White wants fun, fans back in Memorial

Friday, November 25, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 48
By Tom Wood

Stephanie White, Vanderbilt’s new women’s coach, has coached in the WNBA and served as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and the Big 10 Network.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Vanderbilt Athletics

New Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach Stephanie White wants to field a team that mirrors what she’s all about.

Fans got a glimpse of that vision when her Commodores knocked off Duke 77-73 on Sunday to move to 3-1 on the year.

White hit the ground running – even before wrapping up her stint as coach of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever – and expects her team to do the same.

“On the court, we want to be a fast-paced team on both ends of the floor,” says White, the 1999 NCAA player of the year after leading Purdue to a national championship.

White was named as Melanie Balcomb’s replacement in late May, but she did not officially join the team until after the Fever’s final playoff loss on Sept. 21. She texted and Skyped frequently with associate coach Carolyn Peck, a former Vanderbilt star and White’s collegiate coach at Purdue, and visited Music City on weekends to make speaking engagements and get to know her players.

“We want to dictate what happens on the defensive end,’’ she explains. “Offensively, we want to push the tempo, we want to get great shots.

“We want to give our players the freedom to make plays, you know, within the structure of our offense and not necessarily the run plays. We want to be a fun basketball team to watch.”

That sounds very much like the same strategy she has developed for revitalizing the Commodores’ fan base.

Attendance fell from an average of 1,603 during that six-year span – from 4,589 per game (20th nationally) in the 2010-11 season to 2,906 last season (37th).

Sunday’s win against Duke at Memorial Gym drew 2,841 fans.

In that span, Vandy women’s attendance dropped more than 22,000 – from 68,828 in 2010-11 to 46,496 last season. The Commodores reached the NCAA Tournament for the first four years of that span, but failed to make the field the last two seasons.

In trying to woo fans back to Memorial Gym, White is willing to take the first step. Her dynamic personality, strong work ethic and winning attitude are easy selling points to fans. And she’s more than willing to pound the pavement to lure fans to see her team.

“My first priority is to make connections in the community in terms of fan support. I think what we do on the court will have a direct impact,” White adds. “How hard we play, how committed we are. I’m worried about our team, playing hard, competing, I’m worried about our team serving [the community]. If we take care of those things, we’ll get people in here.

“But we’ve got to take care of first things first. We’ve got to take care of our business. And we’ve got to earn their eyeballs – and not just by what we do on the court, but what we do in the community.

“If we do that, we earn their trust and we earn their support. Then they’ll come.”

White’s hustle on and off the court hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“She’s always been somebody who not only loves the game, but loves people,’’ says Peck, a Tennessee native who grew up in Jefferson City.

“And she’s such a great communicator. That’s one of the things I really love about Stephanie. You know you can trust her; you know that she is going to be about the right things; you know that she’s going to lead you in the right direction.’’

Like White, new men’s coach Bryce Drew was a superstar on Indiana high school courts and enjoyed a stellar collegiate career. He knows White is the right coach at the right time for Vanderbilt. Like Peck, Drew also helped keep White up on what was happening in Nashville while she was still in Indianapolis.

“We come from a very similar background. She was Miss Basketball the year after I was Mister Basketball,” Drew says. “It’s great that we’re here at the same time and trying to do the things that we’re doing at the same time. And we have common visions for our programs.

“We’re both very competitive, and we wouldn’t have taken these jobs if we didn’t feel like this was a great place and we couldn’t accomplish what we wanted to.

“She was very busy, so we’d text once in a while, just kind of updating her on what was going on here. Obviously, it’s great to get her here and now have her full-swing with her team.”

Martin Salamone, Vanderbilt’s new associate AD of sales, marketing and revenue generation, says he like White’s start.

“Steph was so open and accommodating” he points out. “She would visit on Friday, ask what she could do, where she could go speak and then travel back to Indiana on Sunday. It’s refreshing to have that kind of attitude.”

White – and Peck, too – knows that coaching is only half of her job in getting fans to games. They understand the business and entertainment aspects that go hand in hand with winning sports programs. If Nashvillians will watch her team play just once, she says, they’ll want to come back for more.

“The biggest thing is that we want to make connections. It’s about engagement,” White explains. “You know, there are a lot of different places that people can spend their money. In an amazing city like Nashville, there are a lot of different options in terms of entertainment.

“But the thing that I’ve learned over my time in the WNBA, especially when you’re competing in the summertime, is that people want to know you. They want to be engaged, they want to have fun, they want to root for somebody.

“So it’s not just that they’re coming to root for Vanderbilt women’s basketball, they’re coming to root because they know our staff. Because they know our players. Because they’re pulling us. Because they want to help us. And because we know who they are.”

And so, she preaches to her team “to get out in the community and serve our community, first and foremost. To make a difference in the lives of others – whether that be in the form of Make-A-Wish programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA or the YWCAs, different areas like that, or to our players serving in homeless shelters.

“I think that’s how you get people in the stands. Yes, winning helps, no question. But if they don’t know who you are and if they don’t engage on a personal level, I think it’s a challenge.

“And then when we get them here, they’re going to love our team, they’re going to love the way we compete, they’re going to love the energy and the enthusiasm in the game and the engagement we have in game.

“The first piece of the puzzle is just to get them here.”

And for Thanksgiving, it was White who was doing the serving. Because of the way this season’s schedule broke, she gave players the option of going home for the holiday or joining White and her wife and their three children for dinner.

“They don’t usually get a lot of time off, but we’re going to give them an extra day to go home,” White explains.

“And those of us that are here are going to continue to try to get out and serve; and those that don’t go away, we’re going to invite them to my house for Thanksgiving dinner, should they choose as well.”

White says she has much to be thankful for this holiday weekend as she continues to find her niche in the Nashville community.

“The biggest thing is, I am just who I am. I’m from a small town, a small community, and I’m pretty transparent. I’m pretty visible. I let people in, in terms of getting to know me, our team, our staff and family,” she adds.

“I’ve been out and about and enjoyed getting to meet the people in the Nashville community that I’ve met. One of the things I love is that there is a tremendous amount of support for women in this city; there is a tremendous amount of support for athletics in this city; and there is a lot of love for Vanderbilt in this city.

“So the more that we can reach out and touch someone, so to speak, and continue to meet folks … they’ve been incredibly embracing of our staff, our system, myself and my family, and I am so thankful for that. I can’t wait to get ingrained in the heart of Nashville.”