In 2015, Lisa Carlsen’s success as a Head Coach at the Division II level rewarded her with an opportunity to lead her own Division I program at Northern Illinois University. Tasked with rebuilding an NIU program that had not had a winning season during the eight seasons prior to her arrival, the 2014-15 Division II National Coach of the Year has thrived in the transition. In 2016-17, she guided the program to 21 wins and their first post-season berth (WNIT) in 22 seasons. This rebuild though began off-the-court, as earning her player’s trust and respect allowed them to buy into her vision and style early on.
Can you take us through the process up until and your emotion once you were officially named the new Head Coach at Northern Illinois?
The process seemed complicated to me, but I think necessary on NIU’s part. From the time the job was posted to the time they started interviewing, it was almost three months, so I almost didn’t even continue with the process. It was getting more and more difficult from a timing standpoint.
I first did an interview at a search firm location in downtown Chicago with the Athletic Director, the Chief of Staff, and the Faculty Athletics Representative. I felt like the interview went well, they were easy to talk to and I felt no pressure since I already had an awesome job. This was the first time I had been involved with a search firm and that was very different. When I got the call that they were going to bring me to campus, it still seemed a bit surreal. Again, I was only an hour away, so going to campus was in my opinion still a very good learning experience for me regardless of the outcome.
The campus interview was great, talked with many different people, all groups seemed very nice and I got a lot of information regarding NIU. At the end of the interview I was able to talk more with the Associate AD who oversaw women’s basketball and it really seemed to go well as far as the whole day was concerned. I was told that I should hear something the next day. That’s where I think it was the most emotional and anxiety was high. Waiting for the phone call is difficult and the anticipation of what they would say when they called was even more nerve racking. When the call finally came from the Athletics Director, which wasn’t until later in the afternoon, he offered me the job and I quickly accepted the position.
It definitely felt like the right move, but then came the thought of having to tell my current players. I loved that group of kids at Lewis and we had a team returning that I thought had potential to challenge for a national title, in particular two All-Americans who had been the backbone of the program for three years. That part of heart-wrenching. It was summer and the players where all gone from campus and home. I had to send an initial email before they found out some other way and then a few phone calls were made. It was extremely hard to leave them, but in this profession, if you love what you do, it should always be hard to leave your current team.
How did your time as Head Coach at the Division II level prepare you to lead your own Division I program?
I think the experience as a Head Coach at the lower levels is a great preparation because you are directly involved in every facet of your program. With limited staff, you aren’t delegating very much so you have great experience in all areas of running a program. You’ve also likely been faced with having to make tough decisions already. Whether it is in-game experiences, recruiting decisions, personnel decisions, players discipline, or team issues, you’ve been there before.
In taking over a program that had not had a winning season during the 10 seasons prior to your arrival, what have been some key implementations for the program to achieve such a high level of success, starting with last year?
The biggest key for us was buy in. We had to convince the current team that if they did what we asked they would be rewarded with success. That was especially difficult when you are totally changing a style of play than what they were used to. I had to try to convince them that conditioning and selflessness were the keys.
The other huge factor was winning their trust and respect. There is apprehension with any major change and they have to believe that you have their best interest at heart and you’ll do what’s best for them. That can be difficult at times, especially with today’s athlete.
We really preached being the best conditioned team in the MAC and the most unselfish team in the MAC and that’s what we worked for every day. We also had seniors last year that really didn’t want it to end and put us in position to have a chance each night. They helped change the expectation and culture of winning.
Knowing what you know now as a Division I Head Coach, what advice do you have for DII & DIII head coaches to best prepare to lead their own DI program for the first time?
The biggest challenge I’ve seen is trying to manage your personnel, meaning staff and support staff. That’s something you’re just not used to. Basketball is basketball and coaching is coaching, you’re just hoping to get the next level athlete, but the other stuff is not the same.
Assembling your staff I would say is the biggest challenge and most critical piece and everyone has a different philosophy but I believe it to be the most important thing to success. For me, the donor engagement piece was also different and very time-consuming, but I knew it was critical to win over support of fans and donors.
They last piece of advice I would have is to stay true to who you are. No matter what level you coach at, you’ll only be successful if you do it the way that fits you best. Figure that out and stick to it!