Stephanie Gaitley built Fordham’s women’s basketball into a program that transcended the mid-major level to achieve national success on a consistent basis. The all-time winningest coach in program history with a 220-123 (.641) overall and 108-56 (.659) Atlantic 10 Conference record, Gaitley led the Rams to two Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament Championships (first in program history) and eight post-season berths (two NCAA tournaments).
Before Fordham, Gaitley was previously the Head Coach at Monmouth, Long Island Brooklyn, Saint Joseph’s, and the University of Richmond where she accumulated over 460 career wins and 10 post-season appearances (seven NCAA tournaments). Since departing Fordham in June of 2022, Gaitley has remained on the sidelines as she is currently the Head Girl’s Basketball Coach of her hometown, Ocean City High School.
What inspired you to become a coach?
I was raised in a big family of eight kids. Most of them played sports. Both of my parents were athletes. The baseball fields in my hometown of Ocean City, New Jersey are named after my dad (The Harry Vanderslice Baseball Complex).
It was a very competitive upbringing. I also had a very influential high school coach (Pat Dougherty) who taught me a lot of lessons both on and off the court. I wanted to teach others life lessons through basketball. It was a way to be around a sport I loved and also a way for me to give back to others. My dad always challenges us to make a difference for others in this world and I thought this was a great avenue to do that. I have always felt there is a difference between a job and a career. A job you do to make money and a career is an opportunity to do something you love.
You led Fordham to 220 wins and eight post-season berths (two NCAA Tournaments) during 11 years as the program’s Head Coach, how do you feel you were able to maintain a high level of success on a consistent basis?
It takes time, effort, love, and repetition to build a culture. Some teams have one really good season, but the real magic is with the programs that sustain success. I like to learn from the “best.” I spent a few days back in the early 2000s at Pat Summitt’s house. I was with my college coach-Harry Perretta. I would ask questions and I would observe. I had so much admiration and respect for Pat and the time I had with her was way more than just basketball. You have to really invest in the individuals and find out what makes them tick. How do you bring out their best?
I have used this year to visit some of the best teams (Golden State Warriors, University of Oregon, NC State University, University of South Carolina) to see how the “best” are consistently the best.
I have been asked frequently how do my teams win on a consistent basis? It’s not X’s and O’s, it’s really about caring about them. I learned to be a better listener. I wanted to be open to hearing their side too. You have to work together in order to have success. My oldest son did a project with my husband his junior year. He sent a letter to all men’s and women’s coaches who made the NCAA tournament that year as well as NFL, NBA, and MLB Hall of Famers. He asked each of them what were the three most important characteristics of a leader. The responses included coaches like John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K said honesty builds trust and you can’t build anything without trust. The truth can sometimes be hard to hear, but I am always honest with my players. This is the only way I know. I felt that built trust. The goal is to get them to believe in you and your culture before you see the effects in the win-loss column.
To be the best, you need the best from everyone involved in your program. You can’t complete the puzzle unless you can get all the pieces to fit.
What did you learn during your previous Head Coaching positions at Monmouth and Long Island University Brooklyn that made you a better Head Coach at Fordham?
I’m a big believer that you never stop learning. In every program, you need to have the foundation of love, teamwork, honesty, and building blocks of your culture. Yet, every year, things change and you have to be ready to change with the times. I feel I have become a better listener along the way. I am much more open to really listening to what the players think and having their opinion really matter when making certain decisions. I think the more you listen and the more you make them accountable through their own rules, the more success you will have individually and as a program.
Since stepping away from Fordham, what have you been up to?
The last 2 years have been the most difficult in my life. Notwithstanding COVID, I lost my mom and my assistant coach to cancer. My sister was also diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. My brother-in-law passed and a few other difficult situations happened along the way. It was so very hard to see my mom struggle. She was my biggest fan. She was dealing with dementia and all that the older years offer. That really hit hard. A little over a week after she passed, my assistant and friend (Sonia Burke Quarless) passed from cancer. This was after we all thought she was on her way to recovery. If that wasn’t hard enough, my sister faced Stage 4 cancer and I was there for her every day. It was hard enough to try and get myself through the days, but I also needed to be there for my team, staff, and family. It was hard. Yet, it is in the hard times that you really find out what you’re made of. I realized I was tough, and I also realized my faith, family, and close friends were my rocks.
This past summer, I was asked to coach my high school team, Ocean City High School. I needed time to heal, but at the end of the day, I felt I was being called to give back to this incredible group of young ladies. I was blessed to be joined by my sister, Coco, and nephew, Jackie. Coco always calls it our God Wink. It has been an incredible experience. Not only have we won a lot of games, but more importantly, they have learned a lot of life lessons. It certainly has been a blessing in so many ways.
You built Fordham into a program that transcended the mid-major level and was successful nationally, what advice do you have for Head Coaches at non-BCS schools to do the same?
The journey is not easy. It will have its ups and downs. Realize you will never keep everyone happy. This was hard for me as a young coach because I always cared about everyone’s feelings so much. At the end of the day, I had to do what I felt was best for the program as a whole.
I would advise you to be sure to take care of yourself. If you are not healthy, you will never be able to give your best. Treat everyone the same. I took great pride in trying to make everyone feel of equal importance. That could be the players at the end of the bench or the equipment room intern.
Winning is hard. Everyone is working toward the same goals. I would teach them to learn to “win” the battles before they win the war. No shortcuts. You have to be accountable for being on time, a good teammate, and always putting the team first. That’s not easy these days when we are faced more and more with a lot of people that just really care about themselves. You have to teach and encourage unselfishness. My two non-negotiables are effort and attitude. Bring it every day, not just when you feel like it. We have a responsibility to each other. My favorite quote is “Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?” At the end of the day, we all want to be surrounded by people who can lift us up.
It’s funny, it’s not really about the Xs and the Os. It’s really about bringing about the best in each person within your program to reach your goals together. At the end of the day, we want to “live a memory” during a season so that in the future we can enjoy that “memory” as a team.