and clearly my hope is I’ll be able to do it again.”

Pietri succeeds Annette Watts, who resigned earlier this month.

Watts, who went 1-27 in the final season of her three years at JSU, took a high school coaching job in Tennessee.

Al.com reported the Gamecocks’ nationwide search came down to three finalists. JSU athletics director Warren Koegel declined to identify the finalists but described them as “championship caliber” coaches.

Details of the multi-year contract Pietri is expected to sign were still under discussion. He expects to return to JSU “within the next 48 hours” and is currently pursuing “a path” to assembling a staff.

Pietri, hired by former USA athletics director Joe Gottfried, was relieved of his duties by current AD Joel Erdmann in March despite being the program’s all-time winningest coach. Erdmann told al.com at the time he felt a change was needed in the women’s program. Koegel said he looked into the circumstances surrounding Pietri’s departure and found no red flags.

“What I believe to be true is if Joe were still at South Alabama I’d probably still be at South Alabama, but that’s not the case,” Pietri said. “The truth is when you have a program that’s consistently competitive, there’s always an expectation or more and better, and I understand that. The expectation is we’re competitive, we’ve got to be better than competitive. We’ve got to win a title. One just has to look at what’s going on in the NBA for comparison. If you’re competitive, they expect you to win it all, and if you don’t win it all you’re not winning enough. That’s just the bottom line.”

Before taking the USA women’s job, Pietri was a successful boys high school coach. His B.C. Rain team played in the state championship game four times in five years — winning once — and beat Anniston in the 1998 Class 5A state semifinals.

“The bottom line is to find the right fit for us,” Koegel said. “Rick is a really good coach and he’s very, very good at his job.

“What we’ve got is a really quality individual who’s going to be organized and the girls are going to learn a lot of basketball, and that’s crucial. At the same time the experience will be a good one.”

Pietri is the second former South Alabama coach JSU has hired to lead one of its sports teams in the last seven months. Former South Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Clark was hired as head football coach in December.

Clark worked in the same athletics department with Pietri for five years and was impressed with his work ethic.

“Their weight room was over in our building, and I always thought they were hard workers,” Clark said. “I’d always look at the teams as they came in, and they worked hard and seemed to have a good attitude, which as I coach I looked at. I was always impressed.”

The Lady Jaguars were 17-13 this past season. Jacksonville State has won that many games in a season only once since moving to Division I (18-10 in 2003-04).

Pietri becomes the eighth male head women’s basketball coach in the Ohio Valley Conference, and his hiring leaves the Gamecocks with only one female head coach in their athletics department — softball’s Jana McGinnis. Morehead State (women’s golf), Tennessee Tech (softball) and UT Martin (equestrian) also have only one female head coach among OVC schools.

JSU’s last two non-football head coaching vacancies, positions previously held by women, were filled by men. Attempts to reach the Women’s Sports Foundation for comment late Monday were unsucessful.

“We did interview women. We did interview minorities. We did interview men,” Koegel said, noting McGinnis and senior women’s administrator Tracy Broom both were on the search committee. “We tried to find the best person we could. It could have been a woman. It could have been a man. It turned out to be Rick.

“He was the one who had the experience, and at this time our program needs that experience and cohesiveness and togetherness from someone who has done it before, along with his overall record and his academic record as well as what he does on the court and off the court.”

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.
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