Playing the long game
All-female women’s basketball coaching staff enters sixth year, possibly third championship-winning season together
Can eating chocolate bars and caramel and cheddar popcorn straight from a three-gallon tin every night translate to winning two Patriot League championship titles? For the women's basketball team coaching staff, which has been together for an uncommon six years, the answer is a hard yes.
“Our whole first year, we ate popcorn and chocolate for dinner because we were here until 8 o’clock every night,” said Emily Stallings, one of the assistants for AU women’s basketball. “We’re probably still suffering some repercussions from that first year.”
But the team is not suffering from a lack of tournament berths or coaching accolades. The Eagles’ three assistant coaches have worked with AU’s head coach, Megan Gebbia, since each of them were in college. She was their coach then, and she is their boss now. Despite having different coaching styles, they’ve managed to form tight relationships with one another and their recruits, so much so that players FaceTime the coaching staff on a regular basis.
“They don’t call, they don’t text, they FaceTime,” said assistant coach Nikki Flores, cracking up alongside fellow assistant Tiffany Coll. “Indeya [Sanders] FaceTimed me last week and said, ‘Hey Coach Nikki, got scissors upstairs?’ Like, I’m already down on the court.”
Gebbia and assistant coaches Coll, Flores and Stallings go way back. Flores played for Marist College when Gebbia was the associate head coach there from 2005 to 2008, and Stallings followed Flores at Marist from 2008 to 2012. Stallings played under Gebbia at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County from 1999 to 2003 when Gebbia was an assistant coach.
“It was pretty easy to come up with the names of the people that we wanted to hire,” Gebbia said. “We didn’t ‘work together,’ but we kind of worked together in the sense of player-coach, so it was easy for me to see what they did in their careers after graduating, what they’ve accomplished, and also knowing the as players and getting to know their personalities [as a coach].”
Now that the four are working together — marking their sixth year as a unit in August — the intimate knowledge goes both ways: Flores knows that her boss has a sweet tooth, recalling how she ordered “the sweet potatoes that make your teeth fall out” when they went out for dinner following a day for recruiting in Louisville, Kentucky. Coll and Gebbia know that Flores’ mom passed on her love of shoes (specifically stiletto heels) to her daughter.
Coll, who serves as the top, or first, assistant coach, works with the post players during practices, keeps track of fouls and timeouts during games and heads compliance paperwork in the team’s upstairs office.
Flores, AU’s second assistant coach, is the recruiting coordinator and works with combination guards. “Can I also say yelling?” she asked her colleagues while naming her responsibilities. They unanimously agreed.
Stallings, the third assistant head coach, heads the wing players, who she calls “the big guards,” and acts as a liaison for academic personnel. She reluctantly considers herself “the team mom,” saying she’s the go-to coach for crying, illnesses and injuries.
“I’ve been told it’s my calming presence,” Stallings said, joking that Flores is the one who gets the dislocated fingers, of which there have been quite a few.
Gebbia noted that Stallings and Flores have the “all ears” personality types, while Coll “will tell you the truth, and she won’t sugarcoat it.” Gebbia wants Stallings and Flores to be more demanding of their players and practice putting their feet down more frequently. That’s what head coaches have to do, Gebbia said, and all three assistants hope to someday be head coaches.
Still, Gebbia sees value in her staff’s differences.
“I think we all balance each other out well,” Gebbia said. “If we had all Tiffs or all Nikki and Emilys, we wouldn't be in the situation we’re in with the winning because you have to have different things brought to the table.”
The head coach sees Coll as being the closest to becoming a head coach out of the three, since Coll is her first assistant.
“If I had my druthers, I wouldn't label them,” Gebbia said. “If I had it my way, I would probably pay them all the same, maybe a little bit more for some more experience, but I don’t like the hierarchy of assistants.”
The four have bought into superstitions in their years working together, such as the need to watch “Dateline” when they have to be in the office on a Friday night. Coll needs a specific pen on game days, and Flores has to write the name of each referee on the corner of the clipboard for Gebbia to see, even though she knows them all by heart. Gebbia consistently prays during the national anthem.
When the team wins at Colgate University, a Patriot League opponent, everyone goes out for celebratory ice cream at Gilligan’s, which has been Flores’ hook up since she worked at Colgate for under a year. Stallings said the flavor of choice is “Raider’s Passion,” cake batter ice cream with crushed Oreo and red velvet cake. While the wins may not correlate to the ice cream shop, Gebbia said the team has yet to skip a visit, as they’ve won every game at Colgate – “even in our worst seasons.”
The Food Network also has to be on in Flores and Coll’s shared hotel room when the team travels, as the two typically bunk together on the road.
“I get concerned when I come in on game days and [Coll is] doing her hair and the Food Network isn’t on,” Flores said.
Flores is the self-proclaimed (and staff-confirmed) foodie of the group, Yelp-ing and binge-watching “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” to find their on-the-road meals. The four agree that their favorite meal together thus far has been Gebbia’s cousin’s restaurant in Beverly Hills, Il Cielo, where the team shared their pre-NCAA Tournament meal in style. The worst meal: that popcorn and chocolate, every night for weeks.
Gebbia credits their success to her staff’s diversity on all fronts.
“You always want to hire people like yourself, and you don’t have to do that to be successful, at least that’s the case for us,” Gebbia said. “I don’t see them as staff, I see them as friends. That’s probably bad, but it’s been working for us, and it works for me.”
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's October 2018 fall print edition.