The bonding started quickly over lunch at a watering hole near the Sacramento State campus last fall.
Bunky Harkleroad was interviewing for the women’s basketball head-coaching job that had abruptly opened with Jamie Craighead’s 11th-hour decision to become San Jose State’s coach.
Bill Baxter, entering his third season as a Hornets assistant, was serving as Harkleroad’s host during the meet-and-greet that was sandwiched between Harkleroad’s on-campus interviews. Baxter had been conducting practices alone since the two other assistants followed Craighead to San Jose.
Before ordering lunch, Harkleroad started to explain “The System,” the frenetic fullcourt pressing and high-scoring attack he was using with much success at Division II Glenville State in West Virginia.
Baxter, a renowned up-tempo, fullcourt pressing guy as a Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame coach at El Camino High School, was intrigued.
“When I was told we’d have 90 minutes for lunch, my first thought was, ‘That’s a long time,’ ” Baxter said. “Then Bunky starts moving the salt and pepper shakers around. I’m thinking I need a notepad.
“An hour goes by, and we realize we haven’t ordered. By the time we get our food, we have about four minutes left to eat, I had to box mine up, and I’m wondering, how did an hour an half go by so fast?”
Harkleroad said talking with Baxter only reinforced how much he wanted the chance to coach his unique style at a Division I program on the rise, even if it meant moving across the country.
“We clicked right away,” Harkleroad said. “After that lunch, I was even more fired up than I was going in – and I was excited going in. I felt with coach Baxter in place taking care of things, we could hit the ground running.”
Harkleroad’s hiring was announced one month before the Hornets’ first game. Nine days later, Kim Stephens, who played and was an assistant coach for Harkleroad at Glenville State, joined Baxter as an assistant. More than a month later, and with the season already under way, Derrick Florence, a Southern Californian, joined the staff.
What started as a shotgun wedding of coaches with diverse backgrounds has turned into a harmonious marriage.
They helped turn the Hornets into a team one Montana sportswriter described as fast-break basketball on Red Bull. Sac State opened the season with a school-record 11-1 start and set a number of school, conference and NCAA records en route to a spot in the Big Sky tournament in Grand Forks, N.D.
The No. 7-seeded Hornets (18-11, 10-10) today open against No. 2-seeded Southern Utah (21-8, 15-5). If they win, they will face Big Sky champion and host North Dakota on Friday.
While Harkleroad says most of the credit goes to the players for battling through injuries, a lack of size and the conference’s grueling travel to reach the postseason tournament for a third consecutive season, his assistants deserve kudos, too.
“I call my staff the brain trust,” he said. “They’ve been great to lean on and learn from.”
Harkleroad knew Stephens would be the perfect fit because not only did she have a first-rate basketball mind as an assistant for him at Glenville State, she could relate to the players’ skepticism about some of the radical changes that were made.
When Harkleroad was being interviewed for the Glenville State job by the team’s 12 players, Stephens was the team’s lone “no” vote regarding his hiring.
“When he first presented ‘The System,’ I thought, ‘This guy is crazy,’ ” Stephens said. “ ‘This is never going to work.’ I told my parents, ‘I don’t want to play for this man.’ ”
She changed her mind after two weeks of practice.
“I was in love with it,” said Stephens, who captained Harkleroad’s 2010-11 Glenville State team that won the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title and an NCAA D-II Tournament berth. “It was the most fun way to play basketball.”
Florence said he was intrigued enough that even as someone who earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard, coached successful girls high school teams in his hometown of Compton and worked as an assistant at Cal State Los Angeles last season, he saw a unique opportunity beyond his comfort zone.
“(The System) was totally new to me,” Florence said. “But I like being taught new things about basketball.”
Baxter won a section-record 601 girls basketball games and a state championship at El Camino and was a key reason Sac State went from a four-win team in 2010-11 to one that won 32 games in his first two seasons as a Hornets assistant.
But at times this season, Baxter said, he felt like a rookie coach. “What I’ve learned has taken me to a place I’ve never been before.”
As a four-year player, team leader and someone with coaching aspirations, senior guard Alle Moreno said she appreciates how the new coaches handled the challenging transition.
“With all the obstacles placed in front of us, we have adapted, and our coaching staff made it a lot easier for us,” Moreno said. “I thought they came in and were positive, really set the tone on what we were going to do, and they stuck to it.
“We’ve really gotten to know them this season, especially traveling so much, and that’s been nice.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.