With more than 25 years of Division I coaching experience, Keila Whittington brought a tremendous amount of experience to Saint Francis University, being named the program’s new Head Women’s Basketball Coach in April of 2019. Having been an Assistant Coach at some of the nation’s top mid-major and Power Five programs, Whittington is well-prepared to finally lead her own program.
Can you take us through the interview process and your emotion once you received the call that you would be the new Head Coach at Saint Francis?
I got a chance to speak with the Director of Athletics, Susan Robinson Fruchtl, who was a good friend of mine, about the position. In an unusual circumstance, she had served as the Interim Head Coach for the 2018-19 season, so she had a good sense of the program and the type of person that would be a good fit as the new Head Coach. She had also served as the SFU Head Coach from 2007 to 2012, as well as being the current Athletic Director for the past three years. Susan shared information with me, and I am sure she told all of the candidates, about ways to be successful within the University and as the Head Coach of the program. I took the time to do my own research, and I put together a portfolio of the plan I wanted to follow if I became the new Head Coach.
My interview started with dinner on the evening before the full-day interview, which consisted of spending time with the search committee, meeting with other coaches and administrators, touring the campus, meeting with the President and one of the Vice President’s, and a final meeting with the Athletic Director. I was the first to interview so I had to wait for two other people to interview and for Saint Francis to make a decision, which took about 10 days.
I got the phone call from the AD on Good Friday after I left Mass. When Susan called, there was a little small talk, and then the words came out, “We would like you to be the next Head Coach at Saint Francis University.” I just said, “Yayyyyyyy!!!”, and then she started telling me why I was chosen, and what the next steps were. I guess I never said, “Yes, I accept the job”, so she had to ask me if it meant I was accepting it, and I said, “Yes, absolutely. I would love to be the Head Coach at Saint Francis!” I had waited 18 years since my first head coaching interview to hear those words! It was one of the most special moments of my life!
Having previously spent 3 years working together on the same coaching staff at Penn State with current Saint Francis Director of Athletics, how did that help ease the transition to taking over the program as Head Coach?
Susan was a successful Head Coach at Saint Francis, and she wanted to see the program continue to be a winning program. She also wanted me to have a thorough understanding of Saint Francis and how I would be a good fit for the University and use all of my experiences to my advantage. I asked a lot of questions, and she was very direct and honest about where the program was and the types of issues I would have to deal with immediately. Nothing she told me was a deterrent. I was excited and ready to dive in on day one.
Looking back, what are some important tasks that new head coaches should accomplish in their first 30 days?
- Connect with the team as a group and then meet with each player individually. I had team meetings, an occasional meal in the locker room, and I called them when they went home for summer break.
- Meet with the Student-Athlete Academic Advisor to get an update on the academic/eligibility status, summer school plans, and any other pertinent information for every player.
- Assess the current signing class and any necessary recruiting needs for the late signing period; determine the status of the admissions process, NCAA Eligibility Center process, and summer school plans for the incoming freshmen.
- Meet with the Athletic Trainer to learn the medical history of each player and with the Strength and Conditioning coach to get an update of the strength training program.
- Hire your staff; phone calls, contact references, interviews. I hired one at a time because I wanted to have all of them complement each other. I knew what I wanted in each person so I wanted to make sure I was getting the right type of person.
- Scheduling. Is the schedule complete for next season? Do you have all contracts and are they signed and returned?
- Attend booster club events to meet athletic department and University supporters.
- Spend time eating at campus dining facilities to meet faculty, staff, and administrators, and dining hall employees.
- Meet and connect with other administrators, coaches, business, and athletic office employees.
- Meet the athletic arena custodial staff.
- Evaluate equipment and gear inventory and needs of the program. Has the equipment been ordered for next year?
- Take a campus tour, via the admissions office or with someone who has been at the University.
After your first few months as a first-time DI Head Coach, what advice do you have for Division I assistant coaches who desire to become a Division I Head Coach?
- Know and understand that all of your experiences matter. Have an open mind about the work that you are asked to do and make it personal to you to accomplish each task in the best possible manner. Be intentional about the pride you take in completing what you are asked to do.
- Focus on the details of the job. Be organized. Check your work and have others proofread and check your work as well.
- Be willing to do the little things to help the program. Understand that whatever you do, it is for the benefit of the program, your Head Coach, the staff, the team, and the University.
- Be intentional about the things you want to learn in the job that you are in, and take the initiative to ask questions about your co-workers’ responsibilities.
- Network in the athletic department, on the campus, and in the community. Meet other coaches and administrators from other schools and build relationships. Connect with other coaches on the road while recruiting. Follow up via phone calls, texts, personal notes and emails.
- Have a plan. Begin working on a portfolio. The things that are important to you and what you want to do when you get your opportunity.
- Be a humble servant. Someone is always watching.