Dartmouth sophomore forward Arianne Hunter didn’t believe it when she heard the news last summer. Seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Yolanda Griffith had just been hired as an assistant coach for the Big Green’s women’s basketball program.
Hunter was so excited that she wrote Griffith an e-mail to thank her for coming to Dartmouth and how she couldn’t wait to learn some of the tricks of the trade from one of the best post players in the business.
While Hunter and her teammates were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Griffith, “Coach Yo” was fired up to get her break into collegiate coaching. After retirement from a stellar playing career in 2009, she was anxious to share all the knowledge she picked up along the way to earning the WNBA Most Valuable Player award in 1999 and the WNBA Finals MVP award as she led the Sacramento Monarchs to the 2005 title. She applied to other schools, but the lack of an official coaching job on her résumé hurt her.
“Dartmouth took a chance on me,” Griffith said. “I got letters [from other schools] that they wanted more experience. What more experience do you need? I played 20-plus years of basketball. But, it worked out. Dartmouth is a great place and great school. It is all about academics and it has been a winning program. [Head coach] Chris Wielgus has been here for 27 years, and who better to learn from than someone who has been through the ups and downs of basketball.”
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Wielgus, who has led the Big Green to 12 Ivy League titles and seven NCAA tournament appearances during her tenure, wanted to make sure Griffith was the right person for the job, and talked to every coach and mutual friend she could think of and they all had good things to say.
“She has an unbelievable wealth of basketball knowledge and she’s had such a variety of experiences with so many different coaches, but what I didn’t know was what a really good teacher she is and how much she knew about the fundamentals of the game and things like footwork,” Wielgus said. “That became our common ground. She has this innate ability to teach and has this knowledge that not very many people have.”
It is not just her knowledge of the game that has impressed Wielgus.
“As big as Yolanda is in stature, her personality supersedes that because she has such a big heart and so much personality,” Wielgus said. “She’s quick and fun and very good with the kids. We really lucked out to be honest.”
While Griffith was always the type of player that would give her teammates advice at practice, she knows that coaching at the collegiate level is a whole different ballgame.
“There are so many different personalities, and you have to make sure you’re treating everyone equally because no one is above the game,” Griffith said. “Being able to balance everything, knowing what to say, knowing the right fit of players we’re looking for, plus all the rules about recruiting … there’s a lot to it.”
Wielgus says Griffith is a quick learner, and is picking up the “business side” of basketball like recruiting on the road and writing scouting reports.
Having Griffith in the gym has also raised the bar at practice, especially for the Big Green post players. Her intimidating presence on the court can be felt even during routine drills.
“At first, we were too scared to touch her because the last thing we heard was that she was coming off an Achilles heel injury,” Hunter said. “We were going soft at first and she was blocking everyone’s shots – she told us we needed to go harder. We did, but she was still blocking everyone’s shots.”
“We’re a very young team, especially our post players,” Griffith said. “I’m on the court with them trying to challenge them and beating them up because I know how physical the game of basketball is. I feel like if they can take it from me, they can take it from anyone on the court. Every once in a while I block a shot and point a finger at them … but they understand the message I’m bringing to them.”
Griffith’s challenges are fun for the players, but they are also learning to step up their game because of it.
“She doesn’t have any mercy on them,” Wielgus said. “She’s so physical in the post, and they are like rag dolls to her. She’s not easy on them, but they don’t back down either.”
“I like to have fun, but they know I’m very serious about the game of basketball,” Griffith said. “Because I who I am and the accolades I have, I could be intimidating. They go up against me and try to beat me up, but then they let a little point guard box them out – so I call them out on that. They really respect the things I say and what I bring to the table.”
Having Griffith on the coaching staff also brings Dartmouth a bit of notoriety. Hunter’s best friend and former AAU teammate Mariah White is the point guard for Kansas State. The Big Green opened the season against the Wildcats.
“[White] came up to me before the game and said, ‘I can’t believe you guys have gotten this opportunity,’” Hunter said.
On a recent trip to California, the team also got to experience the fan support Griffith had for many as a member of the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs. She had her own cheering section of Monarchs’ fans at the game against the Golden Bears in Berkeley, and met with them following the event.
“She wears it well,” Wielgus said. “She never talks about it. When she’s here it is not about her, it is about the game and about the kids. I believe that’s what makes her such a good teacher.”
“I’m ecstatic about it,” Griffith said. “I’m finally in the position to share my experience and my knowledge that I learned over the course of my career.”
Eight of Dartmouth’s 10 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores. The youthful squad went 2-11 during non-conference play, but opens Ivy League play against Harvard on Jan. 14.